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From Yemen to Europe, White House foreign policy is in the spotlight

Secretary of Defense James Mattis held a rare, on-camera press briefing today, fielding questions on Yemen, North Korea and the trans-Atlantic alliance. In Europe, meanwhile, top leaders voiced renewed concern about the outlook for their relationship with the U.S. Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the three policy areas, including how Russia fits into them.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Secretary of Defense James Mattis held a rare on-camera press briefing today at the Pentagon, his first in more than four months.

    He was joined by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine General Joe Dunford. Together, they fielded questions on several topics, including Yemen, North Korea, and the transatlantic alliance.

    Meantime, there's renewed concern about that time-tested alliance in Europe voiced by top leaders there.

    Our Nick Schifrin was at the Pentagon this morning. And he joins me now to discuss all this.

    Nick, welcome.

    So let's start with Yemen. Secretary Mattis did talk about the U.S. backing of this Saudi-led coalition going after the Houthi rebels in Yemen. How did he talk about that? And what did he say about the criticism that the Saudis are killing innocent people?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And there is a lot of criticism, Judy, and that's what he was in part responding to, the U.N. report that came out today that accuses the Saudi-led coalition of abusing international human rights law, international humanitarian law, and even international criminal law.

    And the U.N. report accuses the Saudi-led coalition of targeting civilians targets, like markets, funerals, weddings, even medical facilities. And so with all of that criticism, which, by the way, is echoed by some people here on Capitol Hill, even inside DOD, there's a lot of questions about what the U.S. is doing to help the Saudi-led coalition.

    What U.S. officials tell me is that they are refueling Saudi jets that go from Saudi into Yemen, and then also providing intelligence on what not to hit, right? Don't hit this building because it's a hospital. Don't hit this building because it's the U.N.

    Secretary Mattis was asked many times about some of these criticisms. He said, look, nothing's perfect. But he did say that the Saudis had improved.

  • James Mattis:

    We have had pilots in the air who recognized the danger of a specific mission and declined to drop, even when they get the authority. We have seen staff procedures that put no-fire areas around areas where there's hospitals or schools.

    We — we recognize every mistake like this is tragic in every way. But we have not seen any callous disregard by the people we're working with.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, there is evidence that the Saudis are improving their targeting?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Some evidence.

    The people who I have spoken to who have worked with the Saudis say that they have come a long way, actually, that the targeting originally was with commercial satellites, that some of the weapons they used were dumb bombs, so to speak, or even cluster weapons.

    And those people who have worked with the Saudis say, look, the weapons are smarter, and the targeting is better.

    But there's a flip side to that, right? If they have better weapons, they have better targeting, then why are these civilian casualty incidents still happening? And that is why some of the criticism of the U.S. role and the Saudi-led coalition continues.

    And one person I spoke with today say — accused the Saudis of having callous disregard for some of their weapons systems and some of their targeting. So that's how far some of the criticism goes.

    And the U.S. also points out that, look, this isn't only the fault of the Saudi-led coalition. Right? The Houthis, who are an Iranian-backed group inside of Yemen, use civilian areas to target Riyadh, to target population centers in Riyadh, and also target into the Gulf.

    And Iran is helping the Houthis, but they don't control the Houthis at all. And so bottom line is, this war will continue. The tension between the two sides will continue. And, frankly, most officials I talk to you say the civilian casualty incidents, sadly, will continue as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's turn to North Korea.

    As we know, the president last Friday abruptly announced he was canceling the trip that had been planned. Secretary of State Pompeo was to go to Pyongyang to meet with the North Koreans

    There's — we're learning a little bit more now about what was behind that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, one official said it felt like whiplash between the Thursday announcement and Friday cancellation.

    Reportedly, there has been a letter sent from Kim Yong-chol, who's one of the leading North Korean officials, to Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, who's leading this effort.

    And shall we say it wasn't as nice as the Trump administration was hoping. Secretary of State Pompeo took that letter to the White House. And in a large meeting of the national security officials, they decided that it's not the right time to go.

    And, in general, this is a reflection of some frustration seeping in to the U.S. State Department, as well as the White House, that they haven't seen enough results.

    And Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, was asked about this today. She couldn't — she didn't confirm the letter. But she did say that North Korea is not doing enough.

  • Heather Nauert:

    The secretary is not just hopping on a plane and flying to North Korea for his health. He's going there to have serious, substantive talks.

    Those talks have obviously occurred. Many of you have been on those trips with us. But in the president's view and in the national security team's view, sufficient progress with respect to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula wasn't being made.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So that's the State Department comment. Where does this leave things?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Well, on denuclearization, largely frozen.

    And it happens amid two tensions. There's tensions within the U.S. Department of Defense officials I speak to say that some of the State Department officials who have been leading this effort have been naive, that they have been going in expecting too much, too quickly, as a reflection, these officials say, of Secretary of State Pompeo's and the president's desire to get things done really quickly.

    And there's also a tension between United States and South Korea. The priorities and are not necessarily the same. The U.S. wants denuclearization. South Korea wants peace on the peninsula. And there's no sign yet that President Moon is going out on his own and pushing for rapprochement with North Koreans without the U.S.

    But there is some concern in Washington that he's pushing a little far. And so the question is, where does this leave U.S.-South Korean working together, and also the joint exercises that the U.S. and South Korea do together?

    Secretary Mattis was asked about that today. He said that, well, we canceled this year's exercises as a good-faith effort because the negotiations were ongoing. But he said next year's exercises will continue.

    And that really forces President Trump to decide whether to cancel them or not if he wants something that North Korea has made a priority to remain canceled.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, just quickly, finally to Europe, statements today by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, what Europe should be prepared to do in the aftermath of President Trump saying months ago that the U.S. may not stand by its commitment to NATO.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, these are extraordinary comments from both sides, both by the United States president about Europe, and also Europe about the United States and the president.

    So let's just listen to what was said first by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, and also by Heiko Maas, the German foreign minister.

  • Emmanuel Macron (through translator):

    Europe can no longer rely solely on the United States for its security. It's up to us today to take up our responsibilities and guarantee European security and, consequently, European sovereignty.

  • Heiko Maas (through translator):

    We need to find a new equilibrium for the relationship. Under the aegis of President Trump, we are confronted with new challenges. No country in the E.U. will be able to work alone, only together. Europe united is our answer to America first.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So pretty extraordinary language, Macron saying European sovereignty, the German foreign minister new equilibrium.

    And so what they're responding to are two things. One is U.S. policy and the other is U.S. rhetoric. And it's important to distinguish.

    U.S. policy, countering Russia, the U.S. has sent weapons to Ukraine. The Obama administration didn't do that. The U.S. has funded the U.S. presence of troops in Europe more than the predecessors. More Russians and been kicked out of the U.S. and more Russian consulates have been closed. That's the policy.

    The rhetoric, of course, as you pointed out, is very different. And so European officials look at this. On the one hand, president Macron wants to be young and aggressive, wants to seem like he's leading Europe. And also the U.S. actually wants more European military spending.

    But, on the other hand, we have never, ever had a president since 1945 question Article 5. And so European officials are fearful. And they say that the more the president questions their transatlantic alliance and NATO, who wins? Russia. Because they are looking for this alliance to weaken.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Action on so many different fronts today.

    Catching us up on all of this, Nick Schifrin, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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