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Can the U.S. stand with both Israel and Ukraine? U.S. ambassador to NATO weighs in


You know that old saying about being able to walk and chew gum at the same time? We are going to apply it to the situation in which the U.S. now finds itself - trying to stand with Israel as that country gears up for a ground war in Gaza even as it stands with Ukraine as war there grinds on. Can the U.S. do both? Can it do both at the same time, and at what price? - questions we are going to put now to Julianne Smith, the U.S. ambassador to NATO. She's with me now from NATO headquarters in Brussels. Ambassador, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JULIANNE SMITH: Thank you very much.

KELLY: So I wanted to put these questions to you because the NATO alliance is, of course, at the heart of so much of how the U.S. projects power in the world; also because I have seen you argue in recent days that the answer is yes, that the U.S. can do both. So make the case.

SMITH: The case is pretty easy to make because of events last week in Brussels. We actually had two meetings. We had a normal NATO defense ministerial where all of the defense ministers from all 31 allies come together. But we also had here in Brussels a Ukraine Defense Contact Group, where 50 countries come together to talk specifically about what Ukrainian requirements look like that particular month.

So some interesting things happened during those two meetings. First and foremost, we had President Zelenskyy join for the very first time. It was important to have him here. And the message that he walked away with last week was that not just the United States can walk and chew gum at the same time, but in fact, many of the countries sitting around the table were able to pledge continued, concrete assistance to Ukraine while offering their solidarity and support to our friends in Israel.

KELLY: Let me follow up on that quickly, if I can, just to...

SMITH: Sure.

KELLY: ...Jump in for a second because I was just seeing a senior NATO official, Adm. Rob Bauer of the Netherlands, quoted in The New York Times saying, Western weapon stockpiles are nearing the bottom of the barrel. How do you - how do we square that with what you've just told me?

SMITH: Well, we've had 16 of these UDCG meetings, and each and every time, Ukraine walks away with additional forms of assistance. It does not mean that it's always easy. But I think what has been reassuring to our friends in Ukraine is that NATO allies and the wider circle of countries providing security assistance have found some very creative ways to continue providing assistance, and I can give you one example.

KELLY: Sure.

SMITH: South Korea is helping our friends in Poland backfill and address some of the shortfalls that surfaced after their very generous contributions to Ukraine so that they can dig a little bit deeper. This is not a case of South Korea providing direct assistance to Ukraine, but it's an example of a country willing to step forward and look at how it can help NATO allies find additional forms of support. We're also looking at ways to increase production, which is a big part of this as well.

KELLY: To the question I laid out at the beginning - of whether the U.S. can provide weapons and aid and supplies to Ukraine, as you've just been talking about, and now to Israel at the same time - you're arguing the answer is yes. Does it come at a cost to America's own military readiness?

SMITH: President Biden has been very clear on this. First and foremost, he said that the United States does indeed have the capacity to help Ukraine defend against Russian aggression and help our friends in Israel. And not only does the United States have the capacity to do that, but the United States has an obligation to do so, and it will not come at the expense of our own national defense.

KELLY: On funding - I realize that U.S. domestic politics are outside your portfolio - happily outside your portfolio, I would imagine.

SMITH: Happily, yes.

KELLY: Yeah. But has the recent paralysis on Capitol Hill - does it influence in any way what you can get done there in Brussels?

SMITH: It doesn't influence what we can get done. We were able last week to showcase alliance resolve and a commitment to stand with Ukraine.

KELLY: Although standing with Ukraine requires, as you know, commitment and money that's approved by Congress, and Congress just excluded support for Ukraine in the temporary budget deal. And that temporary budget deal expires next month. So who knows? It makes it hard to plan, no?

SMITH: Indeed. But we have heard directly from the president. He has been in close touch with Congress. We see deep bipartisan support for Ukraine on Capitol Hill. That will not change. We're confident that we will be able to get additional forms of assistance for our friends in Ukraine going forward. We also have resources right now from which to draw so that support can continue to flow. And that's an important way to also signal to not only the Ukrainians, but also the Russians, that they can't simply wait us out.

KELLY: Julianne Smith, she is the U.S. ambassador to NATO, speaking with us from NATO headquarters. Ambassador Smith, thanks so much.

SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.