Flournoy Discusses State of World as She Leaves Office

WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2012 — The day Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden was also a long and tense day for Michele Flournoy, the under­sec­re­tary of defense for pol­i­cy.

Michele Flournoy

She was at the White House on May 2 help­ing then-Defense Sec­re­tary Robert M. Gates make calls to for­eign civil­ian and mil­i­tary lead­ers. She was among the first to know that the joint spe­cial oper­a­tions mis­sion deep in Pak­istan had been suc­cess­ful. Late that night after Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s announce­ment that jus­tice had caught up with the 9–11 plan­ner, Flournoy walked out of the White House. “I did­n’t know that peo­ple had spon­ta­neous­ly gath­ered out­side,” she said. “I could hear them singing but not iden­ti­fy it at first. Then I rec­og­nized the ‘Star-Span­gled Ban­ner.’ It was an incred­i­ble moment.” 

Flournoy will leave office this week after serv­ing dur­ing three years of incred­i­ble change for the depart­ment and the world. The pres­i­dent has nom­i­nat­ed James Miller, the cur­rent prin­ci­ple deputy at the office, to suc­ceed her. 

When Flournoy came into office there were still more than 100,000 troops in Iraq and vio­lence was grow­ing in Afghanistan. There was a plan in place to end U.S. involve­ment in Iraq and a ques­tion mark about what to do in Afghanistan. 

The bin Laden raid marked a high point for the world in the war on ter­ror­ists. Flournoy cred­its Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s lead­er­ship for being key to suc­cess. “This was not a slam dunk in terms of an easy judg­ment call,” she said. “This was some­thing that frankly he had some very senior advi­sors telling him not to do. He took a cal­cu­lat­ed risk, but at the end of the day it was an extreme­ly strong deci­sion, and one that meant a lot sym­bol­i­cal­ly in the fight against al-Qaida.” 

Flournoy is hap­py with the progress made against this dead­ly ter­ror group, but “it’s a project we’re not fin­ished with yet,” she said. “We should be par­tic­u­lar­ly grate­ful for the con­tri­bu­tions of our spe­cial oper­a­tions and intel­li­gence forces.” 

The U.S. mil­i­tary left Iraq at the end of 2011, and after a surge of 33,000 Amer­i­can troops into Afghanistan, there is enough progress that a draw­down has begun there. 

Some talk­ing heads have said the U.S. mil­i­tary is now in decline, a premise with which Flournoy strong­ly dis­agrees. “This is not a mil­i­tary in decline,” she said. “It’s hard to remem­ber a time when the U.S. had more capa­bil­i­ty, more pro­fes­sion­al exper­tise, more peo­ple who were bat­tle-test­ed at the pin­na­cle of their pro­fes­sion of arms.” 

It is only nat­ur­al, she said, that as one war ends and anoth­er draws down that mil­i­tary offi­cials are con­tem­plat­ing a small­er force. “We grew the force to accom­mo­date these two large ground wars,” Flournoy said. “It’s only expect­ed you would exam­ine this draw­down over time.” 

Flournoy cit­ed two of Defense Sec­re­tary Leon E. Panetta’s guide­lines for the new defense strat­e­gy. The first was at the end of the process, Amer­i­ca would still have the most pow­er­ful mil­i­tary in the world. “Sec­ond, he said he want­ed to learn the lessons of pre­vi­ous draw­downs,” she said. 

Pre­vi­ous draw­downs result­ed in a hol­low force — mean­ing typ­i­cal­ly too much force struc­ture and sac­ri­fices to train­ing, mod­ern­iza­tion and readi­ness. “So the force looks good on paper, but it’s not what the coun­try real­ly needs,” she said. “We’ve looked that risk in the eye and we’re doing every­thing we can to be mind­ful and avoid a hol­low force this time.” 

Many ser­vice mem­bers see the pol­i­cy posi­tion as one that does­n’t have any impact on their lives; how­ev­er, “pol­i­cy first and fore­most real­ly affects where we focus our atten­tion as an instru­ment of nation­al pol­i­cy,” the under­sec­re­tary said. “It affects where we’re going in Afghanistan and what we com­mit to there, [and] our broad­er glob­al sense of priorities.” 

Oba­ma announced a new defense strat­e­gy ear­li­er this month that talks about re-bal­anc­ing the U.S. mil­i­tary to put greater empha­sis on Asia. “That, long term, is going to affect the lives of ser­vice mem­bers as more and more of them will be asked to serve in Asia in sup­port of build­ing part­ner capac­i­ty there, enhanc­ing deter­rence, reas­sur­ing allies and so forth,” Flournoy said. 

Asia is becom­ing more impor­tant to Amer­i­ca, she said, not­ing Asian mar­kets and sup­pli­ers dri­ve the U.S. econ­o­my. “With the end of the war in Iraq, we have more ‘band­width’ to focus on the future. Obvi­ous­ly we will do what we need to to pre­vail in Afghanistan, but as we think more and more about the future we see both the chal­lenges and oppor­tu­ni­ties aris­ing out of Asia.” 

