The anti-war Democrat breaks down her efforts to rein-in the president’s ability to wage war.
20 Years after Her Iraq War Vote, Barbara Lee Wants to End the War on Terror
Connor Echols / Responsible Statecraft
(October 16, 2022) — Twenty years ago today, President George W. Bush signed into law the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF) in Iraq. The measure, which allowed the president to defend the United States against “the continuing threat posed by Iraq,” had just sailed through both houses of Congress with a supermajority in each chamber.
“Either the Iraqi regime will give up its weapons of mass destruction, or, for the sake of peace, the United States will lead a global coalition to disarm that regime,” Bush said in a signing ceremony.
Five months later, a U.S.-led coalition stormed into Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein’s government. Peace, as we now know, never came.
American foreign policy has lived under the shadow of this fateful decision ever since. Though Washington’s attention has largely turned away from the Middle East, American troops are still deployed throughout the region.
When asked to justify these deployments, consecutive administrations have pointed to the 2002 AUMF and its broader predecessor from 2001, which gave the executive broad powers to respond to the 9/11 attacks. President Donald Trump even defended the 2020 killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on the grounds that it was covered under the 2002 AUMF.
Now, Congress finally seems poised to repeal the Iraq authorization. The House has already signed off on the decision, and a bipartisan majority of lawmakers have sponsored a corresponding bill in the Senate. Perhaps most importantly, President Joe Biden has already pledged that he would sign the bill if it reached his desk.
In order to better understand what this means for American policy, Responsible Statecraft spoke with Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) — the only member of Congress who voted against both AUMFs, and a tireless leader in the fight to repeal them.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Responsible Statecraft: You were the only member of Congress who opposed both AUMFs at the time. Can you walk through the thinking behind those decisions?
Lee: In 2001, that was during a horrific time when we had been attacked. People were killed, communities destroyed in many ways. The country was in mourning. My Chief of Staff’s cousin, Wanda Green, was on Flight 93 and was from the Bay Area, and I was sitting on the Capitol and had to evacuate. So the trauma of it was very personal for me.
When the resolution came, I knew that a response was warranted, but I knew that we had to think it through and make some determinations as to what the best approach and the best response would be — but not three days after these horrific attacks.
But the administration came forward with this authorization. I think they brought it forth once or twice and tried to narrow it a bit, but it was still overly broad. It was 60 words and basically [said] that any President can use force whenever. It took away Congress’s responsibility and our duty to uphold the Constitution and to authorize the use of force whenever that was warranted.
It was a very difficult decision, but I knew that I couldn’t vote for that. And also I knew that, based on my background in psychology, you don’t make hard decisions when you’re upset, when you’re in mourning. You have to think through the implications of any type of major decision. And then I was concerned about the issue of forever wars. It set the stage, and I knew it was going to do that. The military option could be the first option before we tried any other option to settle disputes, to respond to terrorist attacks.
By the time Iraq came forward… First, I knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. I was in all of the briefings. The [International Atomic Energy Agency] was conducting its work [to ensure Iraq did not possess WMDs]. I knew that Saddam Hussein was a bad man, but I also knew the premise upon which the President wanted to use force was that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. That was a lie, and I knew that.
During the markup, I offered an amendment that said to let the IAEA at least complete its investigations and to not do anything until we have the report back from the IAEA. The Rules Committee put it on the floor, and we debated it. I believe I got 72 votes for it, and that was it. And then, of course, the authorization passed.
So [the Iraq War] started before the inspectors could conduct their inspection, which was outrageous. By then, there were several other members who said, “you’re right. We can’t do this again.” So there were about 130 members of Congress who voted against the Iraq resolution.
Lo and behold, there were no weapons of mass destruction there. Finally, the public knew what we knew, but that was when it was too late.
We lost so many people in both of these wars, our brave troops. But also we lost [more than that]. You look at the refugees. You look at the numbers of people who died in Iraq and Afghanistan. You look at the collateral damage. You look at what took place as a result of these wars.
