Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), a former CIA case officer and one of a bevy of national security-savvy freshmen Democrats, took to the House floor last Tuesday as part of a bipartisan group from the House Foreign Affairs Committee speaking on the role of the United States in the world and its failure to exercise global leadership in the novel coronavirus pandemic. In those remarks, she noted: “The covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated that infectious diseases know no borders.” Moreover, the pandemic cannot be solved only inside U.S. borders. “No matter how successful we are in fighting the threat of covid-19 at home, we will not end the suffering and fear created by the virus unless we also combat it around the world,” she said.

In a phone interview Monday morning, Spanberger expanded on her view that we are dangerously abdicating U.S. leadership. “We are not filling that role in this crisis. As we are assigning blame to China, we are ceding ground to China,” she said. In pointing fingers at China and trying to deflect blame, the administration is acting as if we had the expectation to receive candid and complete information from China. The “expectation that China would be extremely forthright” was foolish given China’s well-known propensity to hide bad information and exaggerate its successes (e.g. lying about its GDP), Spanberger argued.

The lack of trust in China is precisely why we had the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Predict program, which worked in 31 countries, including China, to monitor potential pandemics. This was one of the key tools to “contend with the fact that we aren’t going to get truthful information,” Spanberger said, but field work ceased when funding ran out in the fall. We shut down our eyes and ears on the ground and now complain China was not candid. While China was not forthcoming, the blame-China crowd seems to want to use that as an excuse to explain our own weak response. (She pointed to the irony that the “American exceptionalism” crowd now complains we are at the mercy of China to protect us against threats.)

And when we walk away from the World Health Organization, we leave China to backfill, gaining greater prestige and extending other countries’ dependence on the regime. Spanberger argued this amounts to “walking away from the game,” which only diminishes U.S. influence in the world.

Spanberger also pointed to ways in which we have made ourselves more dependent on China. “We don’t depend on other countries to keep our armed services equipped,” she said. However, when it comes to protective equipment, the components of prescription medicines and finished pharmaceuticals, we are largely dependent on China. She sees bipartisan efforts in Congress underway to address the issue so that in the next crisis we are not at the mercy of foreign supply chains to fight a pandemic at home.

Spanberger is also concerned with the way the administration has politicized intelligence and tried to blame the intelligence service for its failure to prepare for the virus: “What this administration has done is attack an agency that cannot [publicly] defend itself.” From all appearances, the failure here was in the White House, not the intelligence community. It’s called covid-19 for a reason, she points out; it was discovered in fall 2019.

Indeed, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Robert Redfield, spoke to his counterpart in China in January and immediately contacted Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to alert him to the danger of an international pandemic. We know Azar’s chief of staff was enlisted to warn the National Security Council and that warnings about the pandemic began appearing in the president’s daily briefing in January. The issue, Spanberger said, was not that the intelligence community was not sending up a red flag. It comes down to “how the administration chooses to react.”

In seizing on unfounded rumors that the virus was created in a Wuhan lab, Trump “wants to politicize what is or isn’t intelligence,” Spanberger argued. That, in turn, damages relations with allies as they see us going down one rabbit hole after another. She added, “How do career diplomatic officials sit across the table from allies when the U.S. president is saying it’s a ‘hoax’ or a ‘miracle cure’ will come?” Soon, they learn not to listen to or depend on what the U.S. government says.

Spanberger is optimistic that the intelligence community can snap back from the assaults on its integrity and professionalism from the Trump administration. “The resiliency of the workforce committed to a mission goes beyond a particular president,” she said. As for the damage to U.S. leadership on the world stage, Spanberger thinks it will take hard work and “humility” from the next president. In concert with the executive branch, “there has to be a place where Congress and people on both sides of the aisle are part of the message.”

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