In 2001 Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold famously and courageously stood up as the lone senator to vote against the Patriot Act. On July 21 he did it again, casting the lone vote opposing Connecticut Senator Joe Lieberman’s amendment to the 2010 Defense Authorization bill that immediately authorizes an expansion of the military by 30,000 troops. In an exclusive interview with The Nation, Feingold says he “did not believe it was in the best interest of our troops or our national security.” The measure passed 93-1.
“Well, it’s never easy,” Feingold says of his solo stance opposing the measure. “People might try to distort what you’re doing and suggest you don’t think the troops should be supported, which I do–I feel very strongly. But I don’t think putting more and more of our troops into a situation that may not make sense is a way to support the troops or protect our country. It’s a tough role to play. It’s a role that I feel I’m obligated to play.”
Feingold said he is increasingly disturbed by the war in Afghanistan, where troop levels are escalating by the month, US casualties are mounting and the insurgency is expanding. “It appears that no one even asked the president about [Afghanistan] at his [July 22] press conference after apparently thirty or thirty-one Americans were killed in Afghanistan last month. How is that possible?” Feingold asks. “People have to wake up to what’s going on in Afghanistan, and my vote is a request that people wake up to what’s happening, which is we are getting deeper and deeper into this situation in a way that I don’t think necessarily makes sense at all and may actually be counterproductive.”
On July 23 Vice President Joe Biden told the BBC that “in terms of national interest of Great Britain, the US and Europe, [the war in Afghanistan] is worth the effort we are making and the sacrifice that is being felt…. And more will come.” Feingold said Biden’s statement and requests from Defense Secretary Robert Gates for more US troops in Afghanistan are making him “very worried that this is heading into a free fall of support for something that may not make sense.”
Feingold believes “the so-called surge may actually make matters worse by pushing militants into Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation which is still not effectively dealing with terrorist sanctuaries in that country.” He is particularly concerned with what he calls the “balloon effect:” resistance fighters in Afghanistan being pushed into Pakistan, where “they may be safer.”
As a member of the Senate Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees, Feingold has grilled both civilian and military officials. In May he asked Obama’s special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, “Are we sure that when we…get up to a level of 70,000 troops, are we sure that that isn’t making the situation in Pakistan potentially worse?” Holbrooke replied that the troop buildup “could end up creating a pressure in Pakistan which would add to the instability.”
“Are you sure that the troop buildup in Afghanistan will not be counterproductive vis-à-vis Pakistan?” Feingold asked. “No,” Holbrooke replied. “I’m only sure that we are aware of the problem.”
Feingold received a similar answer from the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, in May. “Can I [be] 100 percent certain that won’t destabilize Pakistan? I don’t know the answer to that,” Mullen said.
“This is something I’ve been trying to hammer away at,” Feingold tells The Nation. “They admitted that it’s a problem, but where’s the follow-up? This administration is almost whistling past the graveyard on this issue.” Feingold added, “How is it that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and our special envoy to this region both agree that this could be a problem and that it is not talked about as a serious mistake if we’re going to keep increasing troops and increase that effect? This is, in my view, the central flaw in what is otherwise a policy that is better than the Bush administration’s. This is the central flaw in the thinking of the administration on this issue, and it needs to be pursued.”
In the halls of Congress, Afghanistan remains the “good war,” though little by little, legislators are speaking out and a handful are standing up. In June thirty House Democrats voted against continued funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It was a rare moment when the collective votes of the small number of antiwar legislators mattered–indeed, the bill almost failed. That was due in large part to the fact that Republicans overwhelmingly opposed the bill because a massive bailout for the International Monetary Fund was attached to the spending measure. Consequently, the White House needed to persuade some of the antiwar Democrats to vote with the president instead of with their conscience or their constituents. The White House feverishly lobbied the Hill and threatened some freshmen representatives with not campaigning for them in 2010 if they did not switch their votes in favor of the war-funding bill, which narrowly passed. The Senate, however, is a much bleaker landscape when it comes to opposing the expansion of the war in Afghanistan–as Feingold’s lonely dissent underscores. In May Feingold was one of just three senators–and the only Democrat–to vote against a $91 billion war spending bill.
On a wide range of issues that Feingold has hammered away at for years, the senator finds himself confronting a Democratic president for whom he campaigned. Some of the Bush-era policies that Feingold passionately opposed are now Obama’s policies. To Feingold’s credit, the change in administrations has clearly not altered his core principles. Since January 20 Feingold has pressed the Obama administration on Bush-era policies that are either being continued or expanded under Obama.
In a May 22 letter to Obama, Feingold expressed concern over the president’s suggestion that the United States can engage in indefinite detentions, saying such a practice “violates basic American values and is likely unconstitutional.” In the same letter, Feingold said Obama’s policy could set “the stage for future Guantánamos, whether on our shores or elsewhere.” While the Obama administration has continued to defend the warrantless wiretapping program in various court cases, Feingold has hounded the president to “formally” oppose the program, which Obama has thus far refused to do. In a June letter to Obama, Feingold suggested that by not “renounc[ing] the assertions of executive authority made by the Bush administration with regard to warrantless wiretapping,” Obama may be sending a message that the Bush-era “justifications were and remain valid.”
Recently, in a sharp break from many Democrats, Feingold wrote Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder, calling for a prosecutor to investigate the torture program. Feingold said the investigation should target officials at “the highest levels of government, which is where the need for accountability is most acute. Those who developed, authorized and provided legal justification for the interrogations should be held responsible.”
In some cases, the policies are getting worse, as Feingold has pointed out. “It’s both an easier and a lonelier role,” he says. “It’s easier because this president understands these issues and cares about them deeply. He wants to support the side of the law and civil liberties, but he’s getting counterpressures from, obviously, elements of his administration that are not wanting him to give any ground in this area at all.”
“But it’s lonelier,” Feingold adds, “because when I do have to disagree, yes, it’s disagreeing not only with all the Republicans but even a Democratic president and some Democratic senators. That’s a role I still have to play. I’m here to defend the Constitution and try to protect this country. That’s why I’m here. And if it means sometimes I’m going to disagree with my president, I will.”