The rise of Chi­na and India as world pow­ers rein­forces the trend, but the Unit­ed States must cul­ti­vate oth­er nations in South­east Asia, Flournoy said. Also impor­tant, she not­ed, is the con­tin­ued and deep alliances with Japan and South Korea. 

“The Unit­ed States is a Pacif­ic pow­er and has always played a unique role in under­writ­ing the secu­ri­ty under which all that dynamism and eco­nom­ic growth has been based,” Flournoy said. 

But could Asia remain sta­ble with­out the Unit­ed States? “It’s hard to imag­ine that with so much com­pe­ti­tion and peri­ods of great ten­sion and even con­flict,” she said. “It is some­thing that even coun­tries that are not our allies — like Chi­na and oth­er coun­tries in the region — all tend to acknowl­edge that the Unit­ed States plays a sta­bi­liz­ing influ­ence and they don’t want us to leave.” 

The Mid­dle East and Cen­tral Asia remain areas of tur­moil, but Flournoy feels good about the respon­si­ble con­clu­sion in Iraq. “We’ve set Iraq up to be a sta­ble and sov­er­eign and self-reliant coun­try,” she said, “and we’ve set our­selves up to have a very robust secu­ri­ty rela­tion­ship with them going forward. 

“And I think we’ve turned around the strat­e­gy in Afghanistan,” she con­tin­ued. “I think there has been a lot of progress there. For the first time in five years, vio­lence is down in Afghanistan.” For the first time in years, the Unit­ed States has “a shot” at achiev­ing its goals, she added. 

The NATO oper­a­tion to pro­tect civil­ians in Libya from Libyan dic­ta­tor Moam­mar Gad­hafi is a good mod­el for the future, Flournoy not­ed. The U.S. mil­i­tary played a lim­it­ed role focused on the unique capa­bil­i­ties that the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pos­sess­es, such as air-to-air refu­el­ing; intel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and recon­nais­sance assets; and command–and-control infrastructure. 

The Unit­ed States had impor­tant inter­ests, but they were not vital in the coun­try. Oth­er nations had far more at stake. “I actu­al­ly think this is an inter­est­ing mod­el for the future, par­tic­u­lar­ly as we have greater suc­cess in build­ing part­ner and allied capac­i­ty and oth­ers are capa­ble of step­ping in to take a lead­er­ship role,” she said. 

The actions over Libya and in Afghanistan prove that NATO is an active and vibrant alliance, Flournoy not­ed. “The ques­tion for NATO is as these eco­nom­ic pres­sures increase on our Euro­pean allies, how are they going to man­age their own defense enter­prise? How are they going to keep invest­ing in defense capa­bil­i­ties that enable them to keep con­tribut­ing to the future?” 

NATO needs to take stock of the assets with­in the alliance and find a smarter and cheap­er way to pro­vide capa­bil­i­ties. “How do we lever­age each oth­ers’ strengths?” she asked. “How do we mit­i­gate the short­falls that we expe­ri­ence? We need to put our minds togeth­er to ensure the sum of the con­tri­bu­tions is greater than the ‘each­es.’ ”

Flournoy saw increased empha­sis on cyber­se­cu­ri­ty and expects oper­a­tions in cyber­space to become more impor­tant in the years to come. Her office gets involved because the domain is so new, and experts are puz­zling over what con­sti­tutes an attack. What con­sti­tutes an act of war? What is an appro­pri­ate response? 

This past year saw the Arab Awak­en­ing and Flournoy sees it as both a chal­lenge and an oppor­tu­ni­ty. “It’s a num­ber of coun­tries try­ing to embrace the ideals that have defined the Unit­ed States since its found­ing — democ­ra­cy, rule of law, open dia­logue, a vibrant pub­lic square,” she said. 

“The chal­lenge comes because this is hap­pen­ing in areas where the soci­eties have real­ly been oppressed so there haven’t been con­di­tions for the devel­op­ment of polit­i­cal par­ties, free and fair elec­tions and debate and so forth,” she said. 

Right now, some of the par­ties best posi­tioned to exploit the oppor­tu­ni­ties “are not the most rep­re­sen­ta­tive or most demo­c­ra­t­ic,” she said. “Long term, I think this will prove to be a pos­i­tive devel­op­ment in this part of the world.” 

After three years of a fre­net­ic pace, Flournoy will take some time to get re-acquaint­ed with her fam­i­ly. But she will miss the job, she said. 

“I’ve had the good for­tune to work with two extra­or­di­nary sec­re­taries of defense, a won­der­ful team of mil­i­tary coun­ter­parts and the chance to inter­act with the extra­or­di­nary men and women who ser­vice in uni­form,” she said. “In my trips to Afghanistan and Iraq and oth­er oper­a­tional areas, I was just con­sis­tent­ly bowled over by the qual­i­ty of the peo­ple and their ded­i­ca­tion to the mission.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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