Barbara Lee, hero

Glenn Greenwald has an astute piece today on the 2001 authorization to use force that Congress passed in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. As he notes, the AUMF is currently being revisited, but largely for the purposes of expanding the executive’s authority to wage war.

Greenwald goes on to recount the, well, “criticism” would be putting it mildly, that Rep. Barbara Lee received as the lone vote against the AUMF in 2001.

To say that Lee was vilified for her warnings is a serious understatement. She was deluged with so many death threats that she was given around-the-clock police protection. The Washington Times printed an Op-Ed by Herbert Romerstein declaring that “Ms. Lee is a long-practicing supporter of America’s enemies – from Fidel Castro on down.” On NPR, Juan Williams compared her to Jerry Falwell and said they both “stand out in a nation where President Bush, who did not win the popular vote, now has the support of 82 percent of Americans.” National Review approvingly cited David Horowitz’s denunciation that “Barbara Lee is not an anti-war activist, she is an anti-American communist who supports America’s enemies and has actively collaborated with them in their war against America.” Michelle Malkin labelled her “treacherous” and also quoted Horowitz’s attack.

As it happens, Barbara Lee was my representative at that time–my wife and I were living in Berkeley, California, in 2001. And I, like most other Americans (though maybe not most Berkeleyites), disagreed with Rep. Lee’s vote against the AUMF. I even wrote to her office–a civil letter, I emphasize–criticizing her for her vote. In my mind, she was standing against bringing the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice.

I got off the “war on terror” bandwagon once it became clear that the Bush administration intended to expand it to Iraq, some time in 2002. And in retrospect, Rep. Lee seems a lot more prescient than her colleagues in foreseeing the consequences of giving the executive branch a blank check to wage war. (I wrote a blog post to this effect a few years back.)

I don’t know if it would’ve ultimately made any difference if the AUMF hadn’t passed, or if it had passed in a different form. Would that have prevented the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? It seems unlikely to me given the confluence of the public’s (justified) anger over 9/11 and the preexisting foreign policy designs of key players in the Bush administration.

But if nothing else, Barbara Lee’s example highlights how readily Congress has abdicated its role in overseeing the conduct of foreign policy in the post-9/11 era. (Of course, the roots of this problem go back much further.) We need more Barbara Lees–people who are willing to question the rush to war and our willingness to hand over power to the president in the name of “keeping us safe.”

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