When President Barack Obama nominated Michele Flournoy to be Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, she became the highest-ranking woman in the Pentagon’s history. She was rumored to be Hillary Clinton’s pick for Secretary of Defense. And after President Donald Trump’s election, General James Mattis asked her to be his Deputy Secretary of Defense, a position she turned down.
Flournoy, who is currently the CEO & Founder of the DC-based think tank the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), sat down with The Cipher Brief’s CEO & Publisher Suzanne Kelly to discuss her views on the new Administration, and why she thinks North Korea is the most pressing challenge.
Suzanne Kelly: Tell me a little about what your mission is with the Center and if your mission changed after election day last year?
Michele Flournoy: We try to do two things: develop pragmatic, principled ideas for national security to try to take on the toughest problems and develop solutions and offer those to policy makers. Secondly, we have a big focus on our mission on growing the next generation of young national security leaders.
In terms of how the mission has changed, we are still in the business of both of those things, but with this Administration, we will continue to offer ideas on where we think the administration should go to advance U.S. security. When they take those ideas, we’ll be cheering for them. When they go in a different direction or a direction that we think is dangerous for the country, we will be speaking up and speaking up loudly, whether it is in the media or working with Congress or getting outside of Washington to work with the rest of the country.
SK: What is your sense, so far, of how open they are going to be to some of your suggestions?
MF: It really depends. There are some areas where we are going to see more continuity than change, for example, counterterrorism and trying to deal with the problem of ISIS. It remains to be seen whether some of the campaign rhetoric will be moderated when it comes to actually translating that into policy. There have been some signals sent by various cabinet members, whether it is Secretary [of Defense James] Mattis in his travels or Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson in his that have struck a more reassuring tone for our allies and suggested more continuity than change.
SK: Let’s talk about some of those cabinet members. How much confidence do you have in some of his initial picks?
MF: It really varies. I am a huge fan of Secretary Mattis. He is someone I knew very well and worked very closely with, when he was in uniform. While I wasn’t wild about the principle of putting a recently retired military officer into a civilian oversight position – something we have only done once before, 70 years ago when General [George] Marshall got a waiver to serve as Secretary of Defense – once every 70 years may be okay.
But in the case of Jim Mattis, he brings tremendous experience, understanding of history, understanding the importance of our alliances, and how to best protect our interests. I think a lot of people sleep better at night knowing that he is in there trying to influence and shape policy.
I think Secretary Tillerson has been slower out of the blocks, and he doesn’t have a team in place yet. He has very much been learning his brief, not engaging all that much with the State Department itself or even abroad. But now he is starting to travel. He is starting to get out there. So again, we will be watching his performance and seeing what he brings. I think the real question is: will there be a process that allows President Trump to actually leverage the experience and expertise where it exists?
SK: How do you prioritize the toughest problems?
MF: The most urgent category is North Korea and the potential for some kind of crisis if the wrong kind of missile test is conducted, or a nuclear test is conducted, or a nuclear weapon is deployed on top of a missile that can reach the United States. That can instantly create a crisis. One of the lessons of history is that every Administration since Eisenhower has had a major foreign policy crisis in their first year. In some cases, it’s been a major distraction, and in other cases, it’s been a source of derailment.
I think it is prudent for the Administration to expect something to happen and to be ready for that. I also think we have to keep our eye on the ball with regard to the counterterrorism fight and making sure that we’re maintaining the momentum vis-à-vis ISIS but also making sure that we’re conducting the operations in ways that don’t create too many civilian casualties or alienate our allies.
SK: The Administration also appears to be taking a more active role in the Middle East when it comes to sending approximately 400 troops to Syria, for instance. Some 200 were sent to Iraq, and 1000 to Kuwait. But it’s no longer publicly announcing those deployments. Does that signal policy shift in Syria and the Middle East, and what impact might that have?
MF: I would hope that they would announce these movements, because I think transparency is key in a democracy and for good policy. I don’t see the role of the U.S. forces changing. What I see is us moving into a critical phase, both in Iraq in Mosul, and in Syria in Raqqa, where we’re going to need to provide additional support to partner forces who are doing the main fighting.
