In early 2001, then U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisconsin) was on a foreign relations trip in Nigeria when he noticed that Osama Bin Laden had a fan following in the country. His face was plastered on postcards and T-shirts, but Bin Laden, who was killed by U.S. troops last May, was 4,000 miles away from Nigeria, in Afghanistan.
Feingold asked for a briefing on Al Qaeda's influence in Africa, but didn't think it was urgent. The briefing was scheduled for September 13, 2001.
Needless to say, the briefing never happened.
In a talk Tuesday night about his new book, While America Sleeps, Feingold said the events of 9/11 highlight the importance of connecting with the rest of the world. About 120 people attended the talk at the Edgewater Hotel, which was co-sponsored by the Madison Committee on Foreign Relations and the UW-Madison Political Science Department.
Feingold, who served on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and the Committee on Intelligence, talked candidly about foreign policy issues from Iran to China to Uzbekistan, emphasizing the need for the United States to take the rest of the world seriously.
"What 9/11 showed us is what happens when we're not alert to the rest of the world," Feingold said. "We remember how it felt to be taken almost completely by surprise."
The book is named after a collection of speeches the British politician and former Prime Minister Winston Churchill made in the House of Commons after the First World War, warning that the Germans were re-arming. The collection is called While England Slept.
"The title really struck me," Feingold said. "[Churchill] talked about how England had grown so comfortable as an island nation, having not been conquered for a thousand years, that feeling of invincibility, and an inability to realize its new position in the world at that time. It reminded me a lot of 9/11."
To highlight his point that the United States was "asleep at the switch" prior to Sept. 11, Feingold ran down the news that dominated during the summer of that year. Sharks were attacking people around the world. Chandra Levy, an intern at the Federal Bureau of Prisons who was alleged to be having an affair with former U.S. Rep., Gary Condit (D-Colorado), went missing.
But Al-Qaeda was not on anyone's radar, Feingold said. He added that instead of engaging with the rest of the world, in the decade since 2001, the country has stayed domestically focused, consumed with partisanship. And moreover, the terrorist attacks and "War on Terror" have been "exploited" domestically "for other gains," he said.
"[There's been] a diminution of our civil liberties. The USA Patriot Act has still not been fixed," Feingold said. "Your library records can still be taken for no reason, with no showing of a connection to terrorism whatsoever."
Feingold took both Republicans and Democrats to task, criticizing President Barack Obama for failing to modify the Patriot Act, and for over-reaching his power as Commander-in-Chief. He criticized Republican presidential nominees for trivializing foreign policy, pointing to Herman Cain's reference to Uzbekistan as "Ubeki-beki-beki-stan-stan."
"[Cain talked about it] like it's funny, and cool, and a qualification of office to not know anything about Uzbekistan. Well, Uzbekistan is not a joke. Uzbekistan is the country directly above Afghanistan and Pakistan," Feingold said.
Feingold also reprimanded the tea party movement for its harsh criticism of domestic policy issues while ignoring foreign policy matters.
"But the tea party has been very effective. It's one of the reasons I had the time to write this book," Feingold quipped, referring to his loss in 2010 of the Senate seat he held from 1993 to 2011.
Feingold concluded his talk with three recommendations. He said people should learn foreign languages, get more knowledgeable about the rest of the world and participate in citizen diplomacy efforts.
"[Learning] foreign languages matters. It matters in the military, it matters in intelligence, it matters in the economy," he said. "We need to, as Americans, and also as elected representatives, reach out to the rest of the world."
UW-Madison political science professor Jon Pevehouse, who was at the talk, concurs.
"We need increased awareness about other nations. The average American knows very little about American foreign policy," Pevehouse said. "And it can't hurt to have someone like Russ Feingold talking about this -- it's like Bono talking about debt relief, or Angelina Jolie talking about adoption!"
Given Feingold's interest in foreign policy, it's not surprising he has resisted pressure to participate in the upcoming election to recall Gov. Scott Walker from office.
"Life is great, and I loved being a senator, and I love what I'm doing now," he said in a brief interview prior to his talk.
For now, he's throwing his lot behind either gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Falk or Tom Barrett.
"It's going to be a tight race, but we're going to win," he said.