Barbara Lee’s Rebellion: The Making of the Left’s Antiwar Voice on Syria

Once she received death threats for her antiwar politics. Now the rest of the country is beginning to catch up with the congresswoman from Berkeley.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., walks away after speaking to the media with other members of the Congressional Black Caucus, after a meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House in Washington Thursday, March 11, 2010.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
National Journal
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
Sept. 9, 2013, 8:52 a.m.

There was a time when Rep. Bar­bara Lee was ac­cused of treas­on and got so many death threats for her an­ti­war polit­ics she needed around-the-clock po­lice pro­tec­tion. Now, a dec­ade and two un­pop­u­lar wars later, the con­gress­wo­man who cast the only vote against the war in Afgh­anistan has moved from the fringe to the fore­front, be­com­ing a pree­m­in­ent voice in the pres­id­ent’s own party against his ef­fort to bomb Syr­ia.

Lee is an in­flu­en­tial mem­ber of both the Con­gres­sion­al Pro­gress­ive Caucus and the Con­gres­sion­al Black Caucus — two groups Pres­id­ent Obama des­per­ately needs on his side. In­side Con­gress, she has helped spear­head the lob­by­ing ef­fort against a Syr­ia strike, and she was among the more prom­in­ent mem­bers of the CPC briefed by the White House last week. “They’ve been very per­suas­ive about the in­tel­li­gence and the fact that we must do something,” she told The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Greg Sar­gent. What was less per­suas­ive, she said, was the idea that the only op­tion right now is a mil­it­ary op­tion.

“I’m not a pa­ci­fist,” Lee told Na­tion­al Journ­al in an in­ter­view. “I think we need to hold those ac­count­able for any types of crimes against hu­man­ity, weapons of mass de­struc­tion, chem­ic­al at­tacks on our coun­try. This is a giv­en. We’ve got to do that. But you also have to un­der­stand what you’re do­ing and the con­text.”

The story of how Lee emerged as one of Con­gress’s most power­ful an­ti­war voices on Syr­ia is one that’s well told by num­bers. In 2001 when she voted against the use of force in Afgh­anistan, she ac­ted alone. In 2003, when she sponsored le­gis­la­tion to re­peal the con­gres­sion­al au­thor­iz­a­tion of war in Ir­aq, her le­gis­la­tion re­ceived 72 votes. In Au­gust of 2013, a de­mand that Obama seek au­thor­iz­a­tion from Con­gress be­fore tak­ing any ac­tion against Syr­ia garnered the sup­port of more than 150 law­makers and from both sides of the polit­ic­al aisle.

That most re­cent push on Syr­ia con­sisted of two let­ters sent to Obama last month. One was au­thored by Lee; the oth­er was au­thored by Re­pub­lic­an Rep. Scott Ri­gell of Vir­gin­ia, who has been whip­ping Re­pub­lic­an votes against a strike. Ri­gell, per­haps the closest thing Lee has to a Re­pub­lic­an coun­ter­part on Syr­ia, tweeted his sup­port for Lee’s let­ter in Au­gust:

Just read let­ter sent by @Rep­Bar­bar­aLee to POTUS. Fully agree. #com­mon ground ht­tp://t.co/mws6v7h­C­qK

— Rep. Scott Ri­gell (@RepScot­tRi­gell) Au­gust 29, 2013

Lee also has an al­li­ance on the is­sue with Liber­tari­an-lean­ing Re­pub­lic­ans such as Rep. Justin Amash of Michigan and Sen. Rand Paul of Ken­tucky, who have been out­spoken in their isol­a­tion­ism.

It’s a level of sup­port that seemed un­ima­gin­able back in Septem­ber 2001 when Lee came out against grant­ing then-Pres­id­ent George W. Bush broad au­thor­ity to use mil­it­ary force in Afgh­anistan. The vote oc­curred just three days after the 9/11 at­tacks, when Amer­ica was in still in shock and wanted re­tri­bu­tion. Of the 535 mem­bers of Con­gress, Lee cast the only dis­sent­ing vote.

Fol­low­ing that vote she was called “treach­er­ous,” “treas­on­ous” and a “clue­less lib­er­al.” A con­ser­vat­ive colum­nist wrote, “Ms. Lee is a long-prac­ti­cing sup­port­er of Amer­ica’s en­emies — from Fi­del Castro on down.” And Dav­id Horow­itz in Na­tion­al Re­view called her “an anti-Amer­ic­an com­mun­ist who sup­ports Amer­ica’s en­emies and has act­ively col­lab­or­ated with them in their war against Amer­ica.”

