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.
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 commandand-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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