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NATO's Work Is Invaluable, Secretary Of State Pompeo Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a reminder this morning of the central role of NATO in a long-running war. The war is in Afghanistan. And in the area where NATO has its headquarters in Kabul, a bomb exploded today. There are also embassies nearby. It's described as a suicide blast that killed at least 25 people, and the Afghan branch of the Islamic State claimed responsibility. That event is the beginning of our discussion with Kay Bailey Hutchison, the United States ambassador to NATO, who's had a busy few days. She's on the line. Ambassador, welcome to the program.

KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: How strong is the European commitment to Afghanistan, where, of course, U.S. troops are still committed?

HUTCHISON: Of course. Steve, we in NATO have a mission in Afghanistan, and it is to train and advise the Afghan soldiers who are in the field trying to get security for their country and rid the country of terrorists. Of course, this is the fighting season, and we knew that it had just begun. And the Taliban has been very active there, but the last two major atrocities have been ISIS. And this is very troubling. But we are very committed to staying the course. And the Taliban and ISIS need to know that we are not leaving, that we want a stability in Afghanistan so that terrorist groups cannot filter into Europe and into the United States fomenting and growing and strengthening in Afghanistan. That is our mission.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about a couple of other parts of the mission. I know that you just saw your new boss, the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, who traveled to Brussels as a first stop after being confirmed last week. He's since gone on, as we've been reporting, to Israel and to Jordan. He's been a busy guy. And I saw a comment that he made in Brussels, and it was interesting, Ambassador, because it's the kind of routine thing that any official would say at the beginning of public remarks - I was sworn in yesterday afternoon. I hopped on a plane and came straight here. There's good reason for that. The work that's being done here today is invaluable, and our objectives are important, and this mission means a lot to the United States of America.

Routine comments - but simply because they were routine in saying that NATO was important, it already sounded like a change of tone from some things the president has said in the past about NATO.

HUTCHISON: I think that's why he jumped on the plane and rode all night and arrived here at 4 in the morning and was at a meeting at 8. He wanted there to be no question in anyone's mind - any of our 28 allies with whom we formed the NATO alliance - that NATO is the strongest and best security alliance in the history of the world. America is committed to continuing to be the mainstay and the leader of NATO. And we are doing a lot of good, and we're strengthening our deterrence now, deterrence of Russia as well as Afghanistan.

INSKEEP: Two things to ask about that - first, how are NATO countries doing it boosting their defense budgets, which is something that the last two presidents actually have asked for?

HUTCHISON: We are going in the right direction. Every NATO country is now increasing its defense budgets. And I think the president's call for that has been a major factor in seeing an increase. We have eight who have made the 2 percent goal. We have - all but 13 have a plan to get to 2 percent. And the 13 are being encouraged to come forward by the summit this summer with a plan to reach the 2 percent.

INSKEEP: Two percent we should explain for people because that's 2 percent of a GDP for defense spending, is what you're talking about.

HUTCHISON: Yes. And it's important to know that this is not just a number. Part of being in NATO is that you can defend yourself, that you have a strong enough defense budget and the capabilities to buy the airplanes and the arms to be able to defend yourself. That is beginning to now build up so that we not only have stronger countries with better defenses, but we also now are seeing the capability become interoperable across the alliance so that Russia is getting the message that we are going to deter further aggression by Russia into Europe.

INSKEEP: That was my other question about Russia. I'm glad you brought it back up. As many people will know, the U.S. recently expelled 60 Russian diplomats. This was after a nerve agent - apparent nerve agent attack in Britain that was linked to Russia. So the United States took strong action, but The Washington Post afterward reported that the president was upset, that it was apparently a miscommunication. He didn't realize the United States was actually going to go that far and was actually mad. Now, I don't know that you can confirm that report, but can you tell me that the president of the United States is really willing to seriously confront Russia?

HUTCHISON: Oh, I think the president has shown very clearly that he is willing to do what is necessary to send the message to Russia that they need to stop their hybrid warfare, their cyberattacks, not complying with the INF Treaty. What they did in the UK crossed a line of a nerve agent being used in one of our neighbor countries. And they're also not being helpful in Syria and in North Korea. And I think the strong message is coming out of this administration and certainly NATO, as well, that we are not going to stand by and let Russia continue to have a malign influence within our alliance and in the world and get by with it. And I think the signal's strong.

INSKEEP: Just a few seconds left, Ambassador - I want to ask about the Iran nuclear deal because Secretary of State Pompeo was talking about it a lot. The president is near a decision to back out or try to improve it. In a few seconds, have the allies you've spoken with resigned themselves to the possibility this deal could be dead?

HUTCHISON: I think everyone in the alliance is hoping that we can get some concessions so that we know that Iran is not going to have a nuclear weapon in the future at all - not just a 10-year window, but the future at all. And that is what is trying to be brought back. The European countries must make this deal with Iran. They've got to understand that it will affect Iran and their economy if they don't come forward with some more effort.

INSKEEP: Ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchison, pleasure talking with you. Thanks very much.

HUTCHISON: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.