Former U.S. Sen. Feingold and CISAC Co-Director Cuéllar encourage Americans to think globally

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Feingold speaks with a local Ethiopian official and the Commander of the Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa, December 2006.
Photo credit: 
U.S. Air Force

A Wake-up Call for America: We Must Connect with the World

Former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, currently the Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at Stanford’s Haas Center for Public Service, uses an anecdote in his new book, While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post-9/11 Era, to illustrate his concern that Americans have become too insular as a result of the 2001 terrorist attacks. While teaching at Marquette University Law School during the Arab Spring of last year, an undergraduate penned a column lamenting that so many students not only could not find Tunisia on the map – they could spell Kardashian before Kazakhstan.

Feingold writes that he admired this student for his confession about his lack of knowledge on global affairs, then quotes the final thought of the young columnist: “We are connected to the rest of the world in ways few of us can fully fathom, from the shoes we wear and coffee we drink to the cell phones we carry and the tweets we post.”

In a recent interview, CISAC Co-Director Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar and Feingold discuss steps to be taken to ensure that all Americans – young and old, inside the Washington beltway and out on the farm in Wisconsin – take a patriotic stand by engaging with the world to restore our national unity and regain global respect.    

Senator Feingold, what prompted you to write this book now?

Feingold: For me, as for many Americans, 9/11 was a life-changing event, the wake-up call in which we all understood that we no longer could be safe just assuming the world would take care of itself. We got misdirected with things like Iraq and we developed this sort of invade-one-country-at-a-time approach. There was also exploitation of the fears from 9/11 for domestic agendas, from the Patriot Act to the way that Muslims and Arabs are treated in this country. And then, finally, with the rise of the tea party, I feel like we went back to sleep. But there are signals all over the place, of the continued presence of al-Qaida and the continued potency of al-Qaida, not to mention so many other trends from the Chinese influence in Africa to the Iranian influence in Latin America. We aren’t connecting as a government or as a people in a way that I think is commensurate with our place in the 21st century. I’m trying to issue a warning that we’re going to get fooled or surprised again if we think we can just go back to being just sort of safely over here across the oceans. That’s just not the world anymore.

So how do you wake up Americans and make them realize we cannot, as you say, survive as a nation without being active and aware of global events and trends? 

Feingold: It’s at all levels. I happen to think we have a good president and I think he’s going to be a great president by the end of his second term. And I think he’s started the process of alerting Americans to the need to connect to all places in the world; he’s leading us toward a global vision of the kind that I think we have to have to be safe and to be competitively successful and to be well perceived by the rest of the world. The president and other leaders should call on each of us to try and become citizen diplomats. Three hundred million people should be urged as part of their patriotic duty not just to go to the moon as we once were, but go to the rest of the world. This isn’t Pollyanna; this is about being safe. I don’t think this country is geared up to make that connection and I think it’s a fatal flaw. The Russians, the Chinese and the Iranians, they’re all over the world and they have a plan for what they’re doing. We don’t.

What do you see as the most pressing global security issues today?

Cuéllar:  The United States is confronting a changing world, where countries like India, Brazil, and China are evolving and assuming greater importance. Engaging these countries to address problems like nuclear proliferation will be critical in the years ahead.  The world also faces a persistent problem involving failed or failing states. In places like Somalia, piracy is not only a regional problem in the Gulf of Aden.  The problem is an example of how threats can affect multiple countries and impact flows of commodities, disrupting the rule of law, highlighting the challenges of governing common resources such as international sea lanes. Another challenge is the enormous potential of technology to change people’s lives for the better, coupled with risks that arise which we are only in a very imperfect and incomplete way managing; risks of vulnerabilities in our infrastructure; risks of theft of intellectual property, risks of disruption of organizations.

Feingold: I like this answer because Prof. Cuéllar did not just say, “Well, it’s Russia and Iran and Colombia.” There’s this tendency to just speak of countries. We’re just trained to say, “OK what’s the hot spot and let’s just worry about that.” Like right now it’s Iran; a few months ago it was Yemen. In my book what I’m trying to point out is that you have to look at trends and overall tendencies around the world and somehow we have to have the capacity to deal with more than one thing at a time.

Senator Feingold, you called the Bush Administration’s terrorist surveillance program – the wiretapping and surveillance of emails and financial records without court approval – one of the worst assaults on the Constitution in American history. How does the government protect our constitutional rights to privacy and probable cause while monitoring criminal and terrorist networks in a digital age?

Feingold: The assault on the Constitutional by the administration was not about whether we could do those things, its whether or not the president would basically make up his own laws just because we’re in a crisis. That to me is completely unconstitutional. We understand that a president might have to take emergency action and he may have to come to Congress and say, you know I did this, it may be beyond the law, would you please pass a law to approve it, or I’ll stop doing it. That’s not what Bush did. Bush hid it. Bush hid what he was doing on torture; Bush hid what he was doing on wiretapping. That’s a very dangerous thing that completely saps our strength from within and is completely unnecessary to stop the terrorists.

Cuéllar: The challenge of living up to our constitutional values while we secure the country is always critical. It requires organizations that can learn from their mistakes to be honest with each other enough and recognize when they have overstepped their bounds, that make good use of entities like inspectors-general, that leverage the ability of Congress to do oversight. These are all elements of making our constitutional values relevant. So me the challenge has always been how to you leverage all the information technology and all our ability to make smart, thoughtful, careful decisions – including decisions that do permit appropriate degrees of surveillance and intelligence – in order to avoid superficial reactions against individuals who simply appear threatening.

What key steps should the U.S. government take to improve its counter-terrorism efforts both at home and abroad?

Feingold: The first thing is to recognize the nature of the threat. One of the chapters in the book is called A Game of Risk, where we seem to think the way to counter terrorism is to invade a country and stay there forever and say we have to stay there or the terrorist are going to come back. But this isn’t the nature of al-Qaida or similar organizations. President Bush used to say there were 60 countries where al-Qaida was operating and, of course, one thing that was embarrassing about it was that Iraq wasn’t one of them. But we’re still in this place today. Al-Shabab in Somalia; al-Qaida and the Islamic Maghreb in northern Africa; a group called Boko Haram in Nigeria, which looks very much like an al-Qaida group, has pulled off some 70 attacks in the last year. So this is an international organization that communicates with each other and they’re not done just because Osama bin Laden is gone. So let’s not get caught unawares again.

Senator Feingold, what was your most memorable, defining challenge in Congress and how did that change the way you see yourself and the world around you?

It had to do with recognizing when 9/11 occurred that there really was a group of people out there who would love to kill all of us and, despite the fact that I’m progressive and I voted against most military interventions, just saying to myself: look, there are times when threats are real. And it caused me to actually seek to be on the Intelligence Committee which is something I never wanted to do; I was not sure of the importance of intelligence in the post Cold War era and it was a real change for me. I remember having an emotional response, saying, “You know what? This is real; what these folks did was real and they have intimidated an entire country if not the world.” I wanted to know everything I could about how they came to be and what they were planning next, and to be a person who could try to think ahead for other kinds of threats so we as Americans can get ahead of threats instead of being the people who are reacting.