Wednesday Q+A With Abigail Spanberger

The freshman congresswoman, a former CIA operative, on Syria, Iran, and the new balance of power.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Jan. 22, 2019, 8 p.m.

During her time at the CIA, Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia collected intelligence for diplomats and policymakers back in Washington. Now a decision-maker herself on the influential Foreign Affairs Committee, Spanberger spoke to Harrison Cramer about how to shape foreign policy from the other side.

How do you get the public to care about American foreign policy in an era of rising protectionism and isolationism?

It’s as simple as discussing the impact foreign policy has on a district like mine. We have entered into a trade war with China and antagonized many of our partner countries through our tariffs. We have farmers in my district … that are monumentally impacted by those tariffs, so much so that ultimately we had to have a $12 billion bailout. Many people understand and are concerned about the terrorism threat, or drugs trafficked across the border and through our ports of entry. At the root, these are stabilization issues, regional issues that impact the United States. … All of these issues—the threat of terrorism here on the homeland, or the threat of drugs, or even our farmers’ ability to sell their soybeans—[each] feels like a domestic issue, [but] as soon as you tease it out, it all goes back to what our role is in the world, how we are engaging with our partner countries and potentially more adversarial ones.

What do you make of the Trump administration’s Syria policy?

The most important question that hasn’t been asked is what our goal is. … This is symptomatic of a larger issue, which is this willingness to have knee-jerk, politically driven foreign policy initiatives, pushed out via Twitter, via press conferences, without engaging the resources that exist in terms of our military, our intelligence community, [and] our partner nations. First and foremost what’s been missing from the conversation is what we hope to achieve. You can’t make good policy if you don’t know what it is you’re trying to work toward. And particularly when it comes to foreign policy, because there are so many factors, so many players involved, there are so many outcomes that will arise … and if you don’t walk through all of those contingencies and all of the possibilities, it is a recipe for disaster because you’re going to miss something.

That’s something you’ll ask on the House Foreign Affairs Committee—what our objectives are?

I anticipate asking those questions. How people react to that constant nagging question remains to be seen.

It’s also difficult because Trump could abruptly change course, or undermine the official delivering his policy.

And that’s a separate challenge. How do you function in a foreign policy realm with an administration that has demonstrated time and time again that they perhaps don’t value foreign policy expertise, foreign policy knowledge, the difficulty of maintaining our international relations? Under any circumstances these questions are hard … but [particularly] in a place where our partner nations recognize ... that we’re working with an administration that perhaps doesn’t value them the way that prior administrations did.

But if it’s difficult for Mike Pompeo and John Bolton to communicate our foreign policy, why should our allies care what Congress thinks?

We’re a coequal branch of government. We’re a separate branch of government, and we can stand firm in advocating for things that are important. For example, I was just a cosponsor of the bipartisan NATO Support Act. This is an example where the Congress can say, regardless of what might be coming out on Twitter … members of Congress, many of whom have been here for years and many of whom will be here for years into the future, recognize and value the alliance and what NATO brings us.

Those aides, Bolton and Pompeo, hold quite hawkish positions on Iran. Are you concerned that the United States and Iran will stumble into a conflict?

I’m concerned that the United States is not relying in an effective way on the strength of the intelligence community, on the strength of the diplomatic community, to answer some of the most pressing questions related to what the threat is, or is not, from Iran. Evidence of that is the decision to pull out of the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. For any administration that is concerned by the threat of a nuclear Iran, the first goal should be to ensure that we are doing everything possible to reduce the threat of a nuclear Iran. And so the fact that the administration would have walked away from a deal that took months and months to put in place, was based on well-sourced intelligence, was a deal that was made in a multilateral basis, and by all accounts was working—to walk away from that goal was the wrong choice, and at odds with the administration’s assertion that they are fearful of, or concerned about, what the Iranian regime is or isn’t doing.

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