WASHINGTON - VOA contributor Greta Van Susteren interviewed National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster at the White House on Tuesday.
Greta Van Susteren: General, nice to see you, sir.
H.R. McMaster: It’s great to be with you, Greta. Thank you.
Van Susteren: Thank you for doing this interview.
McMaster: It’s a privilege to do it, thanks.
Question: Well, let’s start with Iran. A lot’s going on there. What are your reflections on it?
McMaster: Well, the Iranian people are expressing frustration — frustration about a regime that pays more attention to exporting terrorism than it does to meeting the needs of its own people. So, the president has been very strong in his support for the Iranian people and their rights to express themselves. And I think what’s most important now is for the whole world to tell Iran that they have to respect the rights of their citizens and allow them to demonstrate peacefully and to not engage in the kind of violence against the demonstrators that we saw, remember, back in 2009 and that we’re starting to see now, as well.
WATCH: VOA Interview: National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster
Q: Well, in 1956, we had a similar situation in Hungary, and the West didn’t support the protesters there. We’ve seen it in the early ’90s with the Kurds in Iraq, and again, the United States voiced its support but didn’t do anything. And we, as you mentioned, 2009 when President (Barack) Obama was president, in the Green Movement after the election. Is this administration going to do anything more than voice verbal support for the protesters? Or can they?
McMaster: Well, we’ll see what options are available. But I think what we need are strong voices across the world on behalf of the Iranian people. This is a dictatorial regime that is oppressing its own people, that is using the resources that this great nation with this rich culture and rich history needs, to foment hatred and violence across the greater Middle East. They’re a driving force behind this fitna, behind this sectarian civil war, that has caused so much pain and suffering and death in Syria and Iraq and Yemen. They pose a continuing threat to Israel and within Lebanon to its stability, and this regime has to be held to account. And it seems as if the Iranian people are expressing their displeasure about the behavior of this regime and prioritizing this kind of violence over the benefit and the welfare of their own citizens.
Q: I was comparing and contrasting in my own mind 2009, which was provoked by an election that the people … they were unhappy with the election, they thought it was unfair. This one is a little bit different. Almost spontaneously, the number of cities that there’s been a protest. At first, the suggestion was that it was as a result of an economic situation, that any sort of the economic benefits that they anticipated from the Iran deal didn’t trickle down to them. Why do you think … do you think this … was this provoked by economics, or by Western influence? Why do you think the protests were sparked in the first place?
McMaster: I think what’s key is to let the Iranian people speak for themselves on this. I think it’s dissatisfaction with this dictatorial regime. It was over economics to a certain extent, and the skyrocketing of prices, the very high rate of unemployment, especially among young Iranians. And these are people who know the great potential of their country, and they’re frustrated to not be able to take advantage of that potential. But it’s also been about the external behavior of the regime, and how … This is a regime that gives safe haven to al-Qaida terrorists who target Shi'ite, Christians, anybody who doesn’t do … and any Muslim who doesn’t adhere to their narrow and irreligious definition of Islam. And so, this is a regime that is dishonest fundamentally, and a regime that has helped drive violence and hatred across the whole region.
Q: I don’t pretend to know what the solution is, it’s not my job. But even if it were my job, I don’t know what the solution is. But if we do no more than to say ‘We’re with you,’ you know, with the protesters, how is the result going to be any different than ’09, or even any of those other examples? I mean, aren’t we just going to expect that the Iranian … that it will probably be the protesters who would be put down, there would be more violence? How do we expect a different solution, if our reaction is the same?
McMaster: Well, we’re already doing more than that. As you know, in recent years, there was a hope — a hope that the pursuit of this nuclear deal that’s fundamentally flawed would change the behavior of this regime, that it would moderate its violent behavior. And of course, that hasn’t been the case at all. So, what the United States has been doing, along with allies and partners around the world, is sanctioning that violent, that maligned, Iranian behavior. And so, it’s important, I think, that this regime be denied the resources it needs to continue its murderous campaigns. And so, it’s diplomacy, but it’s also sanctions. And we see that actually the Iranian people are expressing their displeasure about the nature of this regime — how it treats them, but also how it treats the rest of the world.
Q: Is there … this interview is likely to be seen in Iran because of the Persian service of Voice of America. Is there a specific message that you want to get to the people of Iran? You know, that you want to tell the Iranian people what America is going to do if they do change the government?
