In 2001, the country was coasting on a tidal wave of nationalism following the September 11 attacks. Nearly 90 percent of Americans supported invading Afghanistan, and Congress convened to vote to give President George W. Bush “nearly unlimited power” to wage war against the nation and anyone else he deemed to be involved in terrorism.
The vote was perfunctory. There was no question of the outcome. The Senate vote was 98 to 0. The House vote was 420 to one.
That one vote was Rep. Barbara Lee of California. She agonized over being the lone dissenting voice, and was branded as a traitor and a terrorist sympathizer for doing so. The Wall Street Journal called her a “clueless liberal” and the Washington Times said she was a “supporter of America’s enemies.”
But she would say she felt spiritually compelled to do so after hearing a sermon at the September 11 memorial service at the Washington National Cathedral. Rev. Nathan Baxter delivered a prayer that resounded in her soul: “Let us also pray for divine wisdom as our leaders consider the necessary actions for national security,” he prayed. “Wisdom of the grace of God, that as we act we not become the evil we deplore.”
So she voted no. “However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint,” she said on the House floor. “Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.’”
Now-President Joe Biden was a Senator at the time. He voted for war. So did then-Rep. Bernie Sanders. Even the late, great Rep. John Lewis, a staunch advocate for peace, voted yes. Sanders and Lewis, at least, would come to publicly regret their vote, as support for the invasion itself declined over time. A 2019 University of Maryland poll found that 36 percent of Americans believe the invasion was a mistake, and 26 percent say they’re “not sure.” Only 38 percent believed it was the correct choice.
Lee would explain that she didn’t oppose military action, but was concerned about the broad authority being granted to the Oval Office. She noted concerns about the “blank check” Congress was handing over, and the precedent it would set for future actions.
20 years and one trillion dollars later, President Joe Biden has withdrawn U.S. troops from its longest conflict in its history. By last April, 2,448 U.S. service members had been killed, and for every one U.S. soldier who died in Afghanistan or Pakistan, seven civilians died. This doesn’t take into account the 444 aid workers or 72 journalists who died either, or the hundreds of thousands of displaced refugees now feeling Taliban rule.
The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan following the U.S.-led two-decade campaign to remake the nation seemed to stun military leaders. However, an understanding that the war was failing on several fronts has been shared by the leadership of several presidential administrations now.
All of this should be cause for a little bit of retrospection on how Lee was treated for her single vote. She’s still a congresswoman today, representing parts of Berkeley and Oakland. She has never regretted her vote and, in fact, has frequently attempted to repeal the authorization that passed in 2001.