Feingold: White House is Whistling Past Afghan Graveyard

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The Nation

Feingold: White House is Whistling Past Afghan Graveyard

In an exclusive interview with The Nation, Sen. Russ Feingold defends his lone vote to oppose an amendment to the latest defense spending bill.

by
Jeremy Scahill

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."

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