June 25, 2019: Press Briefing with Kay Bailey Hutchison

Kay Bailey Hutchison

U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO

Press Briefing

June 25, 2019

 

Ambassador Hutchison:  Hello, everyone.  I know you’ve just had the Secretary General, and I saw some of his press conference, and I see you reserved all the tough questions for me.

Let me first say that I’m very pleased to be able to welcome our designated Acting Secretary of Defense Mark Esper.  Mark just, I know most of you know his background, but I think he comes to the position with so much experience that will allow him to hit the ground running.  And I think he is already doing that.

He had a choice after just a few days on the job to say that someone else could take this ministerial this week and he said, “No.  I want to come.  I know the importance to our NATO allies that I am there.”  So he is coming, and he’s going to be a full participant.

I’ve known him since he was the security advisor for the Majority Leader of the Senate and with whom I served, Bill Frist, and he’s also a West Point graduate, as you know.  He served in active duty for ten years, and then another ten years in Reserves.  He has served in Europe.  He’s been in NATO missions.  So I think he will come with all of the background and experience to be a very good Secretary of Defense when he is nominated, and I believe that he will be, and I believe that he will be confirmed, and we certainly will welcome him and appreciate the efforts he’s making to be able to come here.

I think the SecGen laid out the priorities here.  I will talk about our priorities a little bit, and also let you know that our Acting Secretary will be reporting on many of these areas.  Most certainly defense investment.  That is a commitment that was highlighted at our last Foreign Ministerial, our last Defense Ministerial, and indeed the Summit, and we are making progress.  We are now on a trajectory of increased spending by all of our allies, and that is going to be very important.

There’s no question that we’re not just talking about two percent.  We’re talking about being ready to deter and defend against an adversary that is very well funded and very malign.

We also have other areas of interest besides Russia.  We have counterterrorism, which we will also discuss.  There will be an RSM, our Afghanistan Mission with partners, that we’ll have a full discussion.  Our Acting Secretary will take part in that as well as the general who is in charge of our Afghan forces in Afghanistan.  He will be there as well to brief our Ministers.

So we are going to be talking about deterrence and defense as well as defense investment and the importance that all of our allies keep up that momentum on spending, and we will be talking about counterterrorism as it relates to Afghanistan.

And of course all of you know that Ambassador Khalilzad is working very hard on a peace negotiation that we hope will come as soon as possible, but these things are not quick.  They’re not easy.  But I think he’s making great progress, and we’re all very supportive of the peace initiative.

The INF Treaty will certainly be a part of our discussions.  As all of you know, NATO is very unified in calling Russia back to the table to comply with the INF Treaty.  We have given Russia over five years – the United States has – and NATO has for several years said we know you are not in compliance.  We have evidence that you are violating the INF Treaty, and the time finally came last fall when the United States said we can no longer see what Russia is doing and not prepare a defense.  And that is what we announced that we would do in February, and we are now in the six-month period which ends in August, giving Russia a chance, one more time, to come back into compliance.

But I think the Deputy Foreign Minister of Russia [Ryabkov] said in the United States very recently that the chances are very slim that Russia will come back into compliance, so we are beginning to prepare in the United States for that eventuality, and most certainly with our NATO allies and partners to assure that we do not have a threat from Russia going forward.

I think the SecGen covered the new space policy that will be agreed to and looked at by our Defense Ministers.  This is new.  Most certainly we are seeing more and more activity in space, defense capabilities building up in space, and the United States most certainly wants to be ready, prepared, and able to see what is out there and assess the risk and then be able to defend against it.

NATO, of course, would be an ally in that effort to assure that we know what is going on in space and have the capability to deter.

I think that covers some of the major things, and I’m certainly open to questions on our positions on other things.

Question:  Michael [Peel], Financial Times.

Ambassador, you spoke about, and the Secretary General did about the debate that allies will have over possible responses if Russia does not come into compliance by August 2nd with the INF Treaty.  Can you just outline some of those possible responses?  What’s under consideration at the moment, please?  Thank you.

Ambassador Hutchison:  Yes.  As we have said before, America has strenuously stayed in compliance all during the time that we have seen Russia building these violating systems.  So we do not have the defense yet.  We don’t have exactly what we’re going to do yet.  But when we announced our suspension of compliance in February we did start the beginning of the research and development that would be necessary.

I think all options are on the table except to say that we are looking at conventional systems for our defense capabilities.  And so I think that was important for our allies to know, our European allies.  But beyond that, there’s not been any testing or any final decision on exactly what kind of defense we would prepare for all of the missiles that we know Russia has.

Question:  Ambassador, thank you very much.  This is Abdullah from 1TV in Afghanistan.  I’ve got two questions.

My first question is regarding the recent visit of the Pakistani Foreign Ministers here.  Shall we expect like any strategic shift considering the new development in peace process in Afghanistan from Pakistan first, and serious support for the peace process?

