When I heard former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold was writing a book, I assumed it would be about domestic policy and politics. After all, his signature accomplishment was the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform legislation, and he spent a career as an outsider fighting special interests.
But even if While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post-9/11 Era (Crown, $26) is not the book I expected, I'm not disappointed. After all, if there's anything you can expect from Feingold, it's the unexpected. While McCain-Feingold and other domestic topics are touched upon, Feingold's book is primarily about how America lost its way on the international stage after 9/11, squandering an opportunity to unite the world behind democracy and peace.
Feingold, who served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is in a good position to understand what happened. He relates story after story about the disconnect between Americans and America's foreign policy. Even in the weeks following 9/11, he writes, Wisconsinites already seemed to be back to more mundane topics at his county-by-county listening sessions.
He makes a compelling case that if Americans took a greater interest in foreign affairs, our foreign policy would be rooted in heartland American values, with better results. He believes that the invasion of Iraq, which he voted against after detailed analysis, probably would not have happened if the American electorate had been as well informed as he was - about Saddam Hussein's predilections, about the likelihood that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction.
Likewise, the most egregious provisions of the USA Patriot Act probably would not have become law if Americans were paying as much attention to the world as Feingold was. His treatment of that sad period in American history is especially interesting. In making these claims, Feingold is at pains not to be condescending. He is essentially saying that we need to get our heads on straight and start paying attention to the rest of the world, or the rest of the world will eat our lunch today and our dinner tomorrow.
But Americans tend to ignore foreign policy and leave it to the professionals, who have their shortcomings. Feingold describes how Washington's foreign policy establishment lives in silos. Policymakers rely on experts, but one set of experts on the Middle East, for example, rarely shares notes with another set of experts on, say, Africa. As a result, there is virtually no one to help policymakers see the big, worldwide picture.
The book offers several ideas to improve our understanding of the rest of the world: more foreign language emphasis in schools; a volunteer corps of retired teachers who would teach overseas; an expanded Peace Corps; and a Global Services Fellowship program for volunteer efforts.
We would live in a safer world if Americans understood that world better, Feingold argues, and if the world understood Americans better. "Democracy," he writes, "travels best in person."