NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. With all U.S. forces out of Iraq and Afghanistan beginning to wind down, President Obama unveiled a new strategy for a post-Iraq era last week. Yes, there's still a lot of emphasis on special operations troops and drones to strike terrorist targets, but there's a broader shift away from the Middle East and Europe to Asia and the Pacific, a phrase that can be read as code for China.
And yes, budget reductions are part of the package, but the president and his military advisors argue they did not take a smaller number and figure out how to divvy it up but rather started with the various tasks the U.S. military needs to be able to do and then decided how much that's going to cost.
So priorities: What does the U.S. military need to be able to do? How should we shift our military balance? 800-989-8255. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program: Is anything in a politician's life off-limits? Ross Douthat of the New York Times on the Opinion Page this week. But first, NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman joins us here in Studio 3A. Tom, always nice to have you with us.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hello, Neal.
CONAN: And we're a long way from the end in Afghanistan, but is it fair to call this a post-9/11 strategy?
BOWMAN: Absolutely. You know, it's interesting - Donald Rumsfeld tried this kind of strategy 10 years ago. He wanted to focus more in the Pacific, wanted to have more of a high-tech military with fewer people, and that of course was overtaken by events. So they're going to try it one more time.
And if there's a headline here, it's that the Army is cut, and let's focus on the Pacific. That's sort of the headline.
CONAN: And post-Iraq, well, the strategy that the United States adopted in Iraq and later in Afghanistan, counterinsurgency, that's - well, that's been scrubbed.
BOWMAN: It has, and frankly it's the only thing in the strategy that military says we won't be able to do anymore. Here's a quote from the strategy, quote: "U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations." They're basically what we did in Afghanistan, what we did in Iraq, we're not going to do that anymore, we're going to do other things.
And other than that, they pretty much say they can do everything else, right across the board. And it's interesting; they want to have it both ways. They want to say, listen, it's still a strong military, it's the strongest in the world, we can do all these things and cut it by half a trillion dollars over the next decade.
So you're going to have a lot of people on Capitol Hill say wait a minute, if you can cut half a trillion dollars and still do pretty much everything, why not cut more? And the Republicans, of course, and John McCain has already started talking about this a bit, saying listen, you know, we're not sure about this strategy, we think it weakens the Pentagon. So look for those arguments in the coming weeks.
CONAN: Well, one of those big arguments is going to revolve around the two-war commitment. The previous strategies all emphasized the ability of the United States - this is the post-Cold War strategy - to be able to fight two major regional conflicts and win at the same time.
BOWMAN: Right, and they're kind of fuzzy on that too. If you look at the fine print in the strategy, it basically says we can fight and win against an aggressor in one theater and then in another theater, you know, fight and kind of hold off this aggressor, kind of make sure that, you know, they don't win their - whatever it is, their war or whatever.
And - but when we asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta about it, he basically said, hey, listen, we can do more than one thing at once. So they want to kind of have it both ways, I think.
CONAN: And these are all sort of theoretical, but the examples that were always given is: Could we deal with North Korea and Iran simultaneously?
BOWMAN: He is saying yes.
CONAN: And he is saying yes. Now, North Korea and Iran may seem like more immediate subjects of U.S. military interest, but clearly the long-term outlook here is China.
BOWMAN: Exactly, they're worried about China's military increases. They're worried about, you know, China buying aircraft carriers and more aircraft, war planes and so forth. What are the intentions of China? And they're saying their growing military strength could cause regional friction that could hamper U.S. national security and also the U.S. economy.
So there's going to be a big push in the Pacific region basically, you know, setting up maybe more bases like we've seen in Australia; more Marines are heading that way. More exercises with certain countries in the Pacific - you know, military exchange. You'll see a lot of that in the coming years under this strategy.
CONAN: Now, if it's a Pacific strategy, you need longer range. That means more Navy, more Air Force. With fewer troops needed for places like Iraq and Afghanistan, much less for the Army.
BOWMAN: Exactly. The Army will be the big bill payer here. There was a sense the Army would be cut from maybe 560,000 troops to maybe 520. Now it looks like they may go down to 490,000 troops in the Army when the smoke clears in all of this.
