The United States Senate is our version of a house of lords, where time slows down in the name of a "deliberative process" even when the world seems on fire to the ordinary eye.
And so the other day, with concern about Afghanistan rising, with American troops dying at record rates, with the U.S.-supported Kabul regime in tatters, it was typical of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to declare that "the thing I'm going to do and recommend to my caucus is let's just take it easy. I'm going to wait until the president makes up his mind as to what he thinks should be done."
Then there is Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold. By everyday standards, he is a cautious person, calling for a "flexible timetable" for American troop withdrawals but also for "continued strikes on Taliban and al-Qaida leaders." Sounds like an uncertain trumpet. But in the culture of the Senate, Feingold is considered downright hyperactive, often accused of being a loner who doesn't play well with the senior oligarchs.
The truth is that Feingold has learned to play the Senate game when it comes to new proposals. Like chess, when a single senator moves, other senators follow or readjust. That's what is happening. Not a single senator had spoken out against the war until Feingold said in an Aug. 24 interview in Appleton that the U.S. should consider a flexible timetable.
Feingold amplified his views in a September 17 interview I held with him, asserting that he will vote against any troop escalation, "unless I hear some very different arguments than what I've already heard." He also will vote against the coming defense authorization bill if it "follows down this misguided path." He said he might offer amendments to the bill, perhaps on the timetable.
Feingold's timetable proposal triggered a stampede, or at least a crawl, to the microphones. Sen. Carl Levin said an increase of U.S. troops should be delayed for one year, proposing a buildup of Afghan troops instead. Sen. John Kerry said he was rethinking Afghanistan. So did senators Dianne Feinstein, Barbara Boxer, Robert Casey, Sherrod Brown, and Bernie Sanders. Speaker Nancy Pelosi opined that votes for another year of war might not be there in the House.
That was a pretty fast response for a senator the critics describe as isolated. The label is perhaps the price Feingold pays for being prematurely right.
We have been here before. In 2005, Feingold was the first senator to propose a specific withdrawal deadline of one-year from Iraq. I wrote at the time that his suggestion, while too modest, was a "brave departure from the ice house of the Senate." By 2006, Feingold was joined by 13 senators on his withdrawal proposal and had prompted a proposal from Levin for a more gradual phased withdrawal. By July 2007, Reid had joined the entire Democratic Senate bloc in supporting an amendment to phase out the U.S. occupation.
Feingold now stands in a Democratic tradition that includes Sens. Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Robert F. Kennedy, all the way back to Wisconsin's Sen. Robert LaFollette. The major difference is that those recent Democratic candidates were running for president in the wake of a passionate "dump Johnson" movement, whereas the challenge for Feingold and other Democrats today is to dump the Afghanistan war without dumping President Barack Obama and the party's congressional majorities.
Military leaders and Republicans are sure to weigh in that they see "light at the end of the tunnel." Feingold has tried to armor himself with the argument that America is becoming weaker in the war against al-Qaida as long as it occupies Afghanistan. As for firing drones into Pakistan, he told me, "We will always reserve the right to act in the national security interests of the American people including targeting al-Qaida and Taliban leadership." Civilian casualties, he argues, can best be avoided "if we reduce our military footprint in that country."
The conflict is intensifying. Seventy percent of Democrats oppose the war. Wisconsin Rep. David Obey, the House appropriations chair, has given the president one year to show progress or face funding cuts. The Pentagon and national security hawks argue that there must be 18 to 24 months of "hard fighting" followed by 10 to 12 years of continued nation-building. At the present rate, that means 1,100 more American soldiers will die in Afghanistan by the end of 2011, as Obama faces re-election. More than 700 died during the Bush presidency. Although budget figures are foggy, Afghanistan is likely to become another $1 trillion war over a two-term Obama presidency.
That's why the Democrats already are facing a voter mandate, similar to those in 2006 and 2008, to somehow end the war and turn to more urgent priorities on the home front.
Feingold could be the Gene McCarthy of our time, though one seeking to end a war to save a presidency, not the other way around. But his inherent caution could leave the anti-war public wanting a bolder leadership. A flexible timetable is a talking point, not a proposal. The further use of Predators is likely to inflame anti-American sentiment to the benefit of insurgents. Why he lumps al-Qaida with the Taliban will need clarification.
The opening for Feingold may lie in the utter collapse of the Kabul government, a Humpty Dumpty that all the king's men will not be able to put back together with any legitimacy. Having failed to produce a credible client in Kabul, it could be time for the U.S. to launch all-party talks, including the Taliban and regional powers, in a diplomatic surge to stabilize Afghanistan.
What Feingold needs to define is a face-saving exit strategy to complement his proposal for a troop withdrawal. For now, he only says he is "concerned" and "closely monitoring" the mounting evidence of fraud in Kabul, which could leave the United States without a partner that Americans - not to mention Afghans - can believe in.
Tom Hayden is the author of 17 books, a former California state senator and a longtime peace activist.
Originally published in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Republished with the author's permission.