Flournoy discusses defense issues in the Obama administration

“The Pentagon changed fundamentally when we became a nation at war,” said former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy Thursday night during a discussion at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

A visiting fellow of the Von Der Heyden Fellows Program, Flournoy spoke with Peter Feaver, professor of public policy and political science, about her work at the Department of Defense, the future of U.S. foreign policy and the ongoing presidential campaign.

Flournoy served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy during a first term at the Pentagon in the mid-1990s and saw the changes caused throughout the department by 9/11. “[The 90s] were nothing compared to today in terms of tempo and immediacy of issues, lives on the line.” 9/11 prompted a shift in the intelligence company, said Flournoy, creating structures that encourage open debate and the airing of more diverse perspectives.

Discussing counterinsurgency strategies in Afghanistan, Flournoy defended President Obama’s decision to deploy more troops, despite political resistance and upcoming Afghan elections. “There was no pre-determination, and I never felt any pressure in terms of ‘do not come and ask for more troops,’” she said. “We knew we were putting in more troops; the debate was about how many more were required to increase the chances of success.”

Flournoy learned the necessity of not personalizing intense policy debates. “People had fundamentally different diagnoses of what was going wrong in Afghanistan,” she said. “There can be lots of fireworks, and people are often exhausted or under pressure, but I wouldn’t over-personalize it.” 

While Flournoy lauded the “remarkable transformations” made at the local government level in Afghanistan, she also described the challenges ahead. “The security dimension only takes you so far in creating space for reconciliation, which has not proceeded at the pace that I think everyone would like to see,” she said, citing corruption as a major impediment to political progress. “Afghanistan is going to be low on the corruption index for quite a long time, and we have to continue to push for that to change.”

After co-founding the Center for New American Security in 2007, Flournoy joined President Obama’s administration in 2009 as the highest ranking woman at the Pentagon as under secretary, leaving in February this year to join Obama’s re-election campaign.

“We grossly underestimated how hard it would be to close Guantanamo Bay,” said Flournoy on the president’s performance in defense. “The President has managed to reduce its population, but we haven’t cracked the code with Congress.” The refusal of Congress to put Guantanamo’s prisoners through the judicial system on American soil has been a severe roadblock, she said. “I think the administration will admit that it did not fully appreciate how difficult that challenge would be.”

Flournoy predicted that if given a second term, President Obama would focus his foreign policy efforts on building upon his first-term record. “You can expect a continued focus on Al Qaeda and the counter-terrorism fight locally, as well as on getting the Afghan transition right,” she said. “On the military side, the President’s first priority is going to be a balanced budget deal that puts some degree of revenues and spending cuts on the table.”

Such a deal would create predictability that would unlock the private sector investment needed for economic revitalization, Flournoy said.

Flournoy helped develop the Department of Defense’s new Strategic Guidance, part of which rebalances U.S. defense policy toward protecting freedom of access in the Asia Pacific, an increasingly contested commons. Flournoy stressed the need to reconcile territorial disputes in Southeast Asia before they escalate.

 “What’s been theoretical as a claim is now, as exploration and drilling starts, becoming very real,” she said. “This is an area where there’s huge potential for miscalculation and conflict in the future if we’re not careful. It’s one of the reasons we need to be pushing much harder for some actual negotiations.”

Flournoy also spoke about the public sector as a career choice for college graduates. “I’m a big proponent for public service in whatever form suits you, and seeing how the government really works is really important for Americans,” she said. “There are some tremendous patriots out there… What needs to happen is a fundamental rethinking of how we’re serving the American people, and we need smart, capable people to be part of that transformation.”

The Von Der Heyden Fellows Program Endowed Lecture is presented by the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy, with support from the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, the Sanford School of Public Policy and the Duke International Relations Association.