Politics / February 1, 2024

The Absolute Clarity of Barbara Lee’s Senate Bid

On matters of war and peace, the representative is prepared to tell presidents that they must follow the Constitution—even Democratic presidents.

John Nichols
Barbara Lee at a California Senate debate on October 8, 2023.

Barbara Lee at a California Senate debate on October 8, 2023.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Barbara Lee is running for the United States Senate in a California primary that will take place in barely a month. Usually, when an election approaches, candidates tailor their remarks to avoid controversy in general, and in particular to avoid making statements that might put them at odds with their own party’s sitting president. Even where there are disagreements, typical politicians tend to go silent rather than risk conflict with the top of the ticket.

But Lee has never been a typical politician.

She is a passionate progressive, who refuses to go silent on matters of war and peace. Throughout her congressional career, Lee has challenged presidents of both parties on issues of war-making, military strikes, and Pentagon budgets. Sometimes, she has done so on her own, as was the case in the fall of 2001 when, after the September 11 attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, she cast the sole vote in either branch of Congress against what she correctly warned was “a blank check” for President George W. Bush—and every president since—to wage endless and ill-defined war across the far reaches of the planet.

Lee is not quite so alone now, as she argues that President Biden must obtain congressional approval for retaliatory military strikes in response to a drone attack that killed three American service members last weekend on the border between Jordan and Syria. But the clarity of her call for caution when it comes to acting in ways that might lead to a wider war in the Middle East is notable—especially coming from a member of the president’s own party who is a serious contender for a Senate seat representing the most populous state in the country.

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As Biden talks about how he will personally decide when and how to respond “at a time and in a manner of our choosing” to an attack that has been linked to Iran-backed militants, Lee says that, while she is personally “heartbroken by the loss of the three American service members killed in Jordan,” she believes:

“These attacks make clear that Iran is taking advantage of the chaos triggered by the Oct. 7th attacks. The war in Gaza has created a firestorm in the Middle East. We must reject the calls from some in Washington to increase the fighting. The path to peace and security is not through war—we must change course. And should President Biden seek expansive military retaliation to the attacks, he must come to Congress.”

The demand that President Biden seek congressional approval before responding to a deadly attack on US forces is not unprecedented. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, which left a death toll of 2,403 and devastated the US Navy’s Pacific fleet. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt understood that he could not respond without authorization from the legislative branch. He asked for, and received, a congressional declaration of war against Japan on December 8, 1941. During World War II, FDR returned to Congress five more times, seeking and receiving declarations of war against Germany, Italy, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Romania.

Roosevelt read the Constitution, to which he had sworn an oath of allegiance three times, in the way that George Washington did, when the man who served as the presiding officer at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 explained, “The Constitution vests the power of declaring war with Congress; therefore no offensive expedition of importance can be undertaken until after they have deliberated on the subject and authorized such a measure.”

Presidents of both parties who have served since FDR have routinely failed to obtain clearly defined declarations of war before launching offensive missions, often with disastrous consequences. Debates about war and peace have, again and again, been mired in partisanship—with Republicans making anti-war sounds when Democrats are in charge and Democrats doing the same when Republicans are in charge.

Only rarely do senators have the clarity of vision that Oregon Democrat Wayne Morse and Alaska Democrat Ernest Gruening had when they cast lonely votes against the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. (Gruening was a former editor of this magazine who, like Morse, supported the 1924 presidential campaign of legendary anti-war Senator Robert M. La Follette [R-Wis.], a foe of the US entry into World War I who warned throughout his long career that the Senate must guard against presidential overreach in times of war.)

Just as Morse and Gruening feared, Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and Republican President Richard Nixon used the Gulf of Tonkin resolution as an illegitimate excuse for waging a long war in Southeast Asia.

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“Senator Morse formally opposed the resolution on constitutional grounds, declaring that Article I of the Constitution would be violated if Congress surrendered its authority to check the President’s power,” noted the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics at the University of Oregon. “The Constitution establishes the President as commander-in-chief of the armed forces, but to balance and check this power the Constitution invests Congress with the power to declare war.”

As Morse explained when he opposed the resolution: “What is proposed is to authorize the president of the United States, without a declaration of war, to commit acts of war.” Gruening said he viewed the resolution “as a blank check to the President to escalate and widen that involvement.” Arguing that the resolution was was based on “falsities which aggravated the whole deception,” the Alaskan concluded, “The action authorized was not, as the resolution declared, consonant with the Constitution of the United States… Article I, Section Eight, of the Constitution does not permit the President to wage war at his own discretion.”

The Vietnam imbroglio led to the passage of the 1973 War Powers Act, which was meant to constrain presidential war-making but has, all too frequently, been used as just another excuse to get around the mandates of the Constitution. And another excuse for members of the House and Senate to abdicate their responsibilities under Article 1 of the founding document.

Lee made her integrity when it comes to matters of war and peace clear back in 2001, and she is building on that legacy in this year’s Senate race. She faces credible and better-financed Democratic rivals, including fellow US Representatives Katie Porter and Adam Schiff. But it is Lee who has maintained a steady focus on avoiding a wider conflict in the Middle East: as an early and outspoken supporter of a cease-fire to end the assault on Gaza that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched after the October 7 Hamas attack. From the start, Lee has linked her advocacy for a cease-fire to broader efforts to dial down tensions—and dial up diplomacy—in an increasingly combative Middle East.

Even as hawks such as Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) argue for a “devastating military retaliation against Iran’s terrorist forces, both in Iran and across the Middle East,” and suggest that anything less would be an example of “Biden’s appeasement,” groups that keep a serious watch on global tensions are warning about the threat of a wider war into which the United States could be drawn.

“The same voices who advocated for never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, arguing that victory was forever just around the corner, now want the American public to believe that the path to peace lies with yet another war in the Middle East—this time with Iran. They were wrong then, and they are wrong now,” says Stephen Miles, the president of Win Without War. “The only genuine path to significantly reducing the current spasm of violence in the Middle East is securing an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, pouring cold water on the fire at the heart of this regional inferno. Such an effort would create the conditions for finally negotiating the release of the remaining hostages in Gaza and open space for regional diplomacy aimed at a desperately needed broader regional de-escalation.”

Lee recognizes violence in the region is not going to be ended by more violence. As she says:

“The path forward to peace and security throughout the region is dependent on a cessation of hostilities in Gaza, the release of all hostages, and a return to diplomacy. We saw the efficacy of this in November’s brief pause in hostilities. I urge a redoubling of efforts to achieve rapid de-escalation through a permanent ceasefire and robust, regional engagement that includes international humanitarian organizations.”

She also warns, “For far too long, Congress has been missing in action on matters of war and peace.”

One of Lee’s most ardent supporters in California’s March 5 primary, US Representative Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), argues that Lee’s “unique voice” on matters of war and peace is needed now more than ever in a Senate where there are no more La Follettes, Morses, or Gruenings.

“We need a strong anti-war senator,” says Khanna, “and she will play that role.”

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John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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