Feingold Book Outlines Post-Sept. 11 Challenges

Steve Inskeep talks to former Sen. Russ Feingold about his book While America Sleeps. Feingold, a Democrat, represented Wisconsin for 18 years, during which he authored landmark campaign finance legislation and was the only senator to vote against the Patriot Act. His book details what he calls the failure of American institutions to respond to the challenges of the post-Sept. 11 era.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold is staying involved in politics. While teaching at Stanford, the Democrat has written a book called "While America Sleeps." He argues that we are steadily dumbing down our political debate.

RUSS FEINGOLD: We've even had people make fun of candidates and people who know something about the rest of the world. You know, recently Gingrich ran an ad attacking Romney because he knew French.

INSKEEP: Feingold's book is part argument, part memoir of his years in the Senate which ended in defeat in 2010. He recalls being in groups of senators who met foreign leaders, like a group including Jesse Helms who met Israel's then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

FEINGOLD: He was getting ready to greet the Prime Minister was a little late. And one of my staff members said that, well, actually in Israel they pronounce Rabin, Robin. Well, the senator took that in and in walks the prime minister of Israel. And Senator Helms says to him: Well, the red, red robin comes bob, bob, bobbing along. And...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEINGOLD: ...I just couldn't believe I was standing there watching this.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: So there is something kind of appealing about these moments. But you seem to think that, at the same time, that the Senate is a body and we, as a country, we're the missing things that are really important.

FEINGOLD: Yeah, I mean the founders of the country intended the Senate to be involved in foreign policy; confirming ambassadors, approving treaties, and generally to be involved in watching the executive branch on these issues. I think that also means when we have an enormous shock like 9/11, that it's not just the president, the CIA and the military that are involved, but regular oversight and involvement from the Senate and for members of Congress.

And that started pretty well after 9/11. But, of course, when we got into the Iraq situation things became very divisive. And I think we got on a tremendously bad track that members of Congress fell into, where we could only think about sort of one place at a time. It was either Afghanistan or Iraq. We lurched from one location to another. You know, for while last year we were talking about Yemen. Now all the conversation is about Iran.

And, of course, Iran is critical but does anyone really believe that this whole threat of al-Qaida and their related groups is over? We are in a position where we're going to get surprised again, if all we can do is think about one other country at the time and not look at other threats - not just al-Qaida, what's going on with China, what's going on with the influence of other countries around the world. We seem to not be comfortable with engaging the rest of the world.

INSKEEP: You know, there may be something that calls to be explained here, Senator. Because if there are people who know something of your record, they may know, well, Russ Feingold was very concerned about what he felt was the erosion of civil liberties at home. And he was very concerned about the war in Iraq and very opposed to that.

And yet, it sounds like you are actually arguing for a different, but perhaps even more aggressive approach to terrorism, rather than a less aggressive approach.

FEINGOLD: I'm looking for an international approach, not necessarily an aggressive approach. Getting ahead of threats like this, not necessarily in an aggressive way, but having some understanding and presence in northern Nigeria, for example - the Islamic part of that country. I'm not talking about invading it. I'm not even talking necessarily the issue of the explosions that have occurred. What I'm talking about is we don't know much about the place.

INSKEEP: Do you think the White House is looking at those issues in a serious enough way?

FEINGOLD: I think it's a big improvement over the Bush administration, frankly. I think the president's efforts, in his speech in Cairo, his trip to Indonesia, his trip to India, a number of these things show that he is a global vision. And that I think he wants to engage the American people in talking about that. I think he'll be re-elected. And I think he will be the president that will help us make this shift.

My main concern is that I think the administration is a little overconfident about what's going on with al-Qaida. But overall, I think he has the subtlety and the understanding to become a very great president in terms of helping us connect with the rest of the world, as I thought we were going to do after 9/11.

INSKEEP: What's a sign of that overconfidence, as you see it in regards to al-Qaida?

FEINGOLD: Well, I saw, for example, John Brennan and some of the other counterterrorism experts say - after Osama bin Laden was killed and al-Awlaki was killed...

INSKEEP: Brennan is the top counterterrorism person at the White House, of course. Go ahead.

FEINGOLD: Yes. And then, you know, of course, al-Awlaki was in Yemen. You know, that we've got these guys on the run; they're just about finished. But one of the former counterterrorism experts who I really respect, Michael Leiter, said this is a mistake; that actually a lot of things going on especially in northern Africa - in Nigeria, in Somalia, the Horn of Africa - is very dangerous, is very much alive. And I think we're making the same mistake by not listening to counterterrorism experts, Leiter's remarks. in that regard.

INSKEEP: When were in the Senate, as you recounted, there were quite a few instances in which you ended up going on an overseas trip with a group of senators. And more than once that you were accompanied by Republican John McCain, or invited by John McCain, who you had worked with, of course, on a very famous piece of campaign finance legislation.

How did you guys get along on those trips?

FEINGOLD: Oh, just great. It was - John was terrific. He would frequently invite me on the trips. I couldn't always go. But he went on many trips. And he always wanted a little bit of balance. You know, he purposely invited me along so I'd present the other view. When we were on one of the planes heading towards Kuwait with people like Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman and some of these folks, John Thune - I think the other...

INSKEEP: All Republican politicians, right?

FEINGOLD: Republican politicians and we're sort of wondering, why is Feingold here? You know, he's the number one opponent of the Iraq War. And I made a comment and John says, well, this is Russ Feingold - we bring him along because he's consistent, consistently wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FEINGOLD: So they seemed relieved after John put me down. But he, of course, we're dear friends. And it really I think was a more stimulating trip by having people of different perspectives. And it helped him in the meetings, as well.

INSKEEP: It is interesting. In several of the trips, you describe in this book though, that the group of view would go to the same places. You would be approximately the same people. You'd be in the same the briefings. You'd have the same conversations. And yet, your impression of the situation would remain radically different than Senator McCain's, or other people's.

FEINGOLD: Well, that's where I have a lot of concern. If we were in Iraq or Afghanistan, even though the meetings often showed real problems with continuing the intervention, basically the politicians were put in a position - both by the administration and even by the political games that are played - to say, well, you know, things are getting better. The insurgency is in its last throes.

And I was very disappointed in the Green Zone to see all of my colleagues sort of parrot that even though the evidence we heard was just the opposite; that clearly the Iraqi insurgency at that time, in 2005 and 2006, was nowhere near being in its last throes. So, I didn't think it was being candid with the American people.

And I think it necessarily extended that war. And the same kind of language is unnecessarily extending the Afghanistan War, where I think the president should not have increased the troops there and where we should have a timeline to get the troops out now.

INSKEEP: Russ Feingold, former Democratic senator from Wisconsin, is the author of "While America Sleeps."

Senator, thanks very much.

FEINGOLD: Thanks, it was great.

INSKEEP: You hear him on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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