Why the U.S. must leave Iraq

Sen. Russ Feingold says it's time to admit the war was a disaster -- and accuses his fellow Democrats of going along with Bush out of fear.

Published October 10, 2005 12:30PM (EDT)

Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold has latched his political future to the third rail of American foreign policy. This summer, he proposed a date for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq: Dec. 31, 2006. The date raises a specter that no one in Washington -- and especially no Democrat -- has been willing to broach: that the American people should begin to prepare for a political failure in Iraq, at least a failure by President Bush's standard of establishing, before the troops leave, a fully functional, democratic Iraqi state.

It is not the first time Feingold has gone out on a political limb. In September, he was the only Democratic senator with presidential ambitions to support John Roberts. He was the only senator to vote against the USA Patriot Act. Before that, he spent nearly a decade fighting the culture of political payola, a fight he won in 2002 with passage of the McCain-Feingold legislation.

Salon sat down with Feingold last week in his Capitol Hill office, which he has decorated with the trophies of his career as a populist politician. There was a photo of his garage door, where he wrote out a contract to voters in 1992 during his first statewide race. There were the framed roll-call votes from the final passage of his campaign-finance legislation. And there was the senator himself, dressed in pinstripes and a blue-gray tie, speaking with the urgency of a politician with his eyes on the White House in 2008. In a wide-ranging interview, he spoke about the "timidity and weakness" of his own party, the mistakes of Sen. John Kerry, the qualifications of Harriet Miers and his plan for winning the War on Terror.

If President Bush came to you this afternoon and said, "I've got trouble in Iraq. What should I do now?" what would you say to him?

"Well, Mr. President," I would say, "we need to get the focus back on those who attacked us on 9/11." I would say to him that I was proud of the way he and his administration conducted themselves after 9/11. I thought his speech to the Congress after 9/11 was one of the best speeches I've ever heard by a president. I admired not only the focus but the bipartisanship of his approach in the lead-up to Afghanistan. We had a historic unity in this country, and I was pleased to be a part of it.

I would then say to the president that I believe the Iraq war was a divergence from the real issue. Unfortunately, in many ways, it has played into the hands of those who attacked us on 9/11. I witnessed the connection that has grown between Osama bin Laden, al-Zarqawi and now Iraqis who have been radicalized because of our invasion of Iraq. So I would urge him to think in terms of a strategy where we finish the military mission. I would ask him to put forward a plan to identify what that mission is, what the benchmarks are that need to be achieved and when they can be achieved, and that he publicly announce a target withdrawal date, so that the American people, the Iraqi people and the world can see that this is in no way intended to be a permanent American occupation.

Can you be any more specific about what that plan should entail?

Well, I think it's his job to come up with the specifics. But among the things that I would certainly be looking for would be first a recognition that the military mission and the mission of having a democratic and stable Iraq are actually different things. There is a tunnel vision in the White House which suggests we are just going to go out and find the bad guys, we are going to kill them, and we are just going to stay there until that is done. Well, that actually plays into the hands of those who are trying to radicalize the Iraqi people.

So the first thing is, I want the plan to recognize that drawing down our troops in a logical and safe way is a way to defuse the intensity of the insurgency, especially the continuing and growing presence of foreign insurgents. The second recognition of the plan should be that the current troops-on-the-ground military mission is not really the future for Iraq. Actually it calls into question the legitimacy of the current Iraqi government. The plan should recognize that it is our intention to continue joint military operations with the Iraqi government, with their permission, but targeted, laserlike attacks on terrorist elements, just as we are doing with other countries around the world, in the Philippines, Indonesia and other countries. In other words, we are not invading those countries. We are cooperating. We want to continue to have Iraq be part of the international fight against terrorism, but we need to have a course correction. That's the kind of effort where we would be on the offensive, instead of where we are now, which is on the defensive.

Would it be acceptable for us to leave Iraq before it is politically stable, and before the insurgency is calmed down?

If we don't leave, our not leaving is a big part of the political instability. So it's an absurdity to talk in terms of, "How can we leave before it is stable?" In fact, the presence of this huge American, and other [countries'], occupation of this country is what is destabilizing the country even more. It's a completely illogical conversation for people to talk in terms of what is already, many believe, almost a civil war, if not already a civil war. What we need to do is recognize that Iraqis are going to have to stand on their own. When I suggest that we withdraw the ground forces in a reasonable manner, this does not mean that we do not continue reconstruction, it does not mean that we do not continue to help the government, it does not mean that we do not have a very strong partnership with the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people on non-military issues as well as military issues.

This is not just leaving as we did in Vietnam or as we did in Somalia. That's a mistake.

If after President Bush left, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean came to your office and said, "We need a more unified Democratic message on Iraq," would you agree that there is a problem with the Democratic message?

