Russ Feingold served eighteen years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and when he left the chamber last month he was the only senator serving simultaneously on the Foreign Relations, Intelligence and Judiciary—where as chair of the Constitution subcommittee he sought frequently to assess the appropriateness of U.S. military and treaty policies . His focus as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee on the Middle East and North Africa—as the widely traveled and highly outspoken chair of the Africa Subcommittee—gave him a background with Egypt that few current policymakers can match.
Before leaving the Senate, Feingold was the chief sponsor (along with his Arizona Senator John McCain) of a sweeping call for Egypt’s government to embrace democracy, human rights and civil liberties. In May of 2010, he went to the floor of the Senate “to raise the important issue of human rights and democratic reform in our partnership with Egypt.”
“I am very concerned by Egypt’s recent extension of its emergency law—which has been in place continuously since 1981—yet again, for another two years,” he explained in an address that earned headlines in the Middle East, even as it was little noted in the United States. “Since 2005, President Hosni Mubarak and his government have repeatedly pledged to end the use of the emergency law, but it continues to be extended. Although some changes were apparently announced with the extension, these were little more than cosmetic and will do nothing to improve the deeply repressive environment this law enables. Emergency laws, if they are ever appropriate, are intended for exceptional circumstances, not continuous application for decades.”
Feingold’s core point, which reflected his general view regarding foreign policy, was that: “I believe we must engage more broadly with the Egyptian people and support efforts in the country to push for human rights and democratic reform. This is especially important in the coming months as Egypt prepares to hold parliamentary elections, which will be followed next year by a Presidential election. This period could be one of transition, possibly one of tumult. The Obama administration should begin engaging now with the Egyptian government and other stakeholders to make clear that we support a fair, free, and peaceful process. Continuing to provide uncritical support to an authoritarian regime undermines our credibility as champions of political and civil rights and creates tensions, particularly in the Muslim world, which are ripe for exploitation. Those tensions, in turn, threaten our own national security.”
Those words sound remarkably prescient today.
So what does Feingold have to say about the momentous events that are now shaking Egypt?
“If there is anything to be learned from recent events in Egypt, it is that the United States must pursue a long term strategy with the country and people of Egypt and with other countries and people who live in that region,” says the former senator, who is currently writing what he suggests will be a “critical” book about US foreign policy blunders over the past decade. “No longer can we as a nation look the other way when ‘stable’ dictators sacrifice human rights and freedoms in the name of security. This is a recipe for failure. The United States must engage with the people of Egypt to understand the hopes they have for their country, and then the US can play a constructive role in helping Egypt achieve its goals.”
Recalling his past criticisms of Mubarak, Feingold says, “President Hosni Mubarak’s extension of ‘emergency law’ was wrong, but also merely a symptom of a government that had turned away from necessary political and democratic reforms—reforms which could have ensured the security and stability of that nation. I am pleased that President Obama has been direct and critical in his comments to President Mubarak, who should certainly step down and participate in a peaceful transition to a democratic civil society which respects the rule of law.”
If Obama happened to be looking for a special envoy to Egypt and the broader Middle East in a time of great turmoil and transition, he would be hard-pressed to find someone with more credibility than Feingold. The former senator’s not just making the right points at this critical moment—although what he has to say is surely worth noting. Feingold’s been making the right points for years. In the past, policymakers neglected those points at their peril. Now the peril has come to pass, and the wisdom of Feingold’s analysis becomes impossible to dismiss.