McMaster: Well, I think the first thing to know is the American people — and this American government — has great respect for the Iranian people, the Iranian culture, their tremendous history and the tremendous potential they have. And it breaks our heart to see Iranians not be able to realize their dreams. Also, we have to recognize, though, it’s up to all of us across the world to confront Iran’s behavior that is causing so much suffering — their support for terrorist organizations and illegal militias that are perpetuating violence. And so, they have our emotional support, they have our sympathy, and we’re grateful, I think, to see them exercising their right to voice their displeasure with this dictatorial regime.
Q: President (Donald) Trump has said that he’s not going to certify the agreement, the nuclear agreement. What’s the message to Americans, and as well to the Iranians? What can we expect on that nuclear agreement?
McMaster: Well, I think the main message is how can you trust this regime that treats its own people the way we see it’s treating its own people, that foments violence?
Q: So, is the agreement off? The agreement’s definitely to be decertified?
McMaster: Well, it might be. We’ll bring options to the president. The president declined to certify that the Iran nuclear deal was in the interest of the United States. And … but that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t continue to adhere to the agreement, in terms of extending waivers on sanctions. He’ll make that decision, I think, in the next few weeks to the next month. And so, we’ll see what the president decides, but it’s really hard … it’s really hard to trust this regime.
Q: Are the protests in any way linked to the president’s thinking on the nuclear deal?
McMaster: No, not that I’ve been aware of. I mean, I don’t think so. I think the world is watching very closely to see how this regime treats its own people. And I think that this Iran nuclear deal doesn’t cover everything, right? It doesn’t cover the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ destabilizing behavior in the region. It doesn’t really fully cover their missile programs. And so, it doesn’t cover their behavior and how they’re treating their own people in connection with these … in connection with these protests. And so, I think the United States, other nations, have to take action not just based on this very narrow and flawed nuclear agreement, but have to look at the broad range of Iran’s behavior.
Q: There’s a flawed agreement, and there’s violating the agreement. And I know that the Republicans from the very beginning — or many of them — said it was a flawed agreement. What about a violation? Have the Iranians violated that agreement that the United States signed with them?
McMaster: It’s really impossible to tell whether or not Iran is violating that agreement. What we have seen is them step up to the line and crossed the line on how many centrifuges that they’re spinning — how much heavy water they have in stock.
Q: Is there anything wrong with coming up to the line?
McMaster: And … no, but is the verification mechanism in place to make sure that this agreement doesn’t just give this dictatorial regime cover for developing a nuclear capability that threatens the world? And so, that’s what we have to be confident of, and we can’t be confident of that right now because the monitoring and enforcement mechanisms are anemic — they’re not very strong. And so, those need to be strengthened. You know, there are sunset clauses to all this, and so, we have to block all paths to a nuclear weapon by this dictatorial regime, not just for the next few years, but we have to be able to do that in the long term. Because think about what happens — if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, who gets a nuclear weapon next? Is it Saudi Arabia? Is it United Arab Emirates? Think about the breakdown of the nonproliferation regime and how that places so many people at risk of the most destructive weapons on Earth.
Q: In the event that the Iranian government goes up to the line but doesn’t cross it, and it is not recertified by the president, does that send a message around the world for decades about cutting a deal with the government, with the United States government? Does that indicate that we don’t keep our word, recognizing that — obviously administrations change — but does that send a signal?
McMaster: I think it does send a powerful signal.
Q: Not an adverse one?
McMaster: No, it’s a powerful, positive signal. You know, what the adverse experience has been — or the negative experience has been — is the 1994 agreed framework with North Korea. How did that work out? It was a weak agreement that was not monitored effectively. It was not enforced. Where are we now? You know, we’re at the cusp of a North Korea — another rogue regime that might threaten the world with nuclear weapons. And of course, that’s unacceptable now, and we can’t let the situation with Iran get to that level, as well.
Q: All right. Speaking about North Korea, I think there’s ample evidence that Pakistan, through A.Q. Khan, who is basically their architect of their nuclear weapons program, was very helpful to North Korea developing their program. Do you have any suspicion that Iran and North Korea have worked together, even with the development of missile technology? Anything at all?
McMaster: Yes, I mean, I think that …
Q: And are they doing it now?
