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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