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Los Angeles Times Interview

Rep. Barbara Lee: Rowing Against the Tide

September 23, 2001|MARC COOPER | 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?

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