And you're right, the investments are going to be more in the Navy and the Air Force in the coming years under this strategy.
CONAN: There are other tasks that the United States does almost as a matter of routine, and it's hard to think of it that way, but global communications, military communications. Those global positioning satellites, those are military satellites.
The Navy has been the predominate blue-water force, ensuring freedom of navigation through the seven seas since 1945. None of that is going to change.
BOWMAN: Absolutely not, and there will be a lot more money on those ISR intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance efforts and drone aircraft and also special operations forces. They want to continue to beef up the Navy SEALs, the Green Berets for the kind of fights in the future, training foreign militaries and also if need be to go in and do what they call direct action.
CONAN: The United States has been drawing down forces in Europe steadily all through the years, especially since the end of the Cold War, obviously. Is that going to continue?
BOWMAN: Yes, you will see more draw-downs in Europe as they move towards this Pacific-Asia strategy. We don't know the numbers yet. That'll all come out in the budget next month. But clearly more reductions in Europe.
CONAN: We want to get listeners involved in this conversation. As the United States military decides on what it needs to be able to do - well, what does it need to be able to do? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. Vance(ph), we'll start with Vance, and Vance is with us from Flagstaff.
VANCE: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I'm a former member of the National Guard. I've seen, you know, kind of how the military operates from the inside. But I believe the core mission of the military is to protect the United States, its nations and its interests abroad, and not to provide jobs or even to provide indirect economic aid to other countries.
So if you can provide that mission, I think they're right on target of saying let's decide what the mission is, what do we need to accomplish, not start with the cuts but start with the needs.
And we spend hundreds of billions of dollars a year just to maintain overseas bases, not even counting the actions those bases take. So to me it's, yeah, you protect the nation, you protect the people, you protect the security interests of the nation abroad, and everything beyond that is extraneous. And I'll take my comments off the air.
CONAN: Just one clarification, Vance, when you say it's not to provide jobs, do you mean provide jobs in, for example, the U.S. Army or provide jobs for contractors building high-tech weapons?
VANCE: I would say either way, and I mean, you're getting into an issue there of systemic change and that as long - we have a current military industrial complex, you know, we'd be foolish to think that that doesn't affect policy, is the money that's made.
And, you know, the more we go to more, the more these costs - the more we go to war, the more these contractors make. But also, you know, I've heard it say, you know, if you reduce the size of the military, then you're cutting jobs, but I think it's important to remember that the mission of the military is not to be an employer, it's the mission of the private sector to provide jobs. The mission of the military is protect the country and its interests.
And that needs to be the focus, and if you can do it with a smaller military, I think that's the only responsible thing to do.
CONAN: Vance, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it. And Tom Bowman, we've already talked about the reductions, principally in the U.S. Army, that are going to be paying for a lot of these cuts. What about the high-tech and those military industrial issues that Vance was talking about? And you go immediately to the biggest, most expensive weapon system ever in the United States military, the F-35.
BOWMAN: That's right. Well, the sense is they will cut back on the number of F-35, the Joint Strike Fighter, they will buy. And again, we don't have a number on that yet. That'll come out next month in the budget. But clearly not only cutting the number of Army troops, they'll be cutting across the board, and a lot of these programs, very expensive, high-tech programs. But at this point we don't have a real firm figure on that yet.
And Vance, of course, being a member of the National Guard, it's interesting in the strategy, they're trying to figure out how much mix do they want between active-duty people and National Guard and Reserve people. You could see, in the coming years, a larger role for the National Guard and Reserve as they cut down on the active force. If need be, for whatever reason, they could call National Guard and Reserve to active duty, the president could.
And they're putting that in the strategy here as an important part of this.
CONAN: Well, the period to which this is probably most analogous is the end of the Vietnam War, at which point the United States military was, it's fair to say, in shambles. There were rampant drug problems. There was an all-draft army, not all-draft but largely a draftee army. It was fundamentally remade. This is what Colin Powell and that generation of military officers spent their lives doing into the force that ended up being in Europe, the force that fought the first Gulf War, the force that we have today, a very different military.