McMaster: Well, I’ll leave that to our intelligence professionals to answer that question. But if you look at North Korea’s track record, North Korea has never met a weapon that it has not proliferated. I mean, it was building a nuclear reactor in a clandestine site in Syria, for example. North Korea is selling weapons across the world to all sorts of regimes and bad actors. And North Korea has stated that it would be willing to proliferate nuclear weapons for the right price. And so, you have a regime that could possess nuclear weapons that could engage in extortion, blackmail, and then sell those most destructive weapons on Earth to the highest bidder and anybody willing to meet their price.
Q: Well, it’s pretty evident that they have an aggressive program, and they’ve been developing it for decades — both missile and nuclear warheads, as well. Is there … and the agreed framework, as you noted, didn’t work because they cheated, and the program has gone on and on and on. We’ve tried sanctions, we’ve engaged the world. We’ve done a lot of different things to try to deter this nuclear program in North Korea. Is there anything short … do you see anything short of war at this point? And I’m not saying I’m advocating for war or anything against it, but what are the solutions? What are the possibilities?
McMaster: Well, the possibility is that the North Korean regime recognizes that the continued pursuit of these nuclear weapons and missiles is a dead end. And the only way to do that really, now, short of war, is through coercive economic power — power that rests mainly in the hands of China but with others, as well. And the trend has been extremely positive. The trend has been positive in that more and more countries are stopping all trade with North Korea. Vietnam, for example. The Philippines. The list really is quite a long one.
Q: But there’s the illusive ... They just stopped … there were two ships with petroleum products in violation of sanctions that have been stopped in the last two weeks, so it’s getting in there —some of it.
McMaster: That’s why everybody needs to do more. You’ve seen South Korea just interdict two ships and impound two ships. And the new U.N. sanctions will allow even greater sanctions on shipping companies that allow this illicit trade to continue. But really, as everybody knows, China has the vast majority of the coercive economic power over the North, and it’s our hope that China will act in its interest, and we can’t ask them to do more than act in their interest.
Q: The hope, but China hasn’t. And the president, even long before he became president, I used to interview him when he was just a businessman in New York. He would talk about China and how they didn’t deal fairly with the United States. What makes you think that China, now, is going to be … is going to change to use their economic muscle to try to get a result out of North Korea? Is it just the fear that there’ll be 26 million people over the borders into North Korea and that Japan and South Korea want to become nuclear powers? Is that the only thing that’s going to change China?
McMaster: No. China recognizes that the situation has changed fundamentally, and China recognizes three fundamental shifts in their own thinking, and three fundamental shifts in what we all have to do together.
The first shift is that denuclearization of the peninsula is the only acceptable answer. It used to be that you’d hear a lot of talk about freeze for freeze, or suspension for suspension. There’s a recognition that that’s no good anymore because their programs have progressed too far.
The second thing is, China recognizes that this is a problem, really, between North Korea and the whole world, including a problem between North Korea and China. There used to be old talk about, ‘Well, this is really a problem between the United States and North Korea.’ China recognizes that it is in China’s interest to denuclearize the peninsula. And that’s because of the threat of a breakdown in the nonproliferation regime. What if South Korea, what if Japan, conclude that they have to arm in similar ways to North Korea?
And the third thing is that China recognizes that it really does have the coercive economic power to resolve this situation. And it’ll be up to China, and if they make those decisions, as you know, the U.N. Security Council has come up with more and more restrictions on North Korea, more and more sanctions against North Korea. Those have to be rigorously enforced. But we also have to acknowledge that’s not going to be enough. And I think you’re right about this. I mean, North Korea, unless more pressure’s applied, will not conclude that it’s in its interest to denuclearize.
Q: I don’t see North Korea because there really are two different people. There’s the leaders of North Korea, and there’s the people. I don’t … I can’t … I don’t have a crystal ball, but I don’t see North Korea worried enough about … I don’t see anything that makes them want to give up their nuclear weapons. I don’t think there’s enough care about feeding their people, about a famine or anything else.
McMaster: Well, you have different portions of the population in North Korea. Obviously, you have the elites in Pyongyang who live a very comfortable existence at the expense of the rest of the North Korean population who are part of …
Q: But they’re the ones who make the decisions.
