Sen. Russ Feingold warned on Tuesday that Barack Obama's plans for Iraq and Afghanistan were too vague, too costly, and could -- in the direst of scenarios -- result in the weakening of U.S. national security.
In an interview with the Huffington Post, Feingold went to great lengths to praise the president for making dramatic changes to our international relations approach and diplomatic and military policy. "Certainly," he declared, "the Obama proposals are so much better than the previous administration that you have to at least acknowledge that."
But the Wisconsin Democrat, known for his willingness to buck party orthodoxy on issues of foreign affairs and civil liberties, did little to hide his concern about various aspects of the Obama approach to the two ongoing wars. Addressing Iraq first, Feingold said the decision to leave a residual force of 50,000 troops in that country past 2010 went "way beyond" what was needed and could have serious fiscal and national security implications.
"The first downside is that it is enormously expensive for the United States," said the Senator. "The president has talked repeatedly about the cost of the war. Maintaining 50,000 troops there is a drain on our economy and our ability to recover. But it also perpetuates resentment, in terms of people feeling that this is an occupation of a country. If we can eliminate that perception the better. I understand that where the troops will be place and how they will be viewed publicly will make that less of a problem. So I think that would be a good thing. But I think, basically having 50,000 troops in somebody else's country is not the way you want to go, after all these years, unless it is absolutely essential. And I don't think it is absolutely essential."
Feingold was even more wary of Obama's proposal for Afghanistan. Having expressed concern on this issue well before the election, the Senator repeated what has become for him a tried-and-true mantra: what is the mission?
"In some ways, I'm even more concerned about this proposal for Afghanistan than I am about the president's plans for Iraq," he said, "because I don't think the policy review and plan is in place to explain why these troops are going there. ... It doesn't really build an understanding of the relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which is the central problem. So to just put more troops into Afghanistan without a clear purpose, to me, is putting the cart before the horse and it is not the way to go."
In the worst of scenarios, Feingold warned, an influx of troops into Afghanistan would lead to the Taliban fleeing into neighboring Pakistan. "Think of the problems with Pakistan involving the Taliban," he said. Would the United States be obligated to move ground forces into Pakistan? And where were the "non-military aspects of trying to bring stability" to both those countries?
Through it all, the Senator punctuated his observations with broader compliments for the new direction the Obama administration was taking. He praised the president for an "historic departure from the lawlessness of the Bush administration, on everything from the announcement [of the closing of] Guantanamo and [the ending of] torture to the release of some of the key documents relating to some of the abuses." The new White House, in short, was a breath of fresh air.
But those accomplishments were not enough for Feingold to keep quiet his disagreements, among which he included the assertion of executive powers that boarded on exceeding the boundaries of the Constitution. The Senate expressed a mix of concern and mild disappointment with two recent moves by the administration. The first: to give the Attorney General the authority to determine the merit of a lawsuit against a telecommunications company involved in the government's warrantless wiretapping program (the administration was overruled by the courts). The second: to deny detainees being held in Afghanistan the right to legally challenge their detention.
"There are going to be times with any administration where the push for executive power with the perception that it is necessary with national security will conflict with some of the views that I think are equally supportive of national security but avoid obsessive government secrecy," said Feingold. "I think all of these things raise issues. And we have to take them one at a time and consider them. But what I've found is that the administration is willing to engage in a real conversation about this without making what I consider to be dangerous accretions about the powers of the Constitution as they relate to the president."