But the National Guard, after Vietnam, the whole military was restructured so that we could never again fight a war without the National Guard. And there are vital tasks that you cannot accomplish in the U.S. military today - the air-to-air refueling that's vital to long-range military operations of any sort. It sounds unglamorous - the National Guard does a huge amount of that.
Those sorts of tasks are going to be built in even more, so more National Guardsmen are going to be away for longer periods of time?
BOWMAN: It's possible. And again, they're talking about what kind of a mix do we want here. How many - what kind of jobs do we want on active duty? What kind of jobs do we want in the Guard and Reserve? And they're looking at clearly calling upon the Guard and Reserve much more in the future under this strategy.
And the interesting thing about the Guard and Reserve over the past 10 years, these folks have more combat experience than at any time since World War II, all the time they spent over in Iraq and Afghanistan. So they want to basically, you know, jump on the trained Guard people and their experience and make sure they can use that in the future.
CONAN: Email from David in Fremont, New Hampshire: As a veteran I've been dismayed by the long-term nation-building mission of U.S. forces. Using our troops for fixing up schools and bridges in Iraq while U.S. infrastructure is neglected is just insane.
Our fighting forces should be used for fighting and only when absolutely necessary. I'm glad the president is downsizing the military. And is there any clamor for saying we've just spent enormous amounts of money and time and effort to develop this capability - why are we throwing it away?
BOWMAN: Well, they're not really throwing it away. I mean, there's still going to be a pretty good-sized military out there. You know, the Army's going to not quite go back to what it was in the late '90s, when it was roughly 480,000. The lowest number would be 490,000. So there's still quite a few people in the Army.
The Marine Corps will be cut back a bit but probably not as much as people initially thought. So there's still a pretty good-size military out there. And again, with the Guard and Reserve, that gives you a lot more to work with.
CONAN: And we'll still be spending more than the rest of the world combined.
CONAN: We're talking about the president's plan to reshape the military. What do you think the military needs to be able to do now that the war in Iraq is over and Afghanistan is beginning to wind down? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, took questions over the weekend about President Obama's new 10-year strategy to rework the U.S. military.
On CBS TV's "Face the Nation," they emphasized the administration's commitment to have a military that can multitask effectively, in spite of major cuts to the budget, something some critics of the plan doubt.
So tell us: What do you think the U.S. military needs to be able to do going forward? How should we shift our military balance? 800-989-8255. Email email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Tom Bowman is our guest here in Studio 3A. He's NPR's Pentagon correspondent. And let's go next to Nathan(ph), and Nathan's calling us from Berkley.
NATHAN: Hello, yeah, I had two issues. One is: How much are we still spending on nuclear readiness? Because that mostly seems completely pointless to me. And otherwise, the question was: What do we want the military to focus on? And I'd say get entirely out of the Indian Ocean. And if, you know, the Pacific is where things are happening, well, that doesn't mean increase the Pacific. I mean, just use the remaining resources on the Pacific.
CONAN: All right, Nathan, thanks very much. The nuclear deterrence, Tom Bowman, that's set pretty much by the agreements with Russia - excuse me, going back to the old days - and that's unlikely to change as a result of this budget.
BOWMAN: Well, they are saying in the strategy that it is possible that our deterrence goals can be achieved with a smaller nuclear force. And they're calling for a reduction in the number of nuclear weapons in the inventory. So clearly they're looking at some cost savings there.
I don't have a figure right now of exactly how much we spent on nuclear capability, but they're looking at reducing that. And as far as the Indian Ocean, we had that carrier there, the John Stennis, which picked up the Iranian fishermen who were being held captive by pirates.
The reason the John Stennis was in the area, was in the Arabian Sea to support operations in Afghanistan, you know, flight operations and bombing targets there. So that's not going to end anytime soon. The sense is they'll, of course, turn over responsibility to the Afghans at the end of 2014.
So it's unlikely you're going to see anyone leave the Arabian Sea before then. They're going to always have a carrier there doing flight operations from the Arabian Sea.
