Will Barbara Lee's Risky Gamble Pay Off?

California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a black Democrat, is gambling that she won't share the fate of Montana Republican Jeanette Rankin, Oregon Senator Wayne Morse, and Alaska Senator Ernest Gruening. Rankin cast the only congressional vote against Franklin Roosevelt's declaration of war against Japan following the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. Morse and Gruening cast the only votes against the Tonkin Gulf resolution that gave Lyndon Johnson full power to wage war in Vietnam in 1965.

The voters didn't forgive or forget their dissent. Rankin left Congress in 1943, and Morse and Gruening were trounced in their re-election bids. Lee followed their example when she cast the lone vote against giving President Bush carte blanche to unleash war against terrorists. She ignored polls that show that a staggering number of Americans want a swift, pulverizing hit against terrorists even if that means body-bagging innocent civilians in the process. The vote was her personal message to Bush to think before lobbing bombs, cruise missiles, and ground troops at Afghanistan.

Lee is not off base in her dread that Bush's big stick will turn terrorist wanted man Osama bin Laden and the Afghan Taliban into mythic heroes among their supporters, swell the ranks of terror bombers, cripple relations with moderate Arab and Palestinian leaders, and torpedo chances for an Israeli-Palestinian deal. Some British and French officials, and Bush's Arab allies, have implored him to use caution and restraint in dealing with Afghanistan.

But the parallel to the dissent over America's entrance into World War II and Vietnam don't hold up. Much of the world was already at war when the Japanese attacked the U.S. military, and while the Vietnam war was a towering disaster, with heavy racist, and imperial overtones, the Americans that filled the body bags were mostly combatants. Those filling the bags at the Trade Center and Pentagon are clerks, typists, computer processors, security guards, fire fighters, and beat police officers. And, those European officials and Arab leaders that voiced mild dissent to U.S. war making in the next breath pledged their total support to any action Bush takes.

Lee also banks that in bucking Bush and the public's war mania she speaks for her core supporters, the black voters in the Berkeley and Oakland districts she represents. Lee claims that she received thousands of emails from those constituents urging her to take a stand against Bush and war. But this also rests on the shaky belief that blacks are less willing to back America's wars than whites. This is pure myth.

During America's wars, black protest has always given way to black patriotism. Black divisions distinguished themselves in the Civil War and the Spanish American War. During World War I, black scholar, and activist, W.E.B. Dubois in a Crisis Magazine editorial rallied blacks to the flag with a call to close ranks and forget their racial grievances. They flocked to a segregated army in droves. Patriotic fever among blacks soared during World War II. Black newspapers carried headlines "Buy a Liberty Bond and Win the War." Not only did blacks buy millions of dollars in war bonds, they also staged victory balls, rallies, and fund drives. During the Korean conflict, blacks again dutifully trudged off to yet another foreign battlefield.

The massive 1960s protests, and urban riots, heavyweight boxing champ, Muhammad Ali's draft refusal, the relentless attack by Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and black power advocates on the Vietnam war as "racist," and "imperialist," did not dissuade blacks from fighting and dying in disproportionate numbers in Vietnam. In the Gulf War in 1991, blacks composed more than one-third of the fighting force. When Congress voted unanimously to authorize Clinton to wage war against Serbia in 1998, other than Lee who cast the sole vote against the war resolution, and a small number of black militants, there was scarcely a murmur of opposition among blacks.

The week before the Trade Center and Pentagon terror attacks, Congressional Black Caucus members were savaging Bush for not attending the World Racism Conference, the Florida vote fraud, and his tax rebate that further drained billions from the budget coffers for health and education programs. The moment after the attacks, they instantly reversed gear, rallied round the flag, and with not a peep of public protest, other than Lee, backed Bush's war power resolution. The Black Caucus's most vocal Bush critics, Georgia representative, Cynthia McKinney and Texas Representative, Eddie Bernice Johnson, even issued public statements that sounded every bit as bellicose as Bush's.

The reflexive liberal politics of Lee's district, her long political tenure, and the short memory of voters virtually assure she'll be reelected in 2002. But Lee also gambles that eventually she'll be applauded for saying no to Bush. It would be nice to think that, but the national anguish for the thousands buried in the rubble of the Trade Center and the Pentagon make that unlikely to happen.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a nationally syndicated columnist and the president of the National Alliance for Positive Action.

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