In Praise of Barbara Lee

Barbara Lee was probably the most prescient person in post-9/11 Washington, says Michael Tomasky.

Now that the “global war on terror” is officially over, as President Obama declared yesterday, I think back to those fevered days after September 11 and wonder whether the whole thing wasn’t ridiculous or worse. Back then, if you didn’t support the war in Afghanistan, you were written off as a nutcase, an abject pacifist, or a freedom-hater. But 12 years later, who can seriously say that the war was such a great idea? Maybe fighting terrorism should have been a “police matter” all along. Two things are for sure. The first is that the country and the world would be a hell of a lot better off if we’d followed Barbara Lee’s advice instead of Paul Wolfowitz’s. And second is that the foreign-policy establishment of Washington, including loyalists of both parties, will never, ever, ever, accept the first fact, which dooms us to unending expense, death, and tragedy.

Who’s Barbara Lee? She’s the Democratic congresswoman who represents Berkeley. On September 14, 2001, with the World Trade Center ruins still asmolder, the House of Representatives considered House Joint Resolution 64, the authorization of the use of military force against the terrorists involved in 9/11 plus their aiders and abettors. It passed 420 to one. Lee was that one.

Of course she was mocked at the time. Mocked? Worse than that. For a spell, she needed around-the-clock bodyguards. Such was the atmosphere created by the Bush administration, the right-wing agitprop media, and, one might add, the craven opposition that accepted nearly all of Bush’s war on terror premises.

Lee’s short floor speech explaining her vote is on YouTube; here it is, have a look. Citing “my conscience, my moral compass, and my God,” she asserted that “some of us must say let’s step back for a minute … and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control.” Elsewhere in defense of her vote, she said things like the United States should be “careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target” and criticized the vote afterward by saying: “It was a blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the September 11 events—anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long-term foreign policy, economic and national security interests, and without time limit. In granting these overly broad powers, the Congress failed its responsibility to understand the dimensions of its declaration.”

Twelve years, thousands of dead soldiers, tens of thousands of dead Iraqis, and about $2 trillion (a trillion is one thousand billions) later, try to tell me her words look stupid. Impossible. She was probably the most prescient person in Washington.

Anything that smacked of dissent from the war mania was hooted out of town. In 2004, John Kerry said “the war on terror is less of a military operation and far more of an intelligence-gathering, law-enforcement operation.” Bush derided him, the agitprop machine savaged him. But he too was right.

Imagine, then, a different past. Imagine one in which we had not fought these two longest wars in our nation’s history at all. Imagine that we had just conducted a surgical operation, justified after the 9/11 attacks under international law (without any of the twisting of international law that the Bush administration actually did), to blow al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden to smithereens in their Tora Bora caves. We may or may not have gotten him, but of course we didn’t get him then anyway. It would have been limited, extremely low-cost, and, from the American end, casualty-free, or close to it. And to the extent that we have decimated al Qaeda, it has been without war, largely in Pakistan. This has been controversial, of course, but it has not entailed widespread bloodshed or trillions drained from the treasury.

And there would have been no war in Iraq. Yes, Saddam Hussein would still be in power. This is true. That’s a definite downside, especially for Iraqis. But given what we now know—that he had no weapons of mass destruction, that he wasn’t involved in any way in 9/11, that he wasn’t particularly involved in terrorism, except the domestic kind against his own people—it’s obvious that, from a geopolitical point of view, Saddam could indeed have been “contained.” This was another notion that was condemned in official, post-9/11 Washington.

I moved to Washington from New York in August 2003. I remember the atmosphere well. All the think tanks with their seminars, panelists rushing to sound like Curtis LeMay. Actually not all of them. Steve Clemons led the New America Foundation to an admirable posture in the Bush years; I have always thought of Steve as the real leader of the opposition in those days, since the Democrats were too feckless to do much (which is funny because Steve is, or was anyway, a Republican, in the Scowcroft-Baker mold). But with that noble exception, the foreign-policy establishment of the town went bazooka.

And what’s more depressing is that it would do the exact same thing again. You will never convince aging men that war isn’t the answer. The idea of dying on the field of battle as the most glorious way for a man to go was a given in the most advanced societies until quite recently, and is still a given in much of the world. Many people inside the Beltway apparently still believe it on some level, and even many who don’t believe it understand that their career interests call on them, at moments like our post-9/11 era, to act as if they do. And as for the idea that we can democratize the world at gunpoint, we’ll soon enough forget that it never goes as planned.

It has not been worth the enormous costs; and the accomplishments, like the killing of bin Laden, could all have been achieved without the wars and bodies and trillions. It’s a shame that we won’t learn. But I will. I supported the Afghanistan war (but opposed the Iraq war). Well, next time, unless the circumstances are strikingly different, I’ll pitch my tent with Barbara Lee.