Michele Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy, played an influential role in formulating defense policy in President Barack Obama’s administration. During her time as under secretary, she contributed to policy developments regarding the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the intervention in Libya and the American response to the Arab Spring.
While she was visiting Duke to give a lecture Sept. 27, Flournoy spoke with The Chronicle’s Samantha Brooks about foreign policy decisions, maintaining a strong military in times of tight budget constraints and her experience as a female leader in the Pentagon.
The Chronicle: What was the calculus within the Obama administration for intervening in Libya? How was that different from Syria, where the uprising against the dictatorial Assad regime continues?
Michele Flournoy: In the case of Libya, you had a situation where clearly there was an imminent threat to tens of thousands of civilians in Benghazi. You had our European friends calling for international intervention. Very importantly, you had the Arab League, the surrounding neighboring states calling for intervention and then you had the resolution on the part of the U.N. Security Council authorizing international intervention to prevent the killing of civilians and so forth.
We also had an invitation basically from the opposition saying, “Please come to our aid.” So, there was very strong internal and external consensus.
The Syria situation is much more complex and difficult in the sense that you have a divided opposition, you have a division of opinion on the part of the surrounding countries as to whether they want any outside intervention, you have Russia and China clearly opposing any U.N. sanctioning of any intervention and you have a much more capable military on the ground.
It is less clear in the case of Syria whether an intervention would actually help the situation or whether it would make it worse. Instead, the Obama administration has focused on providing humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people on the ground, pressuring the Assad regime to step down through sanctions and other pressure and working with the opposition so they can build their cohesion. [This way], they can provide a viable alternative to the regime and present a transition plan that actually allows people to change sides and jump on board a new government.
TC: How much does pressure from other nations versus what’s taking place within a country affect the U.S. approach to the situation?
MF: Whenever you’re thinking about intervention you really have to have a sense of clarity about the mission and how the intervention will actually get you to a better position over time.
Again, in Syria, the opposition has not wanted outside military intervention, they wanted support. I think the administration along with several of our international partners are providing that. But it’s always a combination of factors, and each case is unique. I think the administration has had a consistent, principled approach to the Arab Spring, but the truth is each of these countries is in a unique situation and our policy has to be tailored to a case-by-case basis.
TC: What was your experience working with President Obama? What is his leadership style? How does he make decisions?
MF: I think he’s an extraordinary leader and an extraordinary commander in chief. He is extremely deliberate in his decision-making. He is capable of being decisive, but he is someone who wants to get all points of view and as many facts on the table before he makes a decision.
If you’re in the back of the room and you have a scowl on your face because you are concentrating or disagree on something, he will find the person who looks like they don’t agree and solicit dissent. He’ll say, ‘You look like you don’t agree with what the consensus is, tell me what your thoughts are.’ He seeks out that different point of view and creates space for people to speak up and tell him if they think he is about to make a mistake. I think that’s yielded better and smarter decision-making.
TC: Has the pressure in the office grown as the elections have drawn closer?
MF: I left office in February, so I’m a little dated in my experience, but my experience with the president is that he really tried to keep the election pressures in context and at bay when he was making national security decisions. He really tries to focus on what’s the right thing to protect and advance the American interest, what’s the right thing to be true to our values, how do we sustain our leadership position in the world, and I didn’t see him factoring election politics into those decisions when he’s wearing his commander in chief hat.
TC: What was it like to be a female leader in the defense department? Did you ever feel treated differently because you are a woman?
MF: It was a wonderful experience. The good news is there are more and more women taking leadership positions. When I was in the Clinton administration in the Pentagon, we could fit all the women leaders around a small dining table. Now we would overflow the dining room. So progress has been made. I felt very much a welcomed part of the secretary’s team, and it was an extraordinary experience.
TC: Have you ever felt like you were treated differently in your career because of your gender?
MF: Well, you have to get used to being the only woman in the room and unfortunately that’s still the case in certain circles, but you just have to not mind it and if someone else has an issue with it, it’s their problem, not yours. And certainly in this administration, I didn’t have any experience where my gender was at all an issue in terms of my ability to do my job.
