WASHINGTON -- America has largely turned its focus away from foreign policy and civil liberties since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, according to a new book by former Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold. This shift inward, he argues, can be seen everywhere: in the Tea Party, among progressive activists and in elected officials. But the problem -- and its potentially dire consequences -- can perhaps be seen most clearly in the 2012 presidential campaign.
In an interview about the book, "While America Sleeps," Feingold lamented the GOP presidential candidates' lack of discussion and knowledge of foreign policy.
"To me, the gap between President Obama and these people [the GOP candidates] is so enormous that it's a threat to our country to elect people who take such a silly view of the rest of the world," he told The Huffington Post.
Feingold pointed to former presidential candidate Herman Cain's pronouncement that he didn't know the president of Uzbekistan -- which he called "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" -- and that he considered the country "small and insignificant."
"He made fun of a nation that is actually a critical nation," said Feingold. "It is the nation to the north of Afghanistan and Pakistan. When we're having trouble with Pakistan, we want to go through Uzbekistan to get our things to our troops in Afghanistan. But the trouble is, Uzbekistan is basically run by a guy who is a Stalinist dictator."
"I actually analyzed the two Republican debates on foreign policy and just counted up how many times they mentioned various countries," he added. "Well, they never mentioned Somalia once. This is a place where al Shabaab is operating. It was an Al Qaeda chapter. It was a place where Al Qaeda has had a place for some time, and it's a critical location. They mentioned Yemen once."
"They are dumbing down foreign policy to slogans," Feingold said. "Of course, the slogans they use are, 'The president is always apologizing for America,' or, 'Do you or do you not believe in American exceptionalism?' That's what they're offering the country in place of real policy."
Feingold goes hard after the concept of American exceptionalism in the book. The term is popular among the GOP presidential candidates, with everything from God to the U.S. space program being touted as an example of this exceptionalism.
"The notion of American exceptionalism is effective in part because there is little on the face of it that is offensive," writes Feingold, adding, "The conservative version of American exceptionalism has become a password of sorts for candidates who want to prove their credentials to a right-wing America."
The problem with the concept, argues Feingold, is that while it may be popular domestically, it could hurt the country internationally.
"The foolishness of constantly shoving the term American exceptionalism in the faces of other peoples of the world seems as obvious as when a child is told by its mother or a teacher that it is not nice to brag and that other people won't like you if you do. ... We are an exceptional nation and I expect we will continue to be the leading nation in the world. But we are less likely to remain in that position if we wake up only briefly from our slumbers to shout, 'We're number one!' and then go back to sleep," he writes.
Andrea Saul, press secretary for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's campaign, responded to Feingold's comments by saying that Obama's foreign policy was what was putting the country at risk.
"President Obama’s feckless foreign policy has emboldened our adversaries, weakened ties with our allies, and threatens to break faith with our military," she wrote in a statement to The Huffington Post. "His naïve approach to Iran has allowed the ayatollahs to come to the brink of a nuclear weapon. He has repeatedly thrown Israel under the bus. And his failure to show any kind of leadership during budget negotiations promises to saddle our military with a trillion dollars in defense cuts that his own Secretary of Defense has called 'devastating.'"
The campaigns of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) did not return requests for comment.
As a senator from Wisconsin, Feingold often trod his own path, remaining separate from his party. Similarly, in his book, Feingold does not spare his fellow Democrats or President Obama from criticism, although he does praise the president for much of what he's done on foreign policy.
"To whatever extent the Bush abuses aroused the American left, progressives, parts of the Democratic Party, and, most interestingly, parts of the conservative movement, Americans have metaphorically gone back to sleep when it comes to constitutional intrusions in the name of fighting terrorism," writes Feingold. "Criticism of Obama's failure to change much of this has been much muted on the American left, embarrassingly so, given the powerful complaints that came from those quarters during the Bush years."
Where Feingold would like to see progressives pick up the ball again is in the area of civil liberties -- specifically in stopping the use of the so-called state secrets privilege, objecting to indefinite detention and other provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act and closing Guantanamo Bay.
Feingold told The Huffington Post that as a senator, Obama was strong on civil liberties. But as president, "there is a feeling that that area hasn't gone so well."
"It's one thing if the Bush actions with regard to civil liberties are sort of an outlier. It's far more dangerous if it becomes reaffirmed under a progressive president like President Obama. It sort of gets cemented in," he said. "So progressives need to urge the president to pick up his game on civil liberties both now and in his second term, which I expect he'll get. I'm really hoping that will happen. We cannot let this area simply fade."
Feingold hopes his book will serve as a wake-up call to the nation to focus more on international affairs, including beyond a couple of hot spots in the Middle East. Otherwise, America could face disaster.
Feingold argues there are three reasons for the diminished focus on foreign affairs. First, it has been America's default position to focus inward for more than 200 years. Second, the rough U.S. economy has understandably monopolized people's attention.
"But we need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time," he argued. "We can't ignore the rest of the world as we deal with our economic problems here, because they're interrelated. And what happens in the rest of the world will have a great impact on us domestically."
The third reason, he told The Huffington Post, is the most troubling: "manipulation" of the debate by the right.
"The Tea Party and the right specifically chose not to talk about social issues -- the guns, god and gays. Everybody knows they ruled that out. They didn't want to get into that," he said. "But what they also did was rule out talking about the world in a serous way. They didn't want to own what Bush had done, and now they don't want to own the fact that the president has had some significant successes and that he's shown some real ability to reach out to the rest of the world in his Cairo speech, his visits to India and Indonesia. They don't want to admit that he's actually a president who's very good for improving our relations with the rest of the world."
"For all of these reasons, we have, in my view, basically gone to sleep," he added. "And we're ready to get a big, bad surprise again, just like we did on Sept. 11, 2001."
In his book, which comes out on Tuesday, Feingold also details his experience in Washington on 9/11 and the months that followed, as America struggled to respond to the crisis.
The former senator currently spends his time running his political action committee, Progressives United, and serving as a "Distinguished Visitor" at Stanford University's Haas Center for Public Service. In August, he ruled out running for office in the 2012 election cycle.