Absolutely. There is a real timidity and weakness in terms of Democrats being willing to stand up to this error of American foreign policy. I think one of the greatest errors in American foreign policy in our modern lives is the divergence into Iraq that was done by the president. It is not sufficient for Democrats to point out the dishonest way we were taken into war. Nor is it sufficient for Democrats to simply point out that what is being done now is extremely mistaken. Democrats have to talk in terms of a strategy that, if they were in the White House, they would implement to successfully finish this particular mission, but more importantly, to get back to the real focus on the terrorist networks that attacked us on 9/11.

The Democratic message shouldn't begin with Iraq. The Democratic message should begin with, "We are committed to fighting and defeating the terrorist elements that attacked us on 9/11."

Why don't you think the Democrats have taken these steps? Why is there this confusion, this hedging?


Of what?

Fear of being accused of not being supportive of the troops, which of course is an outrageous response to reasonable questions about Iraq. But it does tend to intimidate people. Fear that somehow people will be accused of being unpatriotic. Fear that the president will say, as he almost always does, that those criticizing the Iraq war don't understand the lessons of 9/11.

I think it is President Bush who doesn't understand the lessons of 9/11. I think it's President Bush who hasn't even read carefully the 9/11 report, which clearly defines the threat we are facing. The threat we are facing is this international terrorist network that attacked us, and the amount of radicalism that may exist among Islamic peoples that can provide the recruits to fuel the international terrorist network. The president doesn't understand the difference between what is going on in Iraq and that effort.

The conventional wisdom coming out of 2004 was that a big reason why John Kerry lost was because President Bush appeared to be a stronger leader on national security issues. The conventional wisdom now says that if a politician says we should leave Iraq before all of our goals are met that will be seen as a sign of weakness.

The president has been masterful -- not in handling this war or explaining why it was done -- but he has been masterful in trying to scare Democrats from having a reasonable position, by saying that is a position of weakness. The response to that is that the terrorist organizations love the fact that we appear to be stuck in Iraq. It's not a sign of weakness to try to change course. It's a sign of intelligence. It's a sign of wanting to win the fight against terrorism. The Democrats have to be comfortable saying that.

That is our biggest problem. The Democrats tend to think, "Oh, I can't question this." The way to deal with this is to make sure that we begin with the commitment to do this right. You don't begin by saying, "Let's just get out of Iraq." That shows the same kind of narrow focus and lack of understanding of the issue as the president has shown. A good way to say it in Iraq is not the be-all and end-all of national security. It happens to be an important place. But it was made more important by errors, not by good policy.

You were involved in the 2004 race, supporting John Kerry. Looking back, what were the mistakes that he made or his staff made? What do you think cost him that race?

I think the mistakes really began with the 2002 congressional election. We were doing very well in the Senate races. And we had a great chance to hold the Senate. I saw that many Democrats in the caucus understood that this Iraq war didn't make sense from the point of view of 9/11. It didn't really seem that persuasive on weapons of mass destruction. But what the party decided, it seemed, was, "OK, look we can't beat Bush on the national security stuff. We'll just cede foreign policy to the Bush administration, and we'll beat him on domestic issues, where clearly we had the upper hand." I felt at the time -- and I certainly voted against the war -- thinking, in part, that there is no way the American people are going to elect a party that only feels they are better on the domestic side.

That's the context that this 2004 election occurred in. And that's the context, that people like John Kerry and John Edwards were stuck with votes in favor of the Iraq war. They were in a box. Those of us that didn't think it was a good idea and didn't think it related to 9/11 were able to say, as Howard Dean said, we never thought this made sense. It put Kerry in this terrible position, even though I think he did as well as he could, of having voted for the war but being critical. And then, of course, the really devastating piece was having voted against the $87 billion [in supplemental funding for the Iraq war], which I happened to have voted for. It just put him in a bind. I think it all related to the decisions that were made in 2002 for which we paid a price in 2004.

So there is a chance of correcting that going into 2008?

We have a wonderful opportunity to say, "Look, however people voted in 2002 on the Iraq war, clearly the war has not been conducted in a way that any reasonable senator could have expected." That is the fault of the administration. That's not the fault of the Congress. I don't think anyone can say it was the fault of the Congress. We should lay out the fact that this administration has failed to anticipate a number of scenarios that many of us have warned them about. They have mismanaged the situation. We as Democrats want to do two things. First, we want to make sure that this Iraq policy has a clear mission and a reasonable, flexible time frame for completion. And secondly, that we are going to return the primary focus of American national security to the overall fight against terrorist networks that are hitting us in Indonesia and the Middle East, in Europe and potentially the United States.

It's fair to say, I think, that foreign policy is not the only area where Democrats have a problem right now. Where else do Democrats have to change course or strategy going into the 2006 and 2008 elections?

I think we have to simplify our themes to the point where we portray ourselves ... as what David Ignatius recently referred to as a "party of performance." He recognized that the American people at this point, especially after Katrina and after the problems in Iraq, are looking for a party that can actually, simply do the job. Of course that relates to FEMA. But I think it also relates to foreign policy, to Iraq, to the fight against terrorism. It also relates to the issues, that if you listen to people, you will hear them talk about ... We should be willing to take a stand on the healthcare issue that is stronger than some people might be comfortable with.