McMaster: They are, but those are the people who have to be affected by these sanctions. These are the people who have to conclude that it is not in their interest to continue on this path. That it is a dead end for them. And of course, this regime hasn’t been without dissent. I mean, this is a regime, this is a leader — Kim Jong Un — who’s killed members of his own family in the most egregious ways with a bad nerve agent in a public airport in Malaysia, with anti-aircraft guns in front of their military academy in a stadium. And so …
Q: So, how do you get him to think like, ‘OK, I’ve changed my mind. I want to protect my people from war with the United States or economic sanctions from the world. And I’m going to give up my nuclear weapons,’ when he’s bragging about it?
McMaster: Well, I mean, you can’t fire a missile without fuel, can you? And North Korea is wholly dependent on external sources for fuel. So, there are options available short of war if all nations conclude that it’s in their interest to act in a more aggressive manner, in terms of economic sanctions and to actually follow through.
Q: If we cut off visibility to launch a nuclear weapon, he doesn’t have the fuel to do it. He still has all these artillery weapons on the southern part of North Korea pointed right at South Korea. How potent … or what’s the strength that he has there?
McMaster: Well, of course, this is what North Korea has done, right? Over the years, it has held the South Korea population at risk. Also, it’s been clear since 1953 that the South — South Korea —that the United States poses no threat to North Korea. Every provocation has come out of North Korea. And so, the only reason why North Korea could be pursuing this weapon is to do what? It’s actually to coerce or blackmail or extort the United States to leave the peninsula and Northeast Asia. And to … what they’ve been saying for years. I mean, how many times in his latest speech did Kim Jong Un use the word, unification? What kind of unification does he have in mind? He has unification under the domination of the North and its failed system. I mean, this is … So, what’s important to recognize is that North Korea is pursuing this nuclear weapon, not for just defensive purposes that you hear some people argue about, but really for coercive purposes, for offensive purposes. And the world has to recognize that.
Q: You know, it’s interesting. I don’t think — I’ve been to North Korea three times. I don’t have a sense — and it’s a random sampling, and it’s no way any scientific study —I don’t have any sense that the people of North Korea, themselves, don’t think that they have the best place on earth to live, except for those who may get some sort of information from the West. But I think that’s the problem, too, is that the people aren’t with us, you know? The people are not against their leadership, at least not right now.
McMaster: Well, it’s been three generations now of leadership who’s systematically brainwashed their own population, who deny them access to outside information. Once information can penetrate that society, I mean, this is what he probably fears the most, right? So, there’s some who argue, ‘Well, what we really need to do is open the gates to this misunderstood regime in the North.’ Of course, that’s one of the things that the North fears the most because it will expose all the lies. It will expose all of the hypocrisy.
Q: Which is why they prevent the information from coming in.
Q: Kim Jong Un in a recent speech talked about making a gesture to South Korea, said maybe they’ll send athletes to participate in the Olympic Games, and maybe they’ll have negotiations, and also threatened that he has a button. I think he says he has a button on his desk to launch a nuclear weapon against us. What are your thoughts about that, about his gesture to South Korea?
McMaster: Well, anybody who thought that that speech was reassuring was drinking too much Champagne over the holidays. And essentially, what he said is what you just summarized, that he is building a hair-trigger nuclear force that can place the world at risk. So, this is a great cause for concern. And I think the speech is pretty clear what the purpose was. It wasn’t an unsophisticated approach to try to drive a wedge between South Korea and the United States. Of course, that’s not going happen. His provocative actions, what he’s been doing, is driving our alliances closer together.
Q: One last question on this. If the economic sanctions don’t work, for whatever reason — either they do not respond to them, or China doesn’t stiffen them, or the North Koreans can cheat around them — if those sanctions don’t work, then what? And what’s our timetable?
McMaster: Well, what we have to do is prepare for a broad range of options for the president. And those include military options, and we’ve made no secret about that. And we’ll work closely with our allies as we develop and refine those options. And essentially, if we have to compel the denuclearization of North Korea without the cooperation of that regime, we’ll bring those options and our assessment of risk and consequences to the president for a decision.
Q: What’s the range in military options? What do you see as the far end and the light end?
McMaster: Well, of course I’m not going to discuss military plans. But those plans exist.
Q: Hypothetically. I know, but hypothetically, what’s the …
McMaster: I’m not in a hypothetical position, so I can’t.
Q: OK, fair enough. All right, all right. OK. I said it was the last question, I’ll make that the last question on that. All right. Let me turn now to Pakistan. And the president tweeted that the United States — this is from one of his first tweets of the new year — ‘The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies & deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help. No more!’ So, he has upped the pressure on Pakistan. Why? And to what end?
