Finding The Fine Line Between Isolation And The 'Allure Of Normalcy'

Robert Siegel speaks to Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and Michele Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense, about President Obama's commencement speech to West Point graduates.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Two views now of president Obama's West Point speech today. Joining me are first Michele Flournoy, CEO of the Center for a New American Security. She was under secretary of defense. Welcome...

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: ...To the program today. And Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, who's author most recently of the essay "The Allure Of Normalcy." It's in the latest edition of The New Republic. Bob Kagan, welcome to the program once again.

ROBERT KAGAN: Thank you.

SIEGEL: First, Michele Flournoy, your reaction to the speech and in particular, the counterterrorism strategy of partnerships with friendly states from South Asia to Sub-Saharan Africa.

FLOURNOY: You know, I think it was a very strong speech as speeches go in that it reasserted the importance of American leadership and engagement. On counterterrorism specifically, the president laid out a vision for a shift in our counterterrorism policy from an emphasis on direct action, where we are actually striking our enemies directly, to an emphasis on building the capacity of our partners in Yemen, in Somalia, in Mali and elsewhere to be able to deal with the terrorist threat on their soil.

SIEGEL: The idea would be creating almost a chain of partnerships throughout that entire region?

FLOURNOY: Yes. And the truth is that work has already begun. But I think what the president is doing is putting more emphasis on that and calling for congressional support in the form of a $5 billion fund that would support these partnership efforts.

SIEGEL: Robert Kagan, your sense of the speech and the counterterrorism strategy?

KAGAN: Well, to me, I think this is the closest thing to a true expression of what President Obama has thought all along. And to me, it's a speech about retrenchment. I think it's a speech about narrowing the focus of American interest. There is all the necessary talk about the international order and America's role in leadership. But I think if you parse through the speech, and I think as other nations read the speech, they will see, in a way, a codification of what they have already suspected, which is that the United States is sort of narrowing its focus. I think that the emphasis of the speech is on counterterrorism, which is a serious issue, but it's not a global policy. And insofar as other nations are wondering whether the United States will be there for them in a crunch, I think this speech will not make them feel more secure. The tremendous emphasis on avoiding the use of force, I think, will resonate around the world.

SIEGEL: Michele Flournoy, what about that? That the tone of the speech was the bar for the American use of force is an extremely high bar.

FLOURNOY: You know, I don't agree that this was a speech about retrenchment. I do believe the president was trying to say, look, engagement doesn't mean military intervention in every instance. That said, he was very clear. His first point was to say, look, when necessary, the U.S. will use military force to protect its interests and its allies. He also went on to talk about American leadership to strengthen and enforce the international order and also to support human dignity - meaning democracy and human rights. So I think it was a speech about more than counterterrorism. But the real truth is that the debate about this isn't so much about the speech, but about what are the actual policies that will follow or backup the speech? Will the U.S. take a more forward-leaning approach to engagement in the future?

SIEGEL: I want to take something that Robert Kagan says in his New Republic essay and apply to that one specific case, which is Syria. He writes that in all likelihood, the future's going to bring more conflict, more ethnic sectarian violence, fewer democracies. And if the test of America's response - Bob Kagan, you write, is once international interests narrowly construed, many Americans may find all of that conflict and all of those negative outcomes tolerable or less preferable to doing something to stop it. Is that what you heard about Syria today? That while we may be very unhappy about what's happening in Syria, taking forceful action to stop it is less desirable than letting it happen.

KAGAN: Yes. And I think he made a more general point regarding that, which is that there are going to be areas where conflicts involve global order, involve values, involve things that are other than direct threats to American national interests, in which case, we're going to look for others really to take the lead. And the United States is not going to take it upon itself to sort of be the first one in to deal with those problems. And I think it's important to note what a contrast that is with, say, the Clinton administration's approach in the 1990s where the Clinton administration often reluctantly, sometimes after waiting, perhaps, too long in some people's view - but nevertheless, did use force in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti, Somalia where American vital interests were not directly affected. But they were world order questions that the United States was willing to put force behind. And that really goes back to - I think that's been an American approach ever since World War II. And that is what Obama, in my view, is shifting away from.

SIEGEL: Michele Flournoy.

FLOURNOY: You know, I really think this has to do with the timing of response. Even back in the Clinton years, it took the United States and Europe a very long time to finally get...

SIEGEL: To respond to Bosnia, for example. That was it. Yeah.

FLOURNOY: ...Into the Balkans. I do think that an argument could have been made, a strong argument to intervene earlier in Syria, not with direct military force, but with much more substantial assistance to the more moderate rebel groups. And that earlier intervention would have made more of a difference. But I think now, as the conflict has unfolded, it threatens to become more than a civil war. It threatens to destabilize the region, it threatens to create a safe haven for international terrorists who harbor ill will against the United States and so forth. So it is now touching the region as a whole, and it is now very much touching American interests.

SIEGEL: Just in summary, was there an Obama doctrine? Michele Flournoy, did you hear something so grand that it deserves that title today?

FLOURNOY: You know, I don't know what the bumper sticker is. But I do think, you know, we heard a president who's trying to find the right balance between sustaining U.S. leadership, understanding the importance of U.S. engagement and yet being responsive to an American people that are not supportive of a very proactive and widespread use of the U.S. military.

SIEGEL: And, Robert Kagan? What do you hear?

KAGAN: If you look at that speech closely, you know, there is a way in which he makes a kind of subtle critique of the general thrust of American foreign-policy since World War II. And I think the critique is one of a nation that was leaning forward and, in some cases, got into involvements like Vietnam and then later Iraq that were a big mistake. I think he is suggesting a different course from what has been the general thrust of American foreign policy for 70 years.

SIEGEL: Michele Flournoy of the Center for a New American Security and Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution. Thanks to both of you for talking with us.

FLOURNOY: Thank you.

KAGAN: Thank you.

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