Back then, her po­s­i­tion seemed like polit­ic­al sui­cide, and had she rep­res­en­ted any oth­er part of the coun­try, it might have been. But Lee hails from Berke­ley, Cal­if., a place so an­ti­war that a month after the 9/11 at­tacks, the loc­al fire chief had to pull flags off vehicles for fear that pro­test­ers would rip them off.

Now it seems the rest of the coun­try is be­gin­ning to look a bit more like Berke­ley.

The an­ti­war shift in Con­gress re­flects a deep­er, more mean­ing­ful shift in the coun­try’s opin­ion about Amer­ic­an in­ter­ven­tion­ism. As Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s Ron­ald Brown­stein ob­served, “The un­ease about mil­it­ary ac­tion in Syr­ia has many roots. But its core is a di­min­ished faith that U.S.-led mil­it­ary ac­tions can pro­duce be­ne­fits that ex­ceed their costs, es­pe­cially in the Middle East.” A re­cent poll found Amer­ic­an sup­port for U.S. in­ter­ven­tion in Syr­ia to be lower than for any in­ter­ven­tion in the last 20 years.

And nobody is bet­ter po­si­tioned to cap­it­al­ize on that shift than Lee. While oth­er pro­gress­ive law­makers such as Rep. Alan Grayson of Flor­ida have emerged more re­cently as lead­ing voices in stop­ping a war with Syr­ia, as re­por­ted by The At­lantic‘s Molly Ball, Lee has been there all along.

“There’ve been a num­ber of folks who really ad­mire her prin­cipled stance and look to her as someone who’s will­ing to take those prin­cipled stances when they need to be taken,” said Steph­en Miles, co­ali­tion co­ordin­at­or for Win Without War, a group of or­gan­iz­a­tions that pro­mote a de­mil­it­ar­ized U.S. for­eign policy. In this case, he says, such stances are ne­ces­sary. “You get to choose how wars start but not how they end,” Miles ex­plained. “I think we’re see­ing that play out again in Syr­ia.”

“Con­gress­wo­man Bar­bara Lee is someone who con­sist­ently does the right thing not just when it’s easy but when it’s hard,” said Becky Bond, polit­ic­al dir­ect­or for CREDO Mo­bile, which has been whip­ping votes against a Syr­ia strike and, along with oth­er pro­gress­ive ad­vocacy groups, has or­gan­ized a Monday-night vi­gil. “Lee has been or­gan­iz­ing year in, year out since that vote in 2001,” Bond ad­ded. “She brings to this de­bate his­tory and grav­itas and or­gan­iz­ing power.”

“We love her. We ab­so­lutely love her,” said How­ie Klein of Demo­crat­ic PAC Act­Blue, prais­ing Lee as the “pree­m­in­ent” an­ti­war voice in Con­gress. “She’s someone who I’ve long thought should be part of the Demo­crat­ic lead­er­ship in a real way.”

So far Lee, who loudly called for the pres­id­ent to seek au­thor­iz­a­tion for a Syr­ia strike from Con­gress, feels vic­tori­ous and grate­ful. “I com­pli­ment and thank the pres­id­ent for com­ing to Con­gress,” she told Na­tion­al Journ­al. “That was the right thing to do. But, also, how he has handled this in a very meth­od­ic­al, very ra­tion­al, and very de­lib­er­at­ive fash­ion.”

This week she’s tak­ing the next step, in­tro­du­cing a res­ol­u­tion push­ing the pres­id­ent to con­sult the United Na­tions and the in­ter­na­tion­al com­munity on an en­hanced dip­lo­mat­ic strategy to hold Syr­i­an Pres­id­ent Bashar al-As­sad’s re­gime ac­count­able, rather than pur­su­ing mil­it­ary force in Syr­ia.

She has oth­er is­sues too that she’s hop­ing will gain trac­tion. A bill in­tro­duced earli­er this year, H.R. 198, would re­voke the au­thor­iz­a­tion for the broad use of mil­it­ary force that Con­gress ap­proved in the days after the 9/11 at­tacks. So far, the bill has 31 co­spon­sors, and a pe­ti­tion on Credo Mo­bil­ize has garnered more than 85,000 sig­na­tures.

There are oth­er, smal­ler signs her cause is gain­ing mo­mentum.

“You know that slo­gan ‘Bar­bara Lee speaks for me?’ ” Credo’s Bond asked Na­tion­al Journ­al. “I’m start­ing to see that pop up in a lot of people’s Face­book feeds.”

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