Op-Ed: Three days after 9/11, I was the lone vote in Congress against war

On Sept. 14, 2001, Congress took up a short bill, the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force, which in 60 words gave the president the power to use all “necessary and appropriate force” against virtually anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Unimaginable tragedy had struck the United States three days before, at the Pentagon, World Trade Center and on a field near Shanksville in Pennsylvania. The loss of loved ones was felt by thousands of families. The entire country was in mourning and anger.

My vote against the 2001 military force authorization remains the most difficult vote I’ve cast in my career in Congress. But I knew the last thing the country needed was to rush into war after 9/11, or ever, without proper deliberation by the people — represented by Congress — as the Constitution intended.

My father was a former Army lieutenant colonel, who served in World War II and Korea. After that single vote, he was the one who first called me. He reminded me of the importance of having a clear plan, objective, and exit strategy before we send troops into danger. Instead, we were asked for authorization to give the executive branch a blank check that would allow them to continue global wars in perpetuity. This bill was short and sent us to Afghanistan and other countries, where we found ourselves in conflicts with no clear objective or exit strategy. The 2001 AUMMF was created to provide a quick military solution to a complex problem.

A more balanced and effective foreign policy would use all three of our most powerful tools: diplomacy and development. We often rely too heavily on military might as our first resort.

A recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction found that, despite 20 years of engagement, U.S. officials were never able to effectively relate to or engage with Afghanistan’s social, cultural and political context, and our ignorance often stemmed from a “willful disregard for information that may have been available.” The consequences included tens of thousands of lives lost, thousands of American troops and countless civilians wounded, trillions of dollars spent and now a fractured country in crisis. Although the withdrawal has been a sad example of the unintended consequences and uncertainties of war — along with the Trump administration’s decimation our State Department, and our country’s refugee- and asylum program programs — President Biden was right in ending this failed endless war.

As we look for lessons to be learned, I am reminded of words by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said that when a nation becomes obsessed by the guns of war, social services will suffer. People become insensitive to pain and agony in their own midst.”

For decades, the United States has been obsessed with the guns of war. America’s militaristic approach towards foreign policy has not made America any safer. It has certainly not made the countries that we bomb safer. As the Chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations I oversee the budget funding America’s diplomatic and humanitarian priorities. That budget of $62 billion is a fraction of the $750-billion budget for the Pentagon. These two numbers are indicative of our misguided priorities if a budget is moral.

Meanwhile, we have neglected urgent needs here at home: climate change, our crumbling infrastructure, inequities in education and healthcare, and ingrained poverty.

Additionally, Washington has become set in a way of thinking that militarizes every problem in our society — such as arming our police with surplus military weapons or detaining children seeking safety at our borders. This emphasis on war-fighting will invariably be most burdensome for Black and Brown people. Our adversarial mindset treats neighbours as enemies and makes our police subordinate to an occupying army.

King warned of three related evils in this world: racism and poverty. All three have been a constant battle in my life.

The world’s problems cannot be solved with a gun. We must instead invest heavily in peace-building, diplomacy, and increasing the capacity of local civil societies globally.

There was never an American military solution to Afghanistan. Our armed forces men and women did everything that was asked. We have a responsibility to provide safe passage for Afghan allies, NGO workers, and families fleeing Taliban rule, beyond our exit.

As a member of the clergy so eloquently said during the 9/11 memorial service at the National Cathedral in Washington, and as I quoted in my speech on the House floor on the day of the 2001 AUMF vote: “Let us not become the evil that we deplore.”

Those words apply now, at the end of this long and costly war, just as much as they did at the beginning.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) is in her 12th term in the House of Representatives.

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