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Week in politics: Biden defends decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Biden administration will provide Ukraine with cluster bombs, a weapon that's banned by more than 120 other countries, including many U.S. allies, and decried by human rights groups for the damage they can cause civilians. Cluster bombs consist of dozens of small bomblets that scatter over a big area and can cause widespread collateral damage, including when they don't explode until days or weeks later when a child walks by and innocently picks up a small object to play. NPR's Ron Elving joins us. Ron, thanks so much for being with us.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: Let me play for you what Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, said at a briefing yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COLIN KAHL: I'm as concerned about the humanitarian circumstance as anybody. But the worst thing for civilians in Ukraine is for Russia to win the war. And so it's important that they don't.

SIMON: I must say, Ron, I've seen cluster bombs at work in several wars around the world. They are ugly, destructive and indiscriminate. Is the administration essentially saying, yeah, yes, but this is a necessary evil?

ELVING: That's not the language they would use, but it seems to be very much the concept here. They're saying the overarching need to save Ukraine justifies whatever means we choose to find necessary. So Ukraine doesn't have enough artillery. Plus, they need more ammunition for the artillery they do have. The U.S. cannot supply that fast enough. But hey, there are these surplus cluster bombs sitting in inventory. So the hope is that Ukraine will work hard to minimize civilian casualties. After all, they'd be Ukrainians. And there is also a promise to stay engaged long enough to eliminate the unexploded munitions down the road. So we'll see how this plays out at next week's NATO meeting because many NATO countries respect the international ban on these munitions.

SIMON: And National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has already said NATO won't vote on whether to admit Ukraine at those talks. But the questions about the alliance and the war are going to be at the heart of their deliberations, won't they?

ELVING: Yes, of course. It's the elephant in the room. It's long been seen as a key Putin goal in this war to prevent Ukraine from joining NATO as an independent country, adding one more adversary on Russia's borders. Of course, what's happened instead is that NATO has expanded, including Finland, with 800 miles of border with Russia. At the same time, there are warning voices in the U.S. warning of the consequences of pushing Putin too far. Some have even blamed the West for provoking Putin's invasion of Ukraine in the first place.

SIMON: Among those voices on the left, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is running as a Democrat for president. Recent polls showed him at 17% among Democrats last month. What will happen if Mr. Kennedy does well in New Hampshire next year even if New Hampshire delegates don't qualify for the convention?

ELVING: Ah, the Democratic National Committee has decided the first primary that counts will be in South Carolina next year, the idea being to de-emphasize the largely white and rural states of Iowa and New Hampshire that have been the kickoff states for the whole process for so long. So New Hampshire will be having what we call a beauty contest for Democrats even while Republicans, on the same day, are choosing real delegates. Nonetheless, we have seen New Hampshire damage the reelection campaigns of presidents in the past - Lyndon Johnson in 1968, then the first President Bush in 1992. Those were psychological setbacks where the challenger didn't win but did better than expected. So the RFK Jr. challenge, still far from being in that weight class at this point - and apart from his famous name, he serves as a kind of all-purpose protest candidate.

SIMON: Ron, what do you make of Governor Ron DeSantis accusing, if that's the word, former President Trump as being a staunch advocate for LGBTQ+ rights?

ELVING: It's a one-minute ad with a clip of Trump saying he would protect the rights of LGBTQ citizens and a clip of him saying Caitlyn Jenner can use any bathroom she wants at Trump Tower. The bottom line is DeSantis is saying Trump is not a true culture warrior like Ron DeSantis. DeSantis continues to campaign as though the way to beat Trump is to run to his right. This ad may not be a sign of desperation, but it's hard to see how it really helps.

SIMON: Ron Elving, thanks so much.

ELVING: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Ron Elving is Senior Editor and Correspondent on the Washington Desk for NPR News, where he is frequently heard as a news analyst and writes regularly for NPR.org.