My second question is regarding the recent, just few minutes ago Secretary General expressed his concerns regarding the destabilizing role of Iran in the region and beyond.  On the eve of the current peace process in Afghanistan, do you think that Iran may play a role as a spoiler?  And is there any potential for such things?  Thank you.

Ambassador Hutchison:  Those are very good questions.  There’s no question that we are trying to bring the regional actors in with us into a peace process because it will be important for all of the neighboring countries and the countries that have interests there to be a part of this.

We believe that Pakistan can be an important influence.  There have been meetings between the Afghan government and Pakistan.  And it is important that there be a unified effort to stabilize Afghanistan by Pakistan, by Iran, by India, by Russia, by China.  All of these are potential players that we hope will be positive.

Will Iran be positive?  We don’t know.  They have not been helpful so far, but we do hope that that will change.  As you know, there are tensions right now between our country and Iran, and we hope very much to be able to solve those issues diplomatically.  I think America has shown every intent to do that.

At the same time we have the Afghan peace talks that are trying to bring in all of the parties, and it will be important, regardless of other issues that we might bilaterally have, that everyone, it is in everyone’s best interest for Afghanistan to be stabilized.  It’s in every regional interest that Afghanistan be able to prosper and grow an economy so that their people have a quality of life, so that terrorism is not fomented or in any way built or recruited or trained in Afghanistan.  That is the first priority that we have in the peace agreements, and that will be an absolute necessity before any kind of peace negotiation is finished.

Question:   Thank you.  David Wade from FP .  Good morning, Ambassador.

Just continuing with the Iran theme, did the United States inform NATO that it was considering retaliatory airstrikes against Iran last week?

Secondly, do you foresee any potential role for NATO in the Gulf, offering security to tankers or anything like that?  Thank you.

Ambassador Hutchison:  I don’t think that NATO per se is looking at being a part of the efforts that are being made right now, but certainly many of our partners, our allies in NATO are certainly being consulted, certainly being advised, and certainly being kept abreast of the situation.

It is in everyone’s interest that there be free passage in the Straits of Hormuz.  Many of our allies rely upon that to happen, so that they have oil that comes from other countries in the region.  So we believe that consultation has occurred in various ways, and we certainly have been transparent in our efforts to try to stop Iran from doing what they have done that will affect navigation and commerce and legitimate efforts and access into that whole region.  So yes, we’ve consulted in a number of ways, and I think we will continue and we will have support.

Remember the first two ships that have been attacked were owned by a NATO ally and a NATO partner.  So we’re consulting, we’re trying to be good stewards of diplomacy.  And that will continue.

Question:  [Inaudible], North Macedonia.

Ambassador, the accession treaty with North Macedonia is already in congress.  When do you expect the work in process to be done?  And during the first discussion in Congress, we heard a lot of assessment from different congressmen that the accession of North Macedonia will close the door for Russian influence in this part of the Western Balkans.  But it seems that for the society in the country it’s not clear what it means when some Western diplomats speak about the Russian influence in this region.  Can you be more specific in this regard?

Ambassador Hutchison:  First of all, the United States fully supports the accession of North Macedonia, just as we have supported the open door of NATO.  And I have talked to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Senate.  He believes and is hoping for this to go to the Senate Floor this summer.  That would be our hope.  But you never know what other factors might take over before the August period that the Senate is not in session.  So I’m very confident that we will pass the accession, that we will ratify it.  But timing is not totally set.  But I think the effort is going to be this summer for the United States.

And I think that the whole open door discussion has been to strengthen the countries that seek NATO membership and seek membership in the Alliance.  We believe that every country that does what is necessary – that has the reforms, the democracy, the rule of law, the human rights, all of those factors – if they do qualify, we want people to be able to get into NATO and know that they will have the bonding that we have had for 50 years for NATO.  No, 70.

But we have through all those years debated whether we should keep NATO small or whether we should expand.  And expansion won, and it has been the right decision because so many of the countries that have come in since the original group have come in because they had reformed their governments and had met the requirements and had then gotten the strength of the whole Alliance with them to assure that their democracies last.

Question:  Reuters.  I wondered if you saw the Ministerial for the next two days as an opportunity to talk to Turkey about the S400 purchase, and whether you thought that there could be a breakthrough considering, in trying to dissuade Turkey not to go ahead with this?  Thank you.

Ambassador Hutchison:  So many of us have tried to dissuade Turkey from taking the S400.  It is so important in our Alliance that there not be a new Russian defense put in the middle of our Alliance and affect the interoperability of our defense systems.  We have made that case at varying contacts that we’ve had, and we’re going to continue to talk to Turkey if we can be effective for them not to take this missile defense system.  However, everything that we have seen in the paper recently or seen in the press has indicated that Russia is going to deliver this S400 to Turkey, and that will have consequences that we have been very transparent and open with Turkey will have to happen.  There will be a disassociation with the F-35 system.  Turkey’s been an important partner.  They have production lines, and it has been a really good partner.  But we cannot have the F-35 in any way affected by or destabilized by having this Russian system in the Alliance in this way.