CONAN: There's also the U.S. operations in Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa there. That's important for operating drones, for example, on places like Yemen and Somalia.
CONAN: And the base at Diego Garcia, the depopulated atoll almost nowhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean that's used for any number of purposes, refueling for one thing, to get to the Persian Gulf.
BOWMAN: Right, including B-52 bombers where they're - you know, during some of the wars of the past decade, as well.
CONAN: Email from Joe(ph): Will cyberintelligence be expanded?
BOWMAN: Yes, they make a great point in this strategy of beefing up cyber-capability. And of course, China is quite well-versed on this. And that's one of the concerns they have about China is that China's working cyberwarfare issues quite a bit over the past number of years.
So that's when you get into some of the high-tech things they'll be doing in the future, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, drones, et cetera. Cyberwarfare is a big part of that, as well.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is Michael(ph), Michael with us from Gainesville.
MICHAEL: Good afternoon, gentlemen, appreciate the conversation. I would like to compliment that the discussion on the Pentagon budget is open finally. It's been a while before - that it's been so well-protected. By my question would be: Since this conversation is open now, why not look at some of the revenue that providing defense should be able to provide?
For example, it's understood out there that the subsidy for gasoline is $1 a gallon to protect the shipping lanes. Why not have some kind of a tax on shippers - I know it would get passed through to the consumer - but some kind of a tax to provide some revenue for the Navy? Thank you.
CONAN: Way to get some income out of this. I'm not sure how exactly that would work, Tom Bowman, but...
BOWMAN: Well, I mean, one of the concerns in the military is that the military is being the policeman of the world and providing safe passage for all the oil that's being sent all around the world, everywhere from Europe to China. So maybe that's something they can consider at the Pentagon or on Capitol Hill to come up with a little money to fund the Pentagon budget.
CONAN: A Strait of Hormuz tax, perhaps.
BOWMAN: Exactly right, a little toll booth there.
CONAN: Let's go next to Kenneth(ph), Kenneth with us from San Rafael in California.
KENNETH: Hi, I think that the idea of the mission all over the world is: A, ridiculous; B, we are part of an international community, and we do not have to be the policeman of the world. I think our core mission is to protect the territory of the U.S., the airspace of the U.S. and to help some allies who really functionally can't.
But in this day and age, there aren't any allies who functionally can't take care of themselves. I think this whole thing is a huge rip-off of the American people. We have fought so many wars since World War II that were totally unnecessary, and it really is disgusting to hear this conversation go in the direction we're going without looking at the basic premise of what do we really have to do, what are our real threats.
North Korea isn't a real threat. It's not going anywhere. It's not going to bomb anybody. It'll make a lot of noise. It's not - the place could be leveled within a couple of hours with the push of a couple of computer buttons to, you know, four feet above the ground. That's true of Iran, as well.
And you're not going to bomb China, and you're not going to go to war with China. China's winning the economic war, and that's the war we have to be playing. When we throw $800 billion literally out the window, we're going to go down the way, you know, Rome went down. And it's disgusting that we don't open the conversation this far.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Kenneth. And I have to say, of those running for president, Ron Paul, the former Libertarian candidate, is one person who might echo some of the things that Kenneth has said. But for the most part, Tom, as you look in Congress, they're talking about marginal cuts, maybe double is the biggest number I've heard, of the half-trillion that the president has already proposed, doubling that but nothing beyond that.
BOWMAN: No, I don't think so. And what Kenneth raises, you know, that sentiment clearly is out there and growing, that with the economy the way it is now, with so many unemployed, the amount of money being spent in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, people are saying what are we doing it for.
And he raises a very good point about China. While the U.S. has been fighting for the past decade, China's been running around the world buying up a lot of real estate, you know...
CONAN: Oil rights, among other things.
BOWMAN: Oil rights and also, as many people maybe don't know, they have a copper mine they're working in Afghanistan right now while the U.S. is fighting there. China is trying to make a little bit of money. So that's a huge concern that people in the Pentagon have an elsewhere in the United States, that China's been - is the greatest beneficiary of the U.S. focus on counterinsurgency fights during the past decade.
