Rep. Barbara Lee: Rowing Against the Tide

Marc Cooper is a contributing editor to The Nation magazine and a columnist for L.A. Weekly

Of 535 members of the U.S. Congress, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) cast the only vote last week against granting President Bush broad authority to use military force in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. For her stand, critics dubbed Lee a starry-eyed liberal, un-American, even a traitor. James Hartman, chairman of the Alameda County Republican Central Committee, described her vote as a display of "supreme poor judgment and gross egotism."

Lee is no stranger to lonely votes. In her first year in Congress, she was one of only five House members who voted against authorizing the bombing of Iraq. The following year, she cast the lone congressional vote opposing the commitment of U.S. troops to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's intervention in Kosovo.

Question: What was the primary motivation that led you to stand alone in this vote?

Answer: You never know you're going to stand alone in any vote, so I did not know going into it that I'd be alone. I agonized over this vote. We're all mourning. We're angry and frustrated. I felt that [someone] in this environment of grief needed to say let's show some restraint in our response. Let's not do anything that could escalate this madness out of control. Let's know the implications of our actions, and let's make sure that our system of checks and balances is maintained. We need to figure out a way to stamp out international terrorism and bring these perpetrators to justice without creating more loss of life.

Q: Does that mean you are opposed to military force under any conditions? Or was your opposition to the broad granting of power to President Bush?

A: I'm opposed to granting that broad power to any president. I believe Congress has got to be part of the decision-making process when we're talking about going to war against sovereign nations. This resolution, even though it was focused on the World Trade Center attack, is open-ended. It doesn't have an exit strategy; it does not have any reporting requirements. And the president already has authority to use force [internationally for 60 days without congressional approval] under the War Powers Act. So what was this about?

Q: This act of terrorism took, in one day, approximately 10% of the number of American lives that were lost during the entire war in Vietnam. Doesn't that necessitate some kind of action?

A: We need to know where we're going and who we're going after. We need to know how to bring these perpetrators to justice. Military action is a one-dimensional strategy. What I'm saying is that we need a multidimensional strategy rooted in foreign policy. We've got to make sure our own country is secure. I think that what we have to understand is that a war against international terrorism is not a conventional war. Military action is perhaps one strategy--if we know where we're going.

Q: Given your concern about the importance of democratic debate, what does it say about your colleagues that you turned out to be the lone voice on this issue?

A: I know many of my colleagues share my concerns. Believe me. I've talked with my colleagues, and they're struggling through this, too. You know, everyone has his or her own way of doing things and saying what they need to say. It's not just expressed through a vote.

Q: What has been the response? I gather you got a lot of reaction, both from your constituents and from the nation.

A: Oh, yes. And I think the debate is good. People are engaged. In a democracy, even in times when the national security is threatened, you can't give away your right to engage in debate. Many people have been supportive, and many have not been. I believe that, for the most part, my district is clear in understanding my vote and clear in understanding that, to deal with terrorism, you've got to approach it in a way that does not lead to more violence.

Q: In the days following the vote, you were discussed widely on talk radio. People called you a traitor. They called you un-American and an accomplice of the terrorists. How do your respond to charges like that?

A: It's very painful, because I feel I'm just the opposite. I am an American who has tried to protect our democracy, who has tried to protect our system of checks and balances. If I hadn't, in the moment of adversity, tried to make sure that our Constitution stayed in place, that would have been an abdication of my responsibility as an American citizen and as a representative. Many people misinterpreted my vote. Many simply believe that when you disagree, you are a traitor. But I say, when you disagree, you are demonstrating the beauty of this democratic system. And that's the true American way. I want to bring the perpetrators to justice, and I want to see a peaceful world.

Q: And the administration? How is the president performing?

A: The president and the administration are doing what they need to do. They're doing a credible job. I'm unified with our country in everything we do, but I think, as a member of Congress, I have an additional job, which is to represent the people of my district and not to allow them to be disenfranchised by any action we take in terms of going to war.

Q: What about the broader political moment? Will the opposition voices in Congress be silenced on a range of issues?

A: I'm concerned about no opposition on any major policies that involve the future of our world. Just look at the rush to support missile defense. This is a system that would not have defended our country at all against this. So we have got to have a full debate on all of these issues and on terrorism. We haven't had that debate. We need to analyze and debate what our strategy should be in addressing international terrorism. I'm very concerned about the lack of debate on these major issues that affect us.

Q: What is the proper role of Congress?

A: The Congress needs to look at our foreign policy, to look at diplomatic options. We need to look at the big picture. We need to say that our goal is peace. Yes, the goal is to bring the perpetrators to justice, which we have to do. But how do we do that and how many countries are we going into to do that? Where do we go? It's also our job to make sure that the actions that the administration is taking do not increase the possibility of any more lives being lost.

Q: Where are you going to be putting your energies in these very difficult days in front of us?

A: One concern I have is about civil liberties. Congress must keep those checks and balances in place so that our civil liberties aren't eroded in this moment of extreme adversity. We've got to make sure that the Constitution prevails at the same time that we increase our public safety.

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