What is the stand?

Guaranteed healthcare for all Americans, mandated by the federal government, but allowing the states to have some flexibility in how they implement it.

Secondly, we should be a party that is not afraid to stand up to unfair trade agreements. Senators on both sides of the party have trouble with CAFTA and the results of NAFTA. We should break with the party's recent past and say we're not going to vote anymore for trade agreements that ship our jobs overseas and are not fair to the workers and the environment of those other countries. Third, there is an overwhelming desire for a real energy-independence approach in this country. People are ready to hear specifics, all the way from wind turbines, to fuel cells, to ethanol, that will make people believe we don't have to have these foreign countries who essentially have us, as I like to say, over the barrel.

A number of people on the left were unhappy with how you voted on John Roberts. After the vote, Ralph Neas of People for the American Way was in the hallway saying you had voted against the interest of the Constitution.

Yes, I read his quotes. The two most important votes about the Constitution were [for the confirmation of] John Roberts and John Ashcroft, according to Ralph Neas. I wonder where he was the day the USA Patriot Act was voted on and I was the only senator to vote no. I think he is a little confused about what are votes on the Constitution, which that was directly, and what are votes on individuals.

But you have Roberts on the bench. Harriet Miers is heading toward the bench.

Don't count on that.

Well, whoever the president's next nominee is, it's very possible that the person could eat away at a number of legal principles that are Democratic foundations.

It's very possible.

But you voted, still, for Roberts.

I have this odd sense that George Bush is going to pick whoever the justice is. So those who are yelling and screaming, apparently, have forgotten who gets to make the nomination. So the question is, what's the best we can get from George Bush? It was my judgment that John Roberts, based on everything I saw and heard, directly and indirectly, was the best possibility we could have to pick somebody who would be non-ideological in his nature, who would try to do the right thing on the court, even though he is certainly more conservative than I am, and who I think in the end will probably be less partisan than his predecessor, Chief Justice Rehnquist.

So I thought it was the best possible scenario for the future of progressive concerns. I may be wrong. But that was my judgment and I think people who wanted a different choice than Roberts would have found out they got something worse.

What is your take on Miers?

I am puzzled. I don't really understand. I will need to be convinced that this is a person who is of the highest standing, who is qualified, in the first place, for the Supreme Court. Secondly, I am really troubled by the notion that her qualification is that she has a close personal relationship with the president. That strikes me as the opposite of the independence and objectivity that I actually admired with Roberts.

You spoke out against the 527 groups in 2004. Democrats historically have depended much more on these large checks, whether it is through 527s or soft money. If the 527 loophole is closed before 2008, do you think it really handicaps the Democratic nominee?

Yeah, everybody says that to ban soft money would be devastating to Democrats. Even Terry McAuliffe has admitted it did just the opposite. We broadened our base of supporters. It basically returned us to being something of the party of the people. The 527s, I think, were a negative for Democrats. I don't think they helped us. I think, on balance, the whole Swift Boat thing was devastating to John Kerry. These groups are just cheating. It's current law, under the 1974 law, not the McCain-Feingold bill, that they should not be able to do this. So I think we would be much better off having a clean message driven by the party and the candidates, rather than these groups. You know, frankly, they run ads sometimes that are obnoxious in terms of not showing Democrats to be respectful and I think that hurts us.

The Swift Boat group was obviously the most effective for the money. But a lot of the big money was going into get-out-the-vote groups on the left and the advertising groups on the left. Do you think those hurt John Kerry's candidacy?

My sense was that that kind of activity was not what was effective. It was the party. It was the organized work that was done in coordination between the state parties and the federal parties and the candidates.

There is a theory in Washington that the Democratic Party is divided between insiders and outsiders, the conventional leadership of the party and the outside activists like bloggers. Do you buy into that?

I think there is a problem with it. I don't know if there is a severe divide, but it is something we need to overcome. I think there are a lot of efforts being made by Democratic senators who have awakened to the reality.

What is the problem that you see?

Well, I think what Democratic senators are beginning to realize is that there is a tremendous potential base of support out there that is represented by the blogs and some elements of the Green Party and especially among young people, who the party has not done a very good job of appealing to. Certain votes that I have taken have caused me to have a lot of exposure to these individuals and groups. I just saw what it meant to people that a Democrat stood up on the USA Patriot Act, that Democrats voted against the Iraq war. This is the key to bringing in people who are looking for strong, alternative leadership to the Bush administration.

We have an opening. We have an opportunity here. Republicans brilliantly figured out before we did direct mail and a number of other things that led to the Reagan revolution and the Contract With America. We have an opportunity here to, I think, be the ones who do a better job with the Internet, with the blogosphere, with the unbelievably democratic, with a little d, opportunities that this all presents. This is a sea change in American politics, giving the average person an opportunity to participate in this exciting, real-time way with the political process. I think we are better positioned to take advantage of that.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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Russell D. Feingold