CONAN: Then there are countries like Vietnam, Borneo, Malaysia, Indonesia, The Philippines, all of whom very concerned about China - throw Australia and New Zealand in there, as well - and its claims to a huge expanse of the South China Sea.
BOWMAN: Exactly, and that's one of the concerns in the Pentagon is what is China looking for, what is their game plan. And as it mentions in the strategy here, there could be regional friction in the coming years. It could affect U.S. economy or U.S. national security, and you're right. I mean, is - do they consider the South China Sea sort of their lake, so to speak?
CONAN: Yes, they do.
BOWMAN: So that's clearly going to be concern with some of the U.S. allies, some of the U.S. friends and so forth and people the U.S. is trying to work with in the future. So again, that's why the focus is in the Pacific. What are China's aims? Where are they heading? Are they going to be an ally, a rival or, you know, maybe a little bit of both?
CONAN: Let's go next to - this is David, David with us from Fresno.
DAVID: Hello, yes, I believe that the danger of spending so much on military is that it makes our country less secure. Because we have these military capabilities, we don't really push the diplomatic option. Instead, we almost always resolve problems militarily. We could do more diplomatically with Iran to get them to stop building their nuclear weapons.
And even if they did, our own military tells us that in the past, we've dealt with countries - Russia and China - that were far more capable militarily, and we were able to negotiate with them, deal with them diplomatically. By having this large military, we're roaming around on the other side of the globe, in China's backyard. We're basically antagonizing them.
So if a war ever breaks out between the U.S. and China, it'll largely be because we're meddling in other people's backyard. And the Soviets have done the same - or not the Soviets, forgive me, the Russians...
CONAN: I made the same mistake earlier, David, don't worry about it.
DAVID: The Russians have brought up the same issue. You know, we finished the Cold War, we naive citizens were hoping that we'd be able to get along with the Russians, and what do we do? We put a missile defense system or propose to right in their backyard with the bogus notion that it was going to be aimed against Iran.
Of course the Russians aren't stupid. They know it's aimed against them. And the reason we do all these things...
CONAN: David, I do have to stop you - I do have to stop you there. The missile defense system that was proposed for Eastern Europe was clearly not aimed at Russia. It was not capable of putting any serious dent in any kind of Russian launch and was never intended to do that. It was aimed at Iran. Whether that was a wise decision or not, well, that's debatable. But getting back to the point, he does make the broader point, Tom. If you've got a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. There is that aspect to it.
BOWMAN: Exactly. And that's been a problem for a long time, maybe since the 1950s or so. When you put so much more money in the Pentagon as opposed to the State Department and you look at something like U.S. Agency for International Development, U.S. Information Agency, USIA, went away - the United States Agency for International Development is a shadow of what it used to be. They're all - it's basically a contracting agency now.
So former Defense Secretary Bob Gates would talk about this that, you know, you need more people in the State Department. You can't just do everything militarily. That's a real concern out there, even in the Pentagon.
CONAN: This email from Joan(ph) in Chester, Pennsylvania, reflects that. We need to rely less on military means and more on diplomatic skills, develop and rely for that on jobs. And again, those budgets are coming down. This email from Teresa(ph) in Alabama. Please clarify for me, are we talking about real cuts in the planned long-range expenses or just cuts in the planned growth of the budget?
BOWMAN: Well, initially, the - it would go down - the budget would go down, and then over the years, it would only rise by inflation. So in some respects, it is sort of - the budget will still rise by inflation. It just won't rise as much as it did in the past. So it is a little bit of semantics here about cutbacks. The real test will be, I think, what happens with the sequestration. Will the Pentagon have to double those cuts? If Congress - as it stands now...
CONAN: Sequestration is what happens if, as a result of the failure of the budget process at the end of last year, there are supposed to be automatic budget cuts imposed by this time, I guess, next year...