A lot of the additional troops will be artillery support and to the forces in Syria, additional air support and so forth. So I don’t think there’s a fundamental shift at this point, but that’s something we need to keep our eye on.
I do think it’s a little bit short sighted, more than a little bit short sighted, that the administration is talking about cutting the diplomatic and development funding that they’re going to need after the clearing of Mosul and Raqqa to actually stabilize those areas.
SK: Because that’s been a recipe for disaster in the past?
MF: Yes, and you can’t just kick ISIS out and then do nothing to rebuild and stabilize the area, because they’re like a weed, they’ll come right back in.
SK: Let’s talk about Yemen right now and how strategically important it is.
MF: It’s one of four civil wars ongoing in the Middle East. For the United States, it matters first and foremost because it’s home to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is one of the most technologically sophisticated al Qaeda groups.
We also care about it because of the humanitarian dimension and because our close partner, Saudi Arabia, has got pulled into a proxy fight with the Houthis, who are being supported by Iran. I would hope that U.S. diplomacy might help to bring the parties to the table to some kind of negotiated solution in Yemen.
SK: You have said that when it came to Iran, if there was no negotiated deal on its nuclear capabilities, the U.S. might be forced into a position where they would take military action and potentially start another war in the Middle East. Do you still feel that way?
MF: I do. Before we had the deal, Iran was making steady progress towards acquiring enough material to be able to have a nuclear weapon.
So whether you like the deal or not, even critics have to acknowledge that it’s put time back on the clock. Iran is now more than a year away from a nuclear weapons capability. We have inspectors watching their every move on their centrifuges. We’ve removed material out of the country.
SK: The U.S. I would think is still implementing plans for “what if” and going through table top exercises…
MF: Of course, the same military contingency plans exist. The same forces are in the region ready to implement those plans if necessary, so I don’t think that’s a tremendous concern at this point. The options are there. As the deal reaches the end of its life, we’ll have to think about how we continue to put pressure on Iran to abide by its commitments under the nonproliferation treaty. where it agreed, signed treaties saying that we will be a non-nuclear weapon state. And that remains an international obligation, even when this nuclear deal ends.
SK: Let’s talk about Russia and NATO, given the Intelligence Community’s findings about the Russian interference in the election, the Administration’s reluctance to address it directly, and its strident comments about NATO. In your view, what should be the U.S. strategy be vis-à-vis Russia? And how should we respond?
MF: We have to have a very clear-eyed assessment of what Russia’s actions have been. In our own election, they had a concerted campaign to try to undermine our democratic process through the use of cyberattacks, WikiLeaks, fake news, and on and on. We’re now seeing a mini-version of that same kind of campaign across Europe, as several European countries hold their elections. They’ve gone even farther in Europe in actually funding certain political parties and candidates. We’ve seen them break international law through forcibly annexing Crimea and invading a sovereign country, Ukraine. We’ve seen them intervene in Syria to support the Assad regime at its weakest moment, and made common cause with the worst of Iran’s militia forces and so forth.
This is a part of a strategy that I believe [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin is pursuing to try to reassert Russia as a global power, re-establish a sphere of influence, and weaken democracies on both sides of the Atlantic.
We have to start from that premise. From that basis, say, “Are there areas where we can try to improve the situation with Russia?” I think that has to be both demonstrating our resolve by investing in our NATO alliance and making sure we have a clear deterrent posture in Europe on NATO’s borders. Then, from that greater position of being clear about our own interests and our own posture, explore whether there’s something to talk about. But the notion of talking just to reduce tensions and basically abandoning our own interests in that process – that wouldn’t make any sense.
SK: What is your take on the White House’s proposed budget increases for the Department of Defense? Congress still has to approve the increase, but you’ve spoken frequently about the dangers posed by sequestration to our national security. Is the White House missing the mark here?
