CHAMPAIGN — Americans showed a great interest in foreign policy in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, former Sen. Russ Feingold said Friday, but that concern for world affairs has regressed in the last 11 years.
"The way in which the debate and public discussion in the presidential election has become, instead of being about foreign policy in a meaningful way, has become trivialized with cheap shots," said the former senator from Wisconsin who recently wrote the book, "While America Sleeps," about the ongoing international threats to the United States.
"We took a look at the Republican debates that were actually related to foreign policy. There were two. They were so narrow. They never mentioned Somalia. They only mentioned Yemen once," said Feingold, who spoke at the "Friday Forum" at the University YMCA. "It was all about who can sound the most warlike with regard to Iran."
He cited Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's statement that President Obama had apologized "for American values."
"This is not true," Feingold said. "You look at his words, and what he has said on a number of occasions, 'Here's a situation where we might have done better.' That is sort of mature to admit that we haven't been perfect. That's not apologizing. That's not humiliating America."
He also hit Republicans for focusing on whether a "candidate believes in American exceptionalism."
"This is a mantra. I think America is exceptional. I'm a little biased. I think it's the greatest country in the world. But what good does that do to just yell that over and over again? As my mother used to say, if you brag on the playground, the kids aren't going to like you."
And he said both political parties were guilty of overlooking foreign policy at their conventions.
"How much discussion was there about the war in Afghanistan, the longest war in America history?" Feingold said. "How is it possible we can have a presidential election and this war isn't even a serious topic?"
He said Americans need to learn foreign languages and "take a personal responsibility to see if we as individuals can privately try to learn more and be more connected to the rest of the world."
He even suggested that each member of Congress might be assigned a foreign country to study and visit.
"They should have to come back to Champaign and say, 'I'm in charge of Spain or Italy or whatever it is and I need to learn about it. It's part of my job.' That's not silly. The founders of the country at least said that the United States Senate has to approve every treaty and every ambassadorship. Wouldn't it be good if at least the people knew where these places were before they voted?"
Feingold taught at Stanford University last spring and said that international students there told him "that we don't know enough about the rest of the world.
"It's like we don't have a scouting report on those counties. When the Badgers play Illinois, there are people down here watching, right? We check it out. But somehow we're flying blind, not as a people joining together to try to understand the rest of the world."
Feingold, who served terms in the Senate, said that the Patriot Act, passed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, led to a "serious erosion" of American civil liberties that hadn't been reversed under President Obama.
Feingold is co-chairman of Obama's re-election campaign and said "I believe that this president will think about this long and hard, and I believe in his second term he will make some moves to change it because nothing is more dangerous to our system than to break that balance" of liberty and security.
Finally, he hedged on the topic of the use of unmanned drones as tactical weapons.
"There are occasions where we ought to use drones to get actual enemies. But overuse of drones, where we don't consider the collateral consequences, are also foolish," he said.
He again cited his discussion with international students who he said resented their use in Pakistan and Yemen.
"It is causing enormously alienated feelings on the part of many people in those countries. Yes, we want to get the bad guys, but we have to consider if we are creating more bad guys at the same time," Feingold said. "It's got to be a much more legal regime with much more restraint in the future."