BOWMAN: Exactly. A year from now, those cuts would go into effect. So you would double those reductions in Pentagon spending this time next year, unless Congress somehow sidetracks that. But here's the other thing, Neal. We were talking about this earlier. If the Pentagon is saying we can pretty much do everything we can - we're doing now with a half trillion dollars in cuts, you're going to see a number of people, liberal Democrats on the Hill, maybe Tea Party people, saying, wait a minute, if you guys can pretty much do everything you want to do now, let's just keep cutting - cut 100, 200 billion more, and we'll see what happens.
CONAN: We're talking with NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman about the new strategy that President Obama unveiled in an unusual visit to the Pentagon last week. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we go to Lucas(ph). Lucas on the line from San Antonio.
LUCAS: Hi there. Thanks for having me. I've got a couple of quick questions. Then, I'll take my questions off the air - answers off the air. But I really wanted to question your panel here about the importance of dealing with China strategically and really keeping in mind what their goals are. I think there are a lot of misconceptions about China's expansionist ideals. But in fact, when you're actually looking at it, they're only trying to reassert what were traditionally their borders during the imperial dynasties.
And I think keeping in mind that, while we're refocusing our resources, it would be really important then, so what would be the best strategy for doing that? And also why do we keep focusing on the Middle East? It seems like - I mean, my entire life, we've been at war there, and the resources there - my brother is right there now fighting. You know, it seems like a massive waste of resources. Someone who's got a bachelor's of science in economics and speaks Mandarin, his wife is Chinese, I just think, you know, that's where we need to be.
CONAN: All right. Lucas, China - you're correct - believes that reclaiming the borders from its imperial days that has been tough on people in places like Tibet but also it's debatable whether the Chinese empire ever really did incorporate the entire - all the waters of the South China Seas. In any case, that's open to dispute from any number of other countries. But the question about the Middle East, Tom, and we say we're drawing down from there, clearly, the removal of troops from Iraq, that doesn't suggest there aren't tens of thousands of troops in the Persian Gulf, that there's not a continuing military commitment, the 5th Fleet based in Bahrain, and, yeah, last week, we heard Iranian generals say don't come back into the Persian Gulf, John Stennis, but it's going back or it - or a replacement is going back.
BOWMAN: Well, clearly, 40 percent of the world's oil comes through the Strait of Hormuz. I mean, that's a big reason why we're in the region. We have to get that oil. We have to make sure the oil is available throughout the world. And also, it's an area of great instability. Pakistan, with its nuclear weapons, is a real worry about if that becomes a failed state. That's the big reason why we're in Afghanistan, to keep an eye on Pakistan and make sure things don't go south in that area. You know, Israel is a strong ally of the United States, another reason we're interested in the region. But number one, clearly, is oil.
CONAN: This email from Michael. Tom, have you read anything to the effect of the armed forces, especially the Navy, being used and enhanced in ecocatastrophic responses as part of a global climate change - storms, quakes, tsunami et cetera. I know the military has been ahead of the American public in acknowledging the destabilizing potential of climate change and had it in planning documents.
BOWMAN: They have been talking about that more and more in the past number of years. It could be - well, this is all wrapped into population growth, coastal cities becoming much larger, potential for instability. The Marines, U.S. Marines in particular, were helpful in the tsunami episode and so forth. So...
CONAN: In Japan, yes.
BOWMAN: In Japan. And so clearly, they're looking at that as a concern in the coming years and having to go in and do humanitarian operations and so forth. That's a big selling point for the Marine Corps now that, basically, we can do it all. We can fight wars, and we can be there for humanitarian disasters. But as far as climate change, everyone in the Pentagon is talking about that as a real concern for problems in the future.
CONAN: And I guess, the Navy played an important role in the first days in Haiti, a couple of years ago as well, but to say that the Navy or Marine Corps exists to work - help out in ecodisasters is, well, it's an expensive way to do it.
BOWMAN: Right. Or the Marines can say we can do it all...
BOWMAN: ...everything from humanitarian up to wars.
CONAN: So, Tom Bowman, thanks very much for your time today, and we'll look forward to this as the numbers come out, the devil always in the details most of the time.
CONAN: NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman here with us in Studio 3A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.