MF: I am someone who believes we need to spend more on defense, particularly at a moment where the investments we make over the next ten years will determine whether or not we have the military technological edge in a much more daunting environment, with much more capable competitors. That said, the $54 billion increase – is that a right amount? You can’t really answer that question just looking at the number. You have to see what they haven’t shown us yet, which is how are you proposing to spend that money? My biggest concern is where the money is coming from.
What you want to see is a comprehensive budget deal that gives us a predictable top line for spending on all accounts, including defense, over time. To get there, you have to have a comprehensive budget deal that would put tax reform, entitlement spending, and other things on the table. That’s not what they’ve done here. What they’ve done to increase defense is to gut the other non-defense elements of national security— namely, diplomacy and development. They’ve made the State Department and USAID, as well as others including EPA, the bill-payers to get that defense increase.
That doesn’t make sense. These tools have to work together. The military can only get you so far in securing a situation. To get to the political objectives you’re trying to get, you need those diplomatic and development tools. Plus, you need those tools to try to prevent the crisis from becoming a crisis in the first place. When General Mattis was Central Command Commander, he used to say, “if you’re going cut the State Department, you’ve got to give me more ammunition.” These are preventative tools, and it’s penny-wise and pound-foolish to cut those so drastically.
SK: I’d be remiss not to talk at all about China. What are the priorities that are top of mind for you when it comes to understanding and managing the way forward in the U.S.-China relationship?
MF: China is a very important partner in some areas and a potential competitor in others. So, it’s a nuanced and multidimensional conversation.
I think the most urgent issue that I hope the two presidents will talk about is North Korea, and is there some kind of pressure that China can apply to North Korea to get a slow down or freeze of some of its most worrisome nuclear and missile activities?
Secondly, I think in the past, China has launched some very severe cyber attacks on the U.S. government and also on the U.S. private sector. President Obama had had some very blunt and frank discussions with President Xi [Jinping]. I think it’s important that President Trump reaffirm those positions to make sure that China doesn’t feel like it’s let off the hook of its previous agreements on cyber.
Third, how do we create a more balanced economic and trading relationship, not only bilaterally but also in the region? We’ve really lost a huge amount of leverage by walking away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. I hope that despite the campaign rhetoric, the President will find ways to make some tweaks, because if the U.S. doesn’t lead [on] creating that trade framework in the Asia-Pacific, it will create a vacuum. China will step in, and it will create those agreements in other countries without us, with its own rules of the road, that don’t look anything like that.
SK: Are there things besides some of the cabinet picks that we talked about that the Trump administration is actually doing right. Or you think at least that they’re on the right path?
MF: In many of our bilateral relationships that are not in the headlines, things are moving forward as normal. It’s leadership by the gardening approach, where you’re tending the garden, and you’re dealing with the weeds, and you’re making sure you’re planting new seeds that will flower later. There’s a lot that isn’t on the radar screen that’s not in crisis that is still kind of moving along in an undisturbed way, and I think that’s quite positive, and I hope that will continue for many years where we frankly are on the right track.
I think one of the biggest mistakes that any administration can make is assume that everything that your predecessor did was a terrible mistake and needs to be reversed. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. You want to go through and say, “Okay that’s actually on a good track. Let’s leave it,” and not create problems that you don’t want to create for yourself.
SK: Let me get personal for a minute. You know you were widely expected to be the defense secretary in the Clinton Administration.
MF: No comment (laughs).
SK: What was your gut feeling when you woke up the morning after the election? What was it like for you?
MF: I was deeply disappointed, first, for the country. Second, for women and girls who were ready to break through that glass ceiling, and we had a wonderful candidate to do it. I really regretted that Secretary [Hillary] Clinton did not have an opportunity to lead at that level.
I was lucky to get to know her, up close and personal. Watching someone for hundreds of hours in the situation room, in crisis after crisis, issue after issue, and 99.9 percent of the time, nail it in terms of her advice to the president on what he should do. So, I was deeply disappointed that the country wasn’t going to have that kind of leadership for the next four years.