“Putin and Russia are at war with the western free world,” said Dan Ward, congressional primary candidate for Richmond’s 7th District, who didn’t mince words when discussing the challenges the US faces abroad. “Putin’s biggest fear is losing power, like all despots.”
Ward is not your usual Democratic contender in Richmond, let alone Virginia. A former Colonel in the Marine Corps, Ward was a fighter pilot who flew combat missions over Iraq, Bosnia, and Kosovo, before joining the State Department to work on cooperative defense programs in Syria and Ukraine.
The primary for the Democratic Party nominee in Virginia’s 7th District is unique this year, least of all because of the foreign policy credentials of the two main challengers. Ward’s main opponent in the primary is former CIA agent, Abagail Spanburger. Nonetheless, the contest to unseat incumbent Republican Dave Brat is one of the races to watch nationally in this year’s mid-term elections.
He is a yes man for this administration, period,” Ward quickly pointed out, when speaking about Brat. “He is more focused on working for Wall Street, corporations, and PACs then he is in doing anything for the state.
While all politics is inherently local, the time spent overseas by both candidates cannot go unnoticed, more so as US foreign policy remains in constant flux under President Trump. The challenges the US faces abroad are vast and run the global spectrum including Russia, North Korea, Iran, rising nationalism and nativism, chemical weapons usage in Syria, and a resurgent China. For a variety of reasons, this is what makes the Democratic Primary race in the 7th District so interesting.
Given these complexities, RVA Mag wanted to catch up with Ward and talk about some of these foreign policy challenges and how he assesses the strategic chessboard. When asked if he sees himself as a foreign policy candidate, he answered with a quick and confident, “for sure”.
Yet where does one begin in measuring the successes and failures of the great game between nations? It didn’t take long to find out where this should be. “It all starts with Russia,” Ward answered.
“Putin’s biggest fear is losing power,” said Ward. “How do they maintain power? By destabilizing everything around him, and all of a sudden it [Russia] looks fairly secure.” This is something The German Marshall Fund of the United States was quick to appraise in August last year when they put out an assessment saying, “Russia is seeking to gain relative strength on the world stage by weakening other states through cheap, asymmetric tools.”
Facebook and various social media platforms were obviously part of the asymmetric toolbox. Another assessment by the same think-tank also stated that since 2004, Russia has meddled in the politics of at least 27 other countries.
However, one cannot talk about Russia without talking about Syria and the connections between the two. Working for then Secretary of State John Kerry on cooperative defense initiatives for Syria gave Ward an insider’s perspective on the seven-year civil war. He offered both praise and criticism for President Obama’s handling of the conflict. “My biggest criticism of President Obama was his intense desire to focus everything domestically.”
Ward went on to articulate the dilemma every foreign policy professional faces when trying to balance the needs of domestic and international policy. “The world continues to move…and Syria was the place that we could not allow to explode because of its location and demographic makeup.”
Despite the current conditions surrounding the conflict, the US was heavily invested in providing non-lethal support during the early stages of the revolution. “From the State Department side, I was part of a logistics support program,” said Ward, when talking about his diplomatic role in providing supplies to groups like the Free Syrian Army.
When asked about the outcome of those programs, Ward said prosaically, “Then the red-line incident happened;” referring to the now infamous “red-line” speech on chemical weapons that Obama failed to enforce after a sarin gas attack left 1,400 dead in 2013. “We walked into the office the next day and started to pack our stuff up, we [the administration] lost our credibility.”
Credibility was a topic not far from the current discussion on foreign policy. Trump’s handling of US foreign relations has been suspect from the start, more so as policy is conducted via Twitter. When asked how the US mitigates these complex challenges, Ward started by saying the US needed a president who was up for the challenge. “If we had a president that we knew was on the up and up, we would be working with our partners to come up with a response.”
On the campaign trail, Ward says that he talks about the “assault” on the rule of law from bad-actors like Russia and how the lack of effective policy has affected the US standing globally. “The damage that he [Trump] is doing to our foreign policy is a long-term [issue], even if he is not there long term.” Of the possible solutions to current foreign policy challenges that Ward “110 percent” supports is the transfer of authority for the use of military force back to Congress – a policy currently being championed by Sen. Tim Kaine.
“It is time for Congress to be the political branch of government they are supposed to be,” said Ward, adding that legislators have abdicated their responsibility and the executive branch has filled that role.
Regardless of what is happening abroad, the contest for Virginia’s 7th District will ultimately come down to two very different visions of what Virginia’s role should be nationally. “Republicans cannot win an election on issues, they have to have a single issue to campaign on,” said Ward in closing. “I don’t think Republicans have the moral courage to stand-up to this President. It takes moral courage to stand-up and say, ‘no’ when you know you are going to lose your seat.”