Barbara Lee's Lonely Vote After 9/11: A Look Back

Thirteen years after Rep. Lee opposed an Authorization for Use of Military Force, her solitary stance has become mainstream.


The Jeannette Rankin of 2001
U.S. Congress

When Congress passed an Authorization for Use of Military Force after the 9/11 attacks, virtually every legislator in Washington voted for it—even Ron Paul, though he expressed some misgivings. The only "no" vote came from the California Democrat Barbara Lee, whose district includes such radical strongholds as Berkeley and Oakland. Thirteen years later, The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf has looked back at Lee's arguments and the reactions they received. And by "reactions they received," I mean mail: thousands of letters that fill 12 boxes.

Friedersdorf's article largely consists of quotes from those letters, whose sentiments range from "To combat terrorism, let's act in accordance with a high standard that does not disregard the lives of people in other countries" to "You should have been in the Trade Towers you anti-American Bitch. Drop dead!!!" Friedersdorf also points out that Lee's position has often been misunderstood, noting that she "wasn't saying no to any use of force against terrorists—rather, she was averse to giving the president authority so broad that it could be used to launch any number of wars." But the part of the article that I want to highlight comes when he sums up at the end:

Even though a majority now considers the war most understood the AUMF to authorize to be a mistake; even though it has been used to justify military interventions that no one conceived of on September 14, 2001; even though there's no proof that any war-making of the last 13 years has made us safer; even though many more Americans have died in wars of choice than have been killed in terrorist attacks; even though Lee and many of her constituents were amenable to capturing or killing the 9/11 perpetrators, not pacifists intent on ruling out any use of force; despite all of that, Representative Lee is still thought of as a fringe peacenik representing naive East Bay hippies who could never be trusted to guide U.S. foreign policy. And the people who utterly failed to anticipate the trajectory of the War on Terrorism? Even those who later voted for a war in Iraq that turned out to be among the most catastrophic in U.S. history are considered sober, trustworthy experts….

Lee and many letter writers who supported her were far more prescient in their analysis than Hillary Clinton or John McCain. Try telling the average American that many Berkeley liberals were more correct about the War on Terror than those two. They'll laugh in your face, even if they personally supported and now oppose those two wars.

The first sentence in that quote is slightly wrong: I know of no poll that shows a majority of Americans regretting the Afghan war. But we're coming close. As of February, Gallup has 49 percent of the country thinking "the United States made a mistake in sending military forces to Afghanistan" and 48 percent thinking it didn't. In other words, there is basically an even split, with a slight plurality tipping toward Lee's position.

Regular Reason readers know I've been mentioning that poll a lot lately. That is because I remember September 2001 and the public mood at the time, and I find the shift in opinion staggering. When Gallup first asked that question about the Afghan war, about two months after Lee's vote, only 9 percent held the position that 49 percent do today. We are not all Barbara Lee now, but Barbara Lee's perspective has become mainstream—if not in D.C., then in the country at large.