TC: How will U.S. strategy have to change in an era of ever tightening fiscal constraints?
MF: Given the pressures that we face and given the fact that we’re going to have to constrain spending to reach a budget deal and a deficit deal in order to move this country forward, it really puts an emphasis on being clear about your priorities. We can’t do everything, we can’t be everywhere, and we can’t invest equally in everything, so you have to place your bets.
One of the things President Obama has been clear about is that as we come out of this decade of war [in Afghanistan and Iraq], we have to place our focus. He’s really made the argument that in terms of driving the future of our economic prosperity and a lot of the dynamics in the world, Asia Pacific is going to be the number one region of interest to us. Now it doesn’t mean that we’re going to withdraw or turn our back on the Middle East, or turn our back on our NATO allies, but we need to be putting more strategic focus on Asia Pacific given its importance and I think that’s been a clear part of the president’s strategy.
TC: Will it be feasible or worthwhile to maintain the current numbers of troops stationed around the world?
MF: There will be a withdrawal in Afghanistan, certainly, as we get to the point of transition in 2014. There will probably be a small residual force still there to help the Afghans with their training in counterterrorism.
I don’t think you’ll see lots of American forces or additional American forces permanently stationed around the world, but I think what you will see in our interest to be present is a lot of rotational forces—forces visiting regions, going and training with partners or conducting training exercises with allies and then rotating back out. And that’s a good thing for the United States because the more present we are, the more engaged we are, the more we can be a force for the stability that really underlies our economic dynamism.
TC: Will we see a shift toward more tactical exercises of force, such as drone strikes?
MF: I think that the president has lead an extremely effective counterterrorism campaign against al Qaeda, and in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region the pressure is so severe that they are mainly focused on their own survival opposed to any plotting against the United States homeland.
Drone strikes have been necessary where the U.S. has not had an adequately willing or capable counterterrorism partner on the ground, a country that can really assert its sovereignty or its territory and really take care of the problem itself. In general, our preferred approach is to partner with another country and build up their capacity to really take control of their own territory and deny a safe haven to terrorists in their home territory. But again, where that’s not possible and where there are imminent threats to the United States, active plotting going on, sometime unilateral measures are necessary.
I don’t think that they will necessarily increase. We could actually get to a tipping point with al Qaeda’s leadership that you’ve so decimated the ranks that that kind of pressure is no longer necessary, and I certainly hope that that is what takes place.
TC: If another conflict with a threat level similar to al Qaeda arises, will this be the next approach, or do you plan to continue to stress partnerships?
MF: I think the emphasis will be on building the capacity with partners, for them to be able to deal with terrorist organizations on their soils. These unilateral kinetic measures are only when that’s the only way to deal with an imminent threat, when you don’t have other options.
TC: What was your role in planning the raid that led to killing Osama bin Laden?
MF: My role was supporting Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his participation in the National Security Council deliberations. When the raid actually occurred you can imagine there was a lot of engagement that had to happen: telling the Pakistanis, telling the Afghans, informing Congress, informing our allies. I was very much apart of again supporting Secretary Gates in his role in that dimension.
TC: In such extreme cases, how do you manage the relations with the other nations involved?
MF: In the case of the bin Laden raid, the secrecy around the operation was extreme given who Osama bin Laden was, given the risk that he would flee if any information leaked out, and so it was very tightly held as a planning effort. As soon as possible, outreach was made to all of the countries that were involved, first and foremost Pakistan.
It was a very tough decision for the president to decide whether or not to involve Pakistan in the front end. On the one hand, they’ve been a very important ally in the counterterrorism efforts in some cases, but we’ve also had numerous experiences when sharing information with them had lead to loss of control of that information inside our own intelligence services or premature action on their part that was not very successful. In this case, given the stakes, the president chose to take U.S.-only action knowing that that would be challenging for U.S.-Pakistan relationship, and I think we’ve been working through that and other tensions in that relationship to get back to a solid partnership.