Obama Adviser: U.S. Hasn't Walked Away From Libya

With anti-U.S. protests continuing across the Islamic world, President Obama's goal of resetting and improving relations seems in doubt. Audie Cornish talks with the Obama campaign's foreign policy adviser Michele Flournoy about the administration's Middle East agenda, and differences with the Romney campaign.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Joining us now is a foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign. Michele Flournoy was, until this past February, undersecretary of defense for policy. Welcome to the program.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Thank you. Glad to be with you, Audie.

CORNISH: I'd like to put to you something that Rich Williamson, a Romney foreign policy adviser, said to us on Friday. I mean, he was talking about Libya and he criticized the Obama administration for not playing a large enough role there since Gadhafi fell. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

RICHARD WILLIAMSON: One of the lessons of the last 20 years in post-conflict situations that Bill Clinton learned in the Balkans, in Kosovo and Bosnia that we learned in East Timor, in the Pacific, that we learned in Sierra Leone in Africa is when an authoritarian regime falls as a result of conflict, you can't just walk away. You have to help in reconciliation, reconstruction, helping institutions of law and order, security be built.

CORNISH: Michele Flournoy, your response to that critique that the administration hasn't done enough here.

FLOURNOY: It's just misinformed. The United States and our NATO allies have certainly not walked away from Libya. When you look at our own assistance, we are focused on helping them build their counterterrorism capacity, helping to undertake security sector reform, helping with stabilization programs both with financial assistance and technical assistance. And again, this is not only the U.S. but it's a European effort and an effort by other countries in the region as well.

CORNISH: I want to take you back to the early days of the Obama presidency when the president made a major speech in Cairo. And it was a speech to the Arab world, and here's a clip of something that he said at that time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've come here to Cairo to seek a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world, one based on mutual interest and mutual respect and one based upon the truth that America and Islam are not exclusive and need not be in competition.

CORNISH: Now that new beginning the president spoke about, I mean, does that sound naive today? And why do you think that President Obama's efforts in this part of the world haven't paid higher dividends?

FLOURNOY: Well, I don't think it was naive. Remember the context: the United States had gone to war in Afghanistan after 9/11. We had started a war of choice in Iraq, another Muslim country. We had proclaimed a war against terror, which many, unfortunately, interpreted as a war against Islam. And so I think the president was trying to clarify U.S. objectives to say our war is not with Islam. It is against terrorists and specifically al-Qaida.

I think the president has been very steady in his leadership in response to the Arab Spring. We were clearly on the right side of history in Libya where we helped support the intervention that eventually allowed the Libyan people to overthrow a brutal dictator. And in Egypt, it was the president who called first for Mubarak to step down, and he sided with the Egyptian people in their quest for freedom and for basic rights.

CORNISH: At the same time, if voters are to look at a situation like Syria where the administration is far more cautious about involvement, I mean, how can people know what the administration would want to do going forward in terms of its role in countries that have emerged from the Arab Spring?

FLOURNOY: You know, I think the case of Syria is one where the president has stated that he is, you know, horrified by the humanitarian situation, that he's called for Assad to step down, but I think he rightly understands that the American people are not exactly anxious to start another U.S. war in the Middle East and that he has been very cautious and very careful about the use of force. He certainly has demonstrated he has no hesitance with regard to going after bin Laden or executing a surge in Afghanistan. When our vital interests are at stake, and military force is the right option, this president will use it. But he's not going to rush into a situation that is not in the U.S.'s interests.

And so I think the question really for his opponent Mitt Romney is what exactly would he do differently in the Middle East? Is he implying that he would be more willing to use force and get America involved in serious civil war?6

CORNISH: Now Mitt Romney and his campaign have implied, I mean they're repeated the phrase peace through strength, as the approach that they would take with foreign policy. And beyond slogans, I mean, what do you see is the real difference here between the two campaigns?

FLOURNOY: You know, I think the real difference - that this president has a clear record that the American people have lived through and understand and largely support. What's difficult about Mitt Romney is that it's very difficult to get beyond the bumper stickers. When you press OK, exactly what would you do? Exactly what would be different? You don't get much of a response. And so I think there's a real question mark. What they - what we have all seen is the candidate's willingness, Romney's willingness, to jump into an unfolding tragedy, like the death of our ambassador in Libya, and try to score political points in a situation like that, which I think many people found very distasteful.

CORNISH: During the Democratic National Convention and on the campaign trail, the Obama campaign has sort of talked about having the upper hand as far as foreign policy goes over the Romney campaign. But how can President Obama acknowledge all the unrest in the Middle East right now, and still make the case that we're headed in the right direction? I mean wasn't he supposed to reset the relationship?

FLOURNOY: Well, I think we have to step back. What's happening in the Middle East is we are in the first chapter of a very, very long book, a very long history, and the pen is in the hands of the Arab people and the people of the region. I think the U.S. does have a leadership role to play. I think President Obama is playing that role, but we have to recognize there are going to be bumps in the road, there are going to be difficult times. We just have to pause and take a deep breath and stay focused on our objectives and focused on building these relationships. And what matters - what really impressed me was that when President Obama was able immediately to engage with the new leaders of these countries and upon that engagement got very helpful reactions from them in terms of tamping down the violence and improving the security situation.

CORNISH: So is the response to voters: Hold on we're not done yet? I mean, what do you say for four years going forward?

FLOURNOY: I think that we will continue to see great progress in the coming four years if President Obama's elected in defeating al-Qaida, in transitioning out of Afghanistan, in rebalancing a lot of our focus towards Asia, which will drive our economic prosperity in the future, while staying engaged in the Middle East and trying to help this democratic transition process and the cause of freedom make progress.

CORNISH: Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of defense for policy and now foreign policy adviser to the Obama campaign. Thank you for speaking with us.

FLOURNOY: Thank you.

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