Fast forward to today, I’m still trying to repeal both of them, and we’re getting close. The Biden administration has said he would sign the 2002 repeal if it gets to his desk. Well, it’s been in the Senate for a while now, and I’ve been able to pass it in the House several times with bipartisan support. So we’re going to keep going until both of these authorizations are repealed.
RS: Can you tell me more about why it’s important for these laws to be removed from the books?
Lee: First of all, people elect their members of Congress, and you’re taking away the people’s rights. When you take away Congress’ ability to do their job based on what the Constitution requires, you’re really fundamentally acting in an undemocratic fashion.
We need to debate and provide an authorization to the President if we think that that is necessary. That’s how it should work based on the constitutional requirements, and it’s not working that way.
Every president since then, they’ve used both authorizations over 40 times in countries all over the world, and even in assassination attempts. They’ve used it in ways that have nothing to do with 9/11 nor weapons of mass destruction. So you can see how it can spiral out of control and how Congress loses its ability to do its job. That’s very dangerous because we have a system of checks and balances, and we have certain requirements that we’re required to adhere to.
RS: What do you think it’ll take for the repeal effort to succeed? I know that you’re getting closer on the 2002 AUMF, but the 2001 one seems further off.
Lee: We’re negotiating the language. Most Democrats now are on board, but we have a very diverse Democratic caucus. Some felt that it would take away the president’s ability to respond in an emergency, which it doesn’t because he always has international law and the Constitution, [which allow him] to use force in case of an imminent attack or threat.
My repeal of the 2001 AUMF gives the President eight months to come up with a new one. Now you can’t tell me that if the President needs to go to war or use force, eight months is not enough time for Congress to debate and authorize a new authorization. We passed the 2001 AUMF in three days, so you can’t tell me that Congress can’t come up with something if the President needs it and if the debate determines that the President needs that authorization.
So we’re getting close. We’ve had input from many members of Congress from different caucuses, and I think we’re gonna get that done. The chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee [Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.)], he’s on board and helping us figure out a path forward. So it’s a little harder on the 2001 one, but we’re going to get there.
RS: I also wanted to ask about your advocacy over the years to cut the top line of the Pentagon budget. I know that you proposed earlier this year, if I remember correctly, a $100 billion cut to the budget. Why should Americans support those efforts? What are the trade-offs when we spend so much on defense?
Lee: Well, the trade-offs are that, one, we don’t have the resources here in our own country in terms of the domestic requirements and needs. We see that each and every day by the lack of adequate housing, health care, and economic opportunities. The military budget is so out of whack. It’s pathetic. We need to have more resources in our domestic spending.
Secondly, we need to be in the business of preventing wars, and you prevent wars by dealing with the underlying reasons for wars. Again, the military option is going to always be on the table when you have a $750 billion military budget. [Editor’s note: the defense authorization that the House passed earlier this year would give the military $840 billion for FY 2023.] I chair the Subcommittee on Appropriations that deals with the other two things, development and diplomacy.
My budget is $64 billion. That’s totally out of whack. We need to maintain our leadership in the world on so many issues that really could help with global peace and security, and we could never get there with a military budget that’s so excessive.
And you have to look at the waste, fraud, and abuse. We have over $100 billion [of waste] that needs to be cut. Secondly, we know that a lot of these contractors have just really taken advantage of the American public. The military budget is out of control, and we’ve got to rein it in.
I’ve been working on this for years. Now, I’m really happy to see that other members are more engaged with this in our defense spending reduction caucus. But that’s a big issue that we’ve got to help the public understand. It’s not gonna go away. [We need to figure out] how we use their tax dollars in a way that’s going to benefit our own country and the American people [and help the U.S.] be leaders in the world on climate change, be leaders on global health, on trade, on poverty and women’s issues.
We need to make sure that people throughout the world see the United States as a partner in their efforts. That has to happen, and it can’t happen if you have a military budget that is going to continue to soar.
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