Op-Ed: Three days after 9/11, I was the lone vote in Congress against war

Rep. Barbara Lee
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) speaks with reporters in Washington in January 2020.
(Tom Williams / CQ Roll Call)

On Sept. 14, 2001, Congress took up a short bill, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which in 60 words gave the president the power to use all “necessary and appropriate force” against virtually anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Three days earlier, at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and in a field near Shanksville, Penn., the United States had endured unimaginable tragedy. Thousands of families grieved the loss of loved ones — the entire country was in a state of mourning and outrage.

My vote against the 2001 military force authorization remains the most difficult vote I’ve cast in my career in Congress. But I knew the last thing the country needed was to rush into war after 9/11, or ever, without proper deliberation by the people — represented by Congress — as the Constitution intended.


My father was a retired Army lieutenant colonel who fought in World War II and Korea. He was the first person who called me after that lonely vote. He reminded me that we should never send our troops into harm’s way without a clear plan, objective and exit strategy. Instead, we were asked to approve an authorization that gave the executive branch a blank check to carry out global war in perpetuity. This short bill launched us into Afghanistan and beyond, into conflicts that never had a clearly defined objective or way out. The 2001 AUMF was an effort to find an easy military solution to an exceedingly complex challenge.

A truly balanced and more effective foreign policy would seek to use all three of the most powerful tools available to us: diplomacy, development and defense. Yet we often lean far too heavily on military might as a first resort.

On 9/11, the U.S. Capitol likely came within minutes of destruction. After Jan. 6, we know how devastating the attack would have been.

Sept. 7, 2021

A recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that, despite 20 years of engagement, U.S. officials were never able to effectively relate to or engage with Afghanistan’s social, cultural and political context, and our ignorance often stemmed from a “willful disregard for information that may have been available.” The consequences included tens of thousands of lives lost, thousands of American troops and countless civilians wounded, trillions of dollars spent and now a fractured country in crisis.

Though the exit has been a tragic example of the uncertainties and unintended consequences of war — as well as the Trump administration’s decimation of our State Department and our country’s refugee and asylum programs — President Biden was right to do what each of the last three administrations could not: finally end this failed endless war.

As we look toward lessons that can be learned, I’m reminded of words written by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.: “During a period of war, when a nation becomes obsessed with the guns of war, social programs inevitably suffer. People become insensitive to pain and agony in their own midst.”

For decades, the United States has been obsessed with the guns of war. America’s militaristic approach to our foreign policy has not made our country any safer. It certainly has not made the countries we bomb safer. As chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, I oversee the budget that funds America’s diplomatic, humanitarian and developmental priorities. That budget of $62 billion is a fraction of the $750-billion budget for the Pentagon. If a budget is a moral document, those two numbers speak to our misguided priorities.


Meanwhile, we have neglected urgent needs here at home: climate change, our crumbling infrastructure, inequities in education and healthcare, and ingrained poverty.

Additionally, Washington has become set in a way of thinking that militarizes every problem in our society — such as arming our police with surplus military weapons or detaining children seeking safety at our borders. Inevitably, it is Black and brown people who bear the heaviest burden from this emphasis on war-fighting. Our adversarial mind-set treats neighbors as enemies and forces our police into the guise of an occupying army.

King warned us of three connected evils in the world: racism, poverty and militarism. I’ve spent my entire life fighting all three.

The world’s ills cannot be eradicated at the barrel of the gun. Instead, we must deeply invest in peace-building, diplomacy and growing the capacity of local civil society globally.

There was never a U.S. military solution for Afghanistan. Our armed service men and women courageously did everything asked of them. Now we have a duty to look beyond our exit and provide safe passage and safe harbor for our Afghan allies, for NGO workers and others trying to get out, and for the families and other refugees fleeing Taliban rule.

As a member of the clergy so eloquently said during the 9/11 memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, and as I quoted in my speech on the House floor on the day of the 2001 AUMF vote: “Let us not become the evil that we deplore.”


Those words apply now, at the end of this long and costly war, just as much as they did at the beginning.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) is in her 12th term in the House of Representatives.