Times like this are when we truly miss Russ Feingold in the US Senate. He ran the key subcommittee on Africa on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, so he has expertise on the various countries experiencing uprisings right now. And he brings a moral authority to the conversation, one which few others can. Feingold actually wrote a resolution calling on Egypt to end its civil liberties and human rights abuses in the last Congress, well before the current protests. He released a statement last night that speaks to the wrongheaded nature of US foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.

“No longer can we as a nation look the other way when ‘stable’ dictators sacrifice human rights and freedoms in the name of security,” Feingold said in statement. “This is a recipe for failure. The United States must engage with the people of Egypt to understand the hopes they have for their country, and then the U.S. can play a constructive role in helping Egypt achieve its goals.”

Feingold also praised President Obama’s recent calls for Mubarak to step down immediately.

“I am pleased that President Obama has been direct and critical in his comments to President Mubarak, who should certainly step down and participate in a peaceful transition to a democratic civil society which respects the rule of law,” Feingold said.

The situation in Egypt is finally beginning a long-overdue discussion in the US, which is our support for so-called “benign” dictators around the world. For too long we had a Mubarak policy in Egypt, rather than an Egypt policy. And this is true for many countries around the world. As long as the political leadership in a particular country can give the US basing rights, or ensure the smooth passage of oil through their waters, or work to fight extremists, we accept them, regardless of how they treat their citizens. This is no longer tenable, and it’s something Feingold has been talking about, not just now, but for many years.

Very serious foreign policy analysts talk about national security interests, and how they cannot be solely based on human rights. However, at this stage, standing on the side of local populations does improve US national security. An oppressed and alienated and poor society is easy prey for the likes of Al Qaeda. We do more damage to national security by propping up leaders that have no consent from their people than almost anything else. It sows as much hatred for the United States as it does for the dictators.

Our best foreign policy option is to stop this incessant meddling in the internal affairs of other countries. However, if we’re going to provide foreign aid, if we’re going to engage with the world, we’d damn well better do it in a way that doesn’t alienate the very people we’re trying to curry favor with.

Oh, and respect for human rights and civil liberties should begin at home, too.