McMaster: Well, I think the tweet speaks for itself. I mean, the president’s frustrated, and he values what we hope would be a partnership with Pakistan. But he’s frustrated at Pakistan’s behavior in that it continues to provide support for these groups, it goes after terrorist insurgent groups, really, very selectively, and uses others as an arm of their foreign policy. The president has great sympathy for the Pakistani people and in particular, how much they’ve suffered at the hands of terrorists who have victimized so many Pakistanis with mass murders, with that horrible mass murder in a school a few years ago. I mean, so, he empathizes with the Pakistani people, and he wants to see the Pakistani government go after these groups less selectively.
This is not a blame game, as some would say. This is really our effort to communicate clearly to Pakistan that our relationship can no longer bear the weight of contradictions, and that we have to really begin now to work together to stabilize Afghanistan. And in a way, that would be a huge benefit to Pakistan, as well. What’s frustrating at times is we see Pakistan operating against the interests of its own people by going after these groups only selectively, by providing safe havens and support bases for Taliban and Haqqani network leadership that operate out of Pakistan as they perpetuate hell in portions of Pakistan and in Afghanistan.
Q: I traveled with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Pakistan years ago when she was delivering news of an aid package — about $7 billion — a significant amount for the Pakistanis. And I remember that the Pakistanis were upset because we wanted to know how the money was going to be spent. They were very upset. So, you have that incredible sort of disconnect that did not seem to me to be outrageous that we’d want to know how our money was going to be spent. On the other hand, when you don’t give money to these countries, someone else steps in, so that’s the risk.
McMaster: Well, I don’t think … who’s going to step in now, I think, and want Pakistan to continue its support for terrorist groups like the Haqqani network, for groups like the Taliban? I mean, certainly it’s not in China’s interest. China has a terrorist problem on its southern border, a terrorist problem that does have connections back into Pakistan. It’s not going to be any other country in the region, certainly, who will want Pakistan to continue this, really, pattern of behavior that we’ve seen, where it goes after these groups only selectively, while it sustains and supports others who act as an arm of its foreign policy. So, I think we’re confident that … I mean, Pakistan doesn’t want to become a pariah state. Pakistan is a country with tremendous potential — human potential, economic potential. So, what we really would like to see is Pakistan act in its own interest and to stop going after these groups only selectively, and to stop providing safe havens and support bases and other forms of support for leadership.
Q: How do you put into the equation the fact that Pakistan is a nuclear country, and that they have also palled around, at least historically, with North Korea on nuclear weapons? Do they hold some sort of -- I don’t want to use the term blackmail, it’s too strong — but they do have that as a lever.
McMaster: Well, I think it would just be unwise for any Pakistani leader — I can’t imagine a Pakistani leader using nuclear weapons to extort or for blackmail. That’s the day when Pakistan …
Q: That’s what North Korea is doing.
McMaster: Well, I mean, does Pakistan want to become North Korea? Doesn’t look too appealing a model to me. So, I think Pakistan could be on a path to increase security and prosperity, or it could be on a path to replicating North Korea. I think that’s an easy choice for Pakistani leaders.
Q: You know, it’s obvious when you look at foreign policy, you move one little piece on this chess table, and it affects so many other parts of the world.
McMaster: None of these problems are disconnected from others. I mean, there are many connections between all these problems. That’s what we’ve discussed.
Q: Is there a way to describe the president’s foreign policy? I’ve heard one quote where he said that, where it says, ‘The way Trump handles foreign policy moves us out of our comfort zone, me included.’ First of all, what did he mean by that? And secondly, how do you describe the president’s foreign policy?
McMaster: Well, I would describe it as principled realism, and you can read more about this in the highly readable, page-turning, National Security Strategy, which is available now.
Q: Which I did read. It’s a lot, too. It is quite long.
McMaster: But it’s clear. It’s a succinct statement of his policy, his guidance to all the departments and agencies, and a clear description to our allies and partners and rivals of what we value as a nation and how we want to go about protecting and securing the vital interests of the American people, but to do so in a way that really emphasizes cooperation with others around the world.
Q: By ‘out of the comfort zone,’ you weren’t saying that you were in any way disagreeing with the president?
McMaster: No. What the president does is, he challenges fundamental assumptions. He always says, ‘Well, why do we have to do it this way?’ I mean, and so he makes a lot of our implicit assumptions explicit as we explain these to him. And I would say that he