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Barbara Lee Was Right About the War on Terror

Twenty years ago, Barbara Lee cast the lone vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force — the blank check for endless war Congress gave George W. Bush after 9/11. She's been vindicated by history. Those who pushed the "War on Terror" have not.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) speaks with reporters in the Capitol in January 2020. (Tom Williams / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)

Three days after the horrific September 11 attacks, America’s national atmosphere was a disorienting haze of fear, trauma, and jingoism. In the wake of what had just transpired, the bipartisan consensus could not have been more ironclad: the country would be entering into a vaguely defined war of unknown length whose parameters were essentially open-ended and could be determined at will by the president. That spirit was aptly captured in the language of a House resolution passed on September 14:

The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.

Of the 421 lawmakers who voted on the resolution — which would pass in the Senate 98-0 shortly after — the lone voice of dissent was a single Democrat from California. Twenty years later, Barbara Lee’s intervention continues to count as one of the bravest individual votes in the history of the House of Representatives. Lee, moreover, refused to equivocate about the reasons for her opposition, explaining in an op-ed for the San Francisco Chronicle on September 23:

Some believe this resolution was only symbolic, designed to show national resolve. But I could not ignore that it provided explicit authority, under the War Powers Resolution and the Constitution, to go to war. It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events — anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration. I could not support such a grant of war-making authority to the president; I believe it would put more innocent lives at risk. . . . A rush to launch precipitous military counterattacks runs too great a risk that more innocent men, women, children will be killed. I could not vote for a resolution that I believe could lead to such an outcome.

In the nearly two decades since, Lee’s assessment, deeply unpopular though it was at the time, has been vindicated again and again. The ensuing wars would have untold human consequences and wreak deadly havoc on the lives throughout the Middle East amid a rollback of civil liberties at home. Despite leaving office with record-low approval ratings, George W. Bush’s so-called War on Terror ultimately lingers as an ambient presence in American politics to this day. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump would all, at various times, cite the resolution passed on September 14, 2001, as justification for airstrikes and the deployment of ground troops in a host of countries that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.

Some fifteen years after the attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, the Obama administration was still invoking it to legitimize military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and beyond, including those against ISIS — a group which quite literally did not exist when the resolution was first drafted and passed.

The Authorization for Use of Military Force of 2001, in fact, remains on the books today despite various efforts to repeal it. In this respect, this week’s House vote to repeal the 2002 Iraq War authorization (cited most recently by Donald Trump following the assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani) — a move sponsored by none other than Lee herself — is a small but very real step toward reigning in the power of US presidents to wage open-ended warfare in perpetuity. With majority leader Chuck Schumer promising to put the repeal to a vote, there’s even some reason to believe it may succeed in the Senate, where previous efforts have failed.

In the short term, the 268-161 passage of repeal legislation for the Iraq War is an occasion to recognize yet again the foresight of Barbara Lee, who twenty years ago had the courage to perceive the risk of giving any president a blank check to wage endless war at will. In the long-term, it represents only the first of many necessary victories in the wider campaign to restrain the imperial presidency and reassert basic democratic checks on its power to deploy America’s terrifying military arsenal without congressional oversight.