Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) was the sole member of Congress to vote against the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, a decision all the more controversial against the backdrop of post-9/11 fear and pain. Nearly 10 years later, and in the wake of the killing of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, the progressive lawmaker tells The Root that she remains committed to ending the war — and sees, in this moment, a critical opportunity to accelerate that mission.
Lee's appeal to bring U.S. troops home has been echoed by several other congressional Democrats, as well as much of the public. An April Pew Research Center poll found that only 44 percent of Americans want troops to stay in Afghanistan "until the situation has stabilized," compared with 50 percent who want a pullout as soon as possible. Among African Americans, the war has long been even more unpopular.
Taking a moment away from her renewed anti-war push on Capitol Hill, Lee spoke with The Root about military strategy, how the anti-war movement has developed beyond its hippie roots and why the death of Osama bin Laden has only made her more determined.
The Root: You released a statement on Monday, which said that you're hopeful we can start addressing "the root causes of terrorism around the world." What do you mean?
Barbara Lee: It's not complex. Many of the issues around terrorism have to do with — and I'm not saying this addresses all of the root causes — but when you're looking at poverty, hunger, the suppression of freedoms in countries, no education and young people with no future, then of course that's sowing the seeds for terrorism. I think our foreign policy has to recognize smart security. Congresswoman [Lynn] Woolsey has a bill, which I helped put together and of which I'm a co-sponsor, that puts forth a path recognizing that this is a very complex issue, and that military-first, boots-on-the-ground strategy is really not going to work.
TR: President Obama had always said that he would withdraw troops from Afghanistan in July 2011. Do you think a few more months is too long?
BL: July was the date, but we don't want to see just the surge numbers — something like 30,000 troops — come down. We want to see the beginning of the end. The Democratic National Committee unanimously voted for my resolution at its recent meeting, calling for a significant and sizable reduction this July. We think this moment presents an opening to begin that reduction. We're pushing forward with the White House to make good on that promise. It's very important that it include not only our forces but also our contractors. The longer we stay in Afghanistan, the more hostility and anger we're going to get. There's no military solution, as I think most experts have indicated. We have to have a negotiated peace settlement, not to mention the resources.
TR: So what do you want to see happen specifically?
BL: I understand it has to be practical — it can't be tomorrow. The bill that I've introduced, and we're picking up a lot of co-sponsors, says, no more funding for combat operations. That's the distinction between an immediate cutoff of funds and doing this in a reasonable way.
TR: In your remarks after the killing of bin Laden, you also commended President Obama and the military for the operation. Do you see any contradiction between that and your stance against the war?
BL: No. What the president did was very focused, targeted and minimized collateral damage. My head is not in the sand and never has been. My vote right after the horrific events of 9/11 was against a blank check. That resolution allowed for the United States to go to war, but gave any president — Bush then, Obama now, and any future president — the authorization to use force and go to war in perpetuity. That is not an appropriate response for achieving global peace and security …
When you look at what has taken place, with regard to Iraq and other wars, that authorization voted on by the Congress then still stands today. I'm trying to repeal that authorization, and I have legislation to do that. It's important to understand that we can't go to war on every issue that arises as it relates to our national security.
TR: Part of the mission in Afghanistan has been giving support and aid to Pakistan, where we send almost $1.3 billion annually. Given bin Laden's location in a Pakistan suburb, and suspicions that the Pakistani government knew his whereabouts, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called for reviewing, and possibly cutting, aid to the country. Do you agree with that?
BL: I think we have to look at what has taken place. I was on the House Foreign Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee until the Republicans gained the majority, and I know quite a bit about what we've done in Pakistan. I think the irresponsible thing to do in a country such as Pakistan, which we know has nuclear weapons, would be to cut off military aid. We have to take a hard look at our aid to Pakistan — and that may mean a restructuring of some of our financial mechanisms and the level of funding — but we have to make sure our funds reach the people who need them the most.
I don't think we should become isolationists, for lack of a better word. We need to review it, and see what's working and what isn't working, but we definitely should not cut off aid and our relationship with Pakistan.
BL: I think the anti-war movement has moved past that. We understand that terrorism is real, and we're not looking at the war through rose-colored glasses. I also know that you have to look at a smarter way to address the new, asymmetrical warfare — because we're not in the Cold War era anymore. So, many of the Cold War-era weapons that are still in production should be cut out of the defense budget totally.
We're seeing many progressives now looking at a smarter security strategy, seeking global peace and security. That means we have to look at the causes of terrorism, and we have to have a response. We have to make sure that civil liberties are not eroded in light of security measures that must be taken in United States. We have to be very careful there's a balance between national security and civil liberties.
There are many nuances and new issues that have emerged now as it relates to foreign policy and national security. I'm a peace advocate. I'm not a pacifist. My dad was a 25-year military officer. But I also know that wars create more violence and less national security. For the most part, many of these recent wars have created a world that is more dangerous.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.