On Sept. 14, 2001, Congresswoman Barbara Lee took a stand. In the hectic, fear-filled days after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, she was the only member of the House of Representatives to vote against the Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Terrorists. Lee, now serving her sixth term, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the Iraq War, which she also voted against. On the sixth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq, Rep. Lee spoke with The Root about her war votes, the military options going forward in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the value of political courage in working with the first black president of the United States.
The Root: As one of a handful in Congress to have voted against the Iraq War and oppose it from the start, what significance does the 6th anniversary of the invasion have for you?
Barbara Lee: I voted against the war because the authorization for use of force was an unprecedented step that then began the global war on terror. It laid the groundwork, and the later Iraq resolution was a bad resolution that we couldn’t afford. That resolution also gave a blank check to any president to use force against any country he or she deemed connected to 9/11 or harbored anyone connected to 9/11. It was a blank check, and it should have never passed—and here we are now in the 6th year of the Iraq War, and I think its time to end it. It’s time to bring our young men and women home and our military contractors, and it’s time to be committed to their economic security and their mental health care.
TR: The president said as a candidate that he wasn’t opposed to all wars, but to “dumb wars.” What other choices was the U.S. facing at the time?
BL: I had a resolution that laid out what we should do. The options were to let the UN continue its inspections process and determine whether or not there were weapons of mass destruction. Unfortunately, then-Secretary of State [Colin] Powell went to the United Nations and misled the whole world. We know that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. To use that lie—which is what it was—to begin a preemptive strike that has killed over 4,000 of our young men and women is unconscionable, and I think that the Bush administration should be held accountable for this.
TR: What does it mean for blacks and other minorities to serve? What does it mean for brown people of all kinds to have so many of its young men and women in Iraq?
BL: The numbers—we don’t have the specific data yet—the number of African Americans [in the war] has declined from 23 percent in 2000 to 13 percent in 2006. Again, I think that demonstrates the unpopular nature of this war in the African-American community. I’m not sure though, what the numbers are as it relates to Iraq. During tough economic times, there are many seeking to join the military as a pathway out of poverty and to provide for their families. Look, my dad was a military officer 25 years—so I think the more important issue is: What is the role of the military? Every country should have a strong military, but are we peacemakers? Are we peacekeepers? Are we making sure that real national security threats are addressed in a real way, or are we playing around?
TR: What are your expectations for Iraq and Afghanistan under a new commander in chief?
BL: I’m hoping that we look at a new way to deal with Afghanistan. I don’t believe that the issues around in Afghanistan can be solved in a military manner. I don’t think there’s a military solution, and I think that many military experts have confirmed that. With the history of Afghanistan, when you look at the fact that the poppy fields are now flourishing, when you look at the fact that Osama bin Laden has not been found—there are all kinds of issues that have to be addressed as it relates to Afghanistan. It has to be a comprehensive strategy to address the issues of women; we have to help with development efforts in Afghanistan.
I think President Obama is right in terms of talking with the moderate factions of the Taliban. You’ve got to have some multilateral diplomacy, even in Afghanistan. I think the president is on the right track—I don’t think we need to send any more troops there. Stabilization forces are different from combat troops. I am totally opposed to sending more combat troops.
TR: But the president ordered two brigades totaling 12,000 combat troops to Afghanistan just this February. And 35,000-50,000 is still a lot of Americans in Iraq. Would that level satisfy your constituents who are expecting a total withdrawal?
BL: I wrote to the president, along with Maxine Waters and Lynne Woolsey, to ask the pertinent questions: What is the role of these 35,000-50,000 troops? It seems to me an awful lot of young men and women [are] still in harm’s way. And what about the military contractors? There are a lot of questions to still answer before we can definitively talk about that. But as far as leaving combat troops in Iraq—absolutely not. I think they should all come home. I think that in the military many have said that they need to come home. I do think it’s far from clear what will happen with regard to keeping these troops there.
TR: You demonstrated a lot of political courage in the wake of 9/11. Is there an instance in which you would stand up to Barack Obama, especially given the historic nature of his presidency? Do you feel the same latitude as you felt standing up to President Bush?
BL: I was standing up to the policy; I never voted for funding of the occupation of Iraq. I do not support the funding now. I think the funding should be used to protect our young men and women and contractors and bring them home. So it’s the policy that I opposed, and I will continue to stand for what I believe in, in terms of the policies of the Pentagon and in terms of U.S. foreign policy.
President Obama has made clear, indeed, that he intends to end this; he intends to end this as quickly and as practically as possible. The questions I have for him in terms of how he’s going to end this are details I’ve certainly communicated to him in a letter. And I feel strongly that he’s living up to his campaign pledge, and he’s going to end this war.
Dayo Olopade is the Washington reporter for The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.