'A Number Of Crises' Facing Obama In W. Africa, Beyond

Steve Inskeep talks with Michele Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. Flournoy weighs in on foreign policy challenges facing the president in his second term.

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RENEE MONTAGE, HOST:

And let's rejoin Steve, now, over at the Capitol.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Yeah. And let's bring one more voice into the conversation, here. Michele Flournoy is a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, was mentioned at one time as a possible secretary of defense in a second term. Ms. Flournoy, where are you this morning?

MICHELE FLOURNOY: We are on our way from Bethesda, downtown.

INSKEEP: OK. Well, good luck with the traffic. There are a couple of people who got here ahead of you. Let me just ask, because Mara Liasson was mentioning different crises, different trouble spots. Just in the last few days, of course, many people around the world have followed the hostage crisis in Algeria, its possible or apparent link to insurgency in Mali. How grave a situation is that going to be for the president in his second term, West Africa?

FLOURNOY: Well, I do think there's great concern about the potential for a safe haven to exist in Mali, for an al-Qaida-affiliated group. And that will certainly be on the radar screen for the second term, along with, you know, so many of the other problems that were just mentioned. I think the president will want to focus very much at home. Getting our economic house in order is job one, and it's very important for shoring up our - not only our economy, but our standing around the world. But a lot of, you know, the world doesn't always cooperate, and I think the president's going to have a number of crises on his plate going ahead, going forward.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about that, because we are in a situation where the situation in West Africa is developing. There are Arab revolutions that continue. There's an Israeli election tomorrow. It's been said that this president would like to shift American attention more toward East Asia, where it seems the future lies, and the economic future lies. Do you think he's going to be able to pull that off in the end, given the crises we just mentioned?

FLOURNOY: Well, I think a lot of this is about where you proactively send your diplomatic attention, where you invest economically and with your time. And I do think that Asia is the region of greatest opportunity for the United States in the future, and I think the president will continue that rebalancing effort. But obviously, the U.S. has to stay engaged with the rest of the world to protect our interests and promote our values. I think...

INSKEEP: We've got about...

FLOURNOY: Go ahead.

INSKEEP: ...we've got a couple of seconds left. I'm just curious if there's on sentence or one thought you're hoping to hear out of the president in his speech today?

FLOURNOY: You know, I think I hope to hear him say that we are going to stay engaged as a unique leader in the world, but we are going to do that in a smart and selective way that protects our power and focuses our effort on what we need to do at home.

INSKEEP: OK. Ms. Flournoy, thanks very much, and good luck braving the crowds.

FLOURNOY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Michele Flournoy is a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. We are about three hours away from the president's inaugural speech. We'll have live coverage right here on NPR News.

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