So it’s not over until it’s over.  But so far Turkey has not appeared to retract from the sale, and we continue to hope that they will until it’s starting to get delivered, and then the consequences will occur.  We really don’t feel that there’s a choice in that.

Question:  Thanks, Michael Birnbaum, Washington Post.

There’s been some European concern that the United States doesn’t have a clear and consistent policy on Iran.  What have you been telling NATO allies and NATO Ambassadors here about how the turnover at the Pentagon affects U.S. security strategy and policy?  And what kind of Iran-related discussions do you expect to have on the sideline of this Defense Ministers meeting?

Ambassador Hutchison:  Well, of course everyone is very interested in the situation with Iran, and I think that we have not seen any European concerns about the stability of our Department of Defense.  As I’ve said, our new Acting Secretary I think is very steeped in our foreign policy and our security policy.  That’s been his whole career.  I think people have seen that immediately.

I think they’ve also seen Secretary Pompeo and President Trump himself state that we are not going to sit by and watch Iran get nuclear capabilities.  We have seen malign influence of Iran supporting terrorist organizations – terrorists that have harmed our people and our Alliance.  And we are going to stand up to that.

I think our administration has been very clear.  I think measured but firm.  That has been what our administration has said at every level, and I think that will continue.

Question: I’m Abdul-Fatuh from Shamshad TV, Afghanistan.

My question is regarding the sanctions the U.S. has put on Iran, and how it will affect the security and economic crisis in Afghanistan?  The more sanctions that are put in place for Iran, that means they have more taxing on Afghanistan that they lost, U.S. troops and other forces there.  Are there any measures taken to stop something like that from happening?

Ambassador Hutchison:  It’s certainly a valid question.  I think we have a very good division headquarters in Afghanistan that is headed by the Italians, and at Herat they have been, the Afghan forces have been very effective in holding back terrorist activities from that area.

I think that the situation in Iran is affecting Afghanistan, of course.  Just like it is affecting so many other of our allies and partners and the people we are trying to help.

We hope very much that Iran will turn to diplomacy, that they will stop attacking ships in the Straits of Hormuz, that they will not try to export terrorism into Afghanistan or support Hezbollah as we have seen that they have done and destabilizing many other Middle Eastern areas.

So we’re continuing diplomacy, but we are continuing to be firm, that Iran cannot continue to say and threaten that they are going to move forward on nuclear capabilities.  That’s a threat that we must hear, and Iran must stop making those kinds of risks to other neighboring countries, and especially an area like Afghanistan that is finding it so hard to stabilize its country.

The Afghan forces are leading this fight.  They are doing such a great job of trying to rid their country of terrorist activities from anywhere around them, including Iran.  So we’re going to support the Afghan people.  We’re going to continue to support the Afghan people.  One of the things that we will be doing at this Ministerial is reporting to our RSM allies, which are 41, that are all contributing money as well as troops and help for the Afghan people to stabilize its country.  And any outside force that is working against those interests is going to be reacted to in a negative way.

Question:  Thank you.  Ana Pisonero from Spanish news agency [Inaudible].

Several Allies have been calling up the need to bring down tensions in the region with Iran.  Do you expect the Acting Secretary of Defense to explain the red lines of the U.S. potentially for taking a more stronger military option against Iran?  Especially after we saw that the Trump administration actually was very close to taking this kind of decision already.  Thank you so much.

Ambassador Hutchison:  I think what the administration has said is that we will be measured but not timid about protecting the people in the area, protecting the navigation in the area, and we will take the steps that are necessary, I think, in a measured way.

I think the President was very clear that he did not want to kill Iranian people, but we do want to make sure that all of the countries in the region have the access to those navigable waters that, to which they have a right, and all of the people that are affected economically by not being able to get ships through that area to bring energy and other trade opportunities out into the rest of the world.

So there’s no need to be specific.  I think America has been very clear.  Iran, come to the table.  We will talk about how we can have a normalization of our bilateral communications, and we want normalization.  As I think the President has said, he would like for Iran to become a trading partner, a prosperous nation, a nation that gives freedom and democracy and human rights to its own people.  That would be our hope.  But we’re not going to sit there and let Iran attack ships that are acting within their rights, shoot down an airplane that is certainly not flying over Iranian territory.  America is very careful about that.  We have navigation assistance.  We have air traffic capabilities.  And we know we were not encroaching on Iranian territory.  That was clear from the pictures.

So Iran can’t just keep stepping on other people’s rights and capabilities and affecting the outcomes of their economies without consequences.

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