Flournoy Brings Pragmatism To Key Pentagon Post

The point person for the new Afghanistan strategy at the Pentagon is Michele Flournoy, a well-respected analyst who worked in the Clinton administration and is now undersecretary for policy. Flournoy plans to focus on making sure Afghanistan is not a training ground for terrorists, rather than the notion of spreading democracy.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

President Obama announced this morning a new strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. He says he will send more American soldiers to train Afghan troops. He'll also set benchmarks for measuring progress in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban.

President BARACK OBAMA: We are not in Afghanistan to control that country, or to dictate its future. We are in Afghanistan to confront a common enemy that threatens the United States, our friends, and our allies; and the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan, who have suffered the most at the hands of violent extremists.

INSKEEP: That's President Obama speaking about the new strategy this morning. Now we're going to learn about a woman who helped to shape the administration's strategy. Her name is Michele Flournoy. She holds the number three job at the Pentagon, which is the highest ranking position ever occupied by a woman at the Defense Department. NPR's Tom Bowman has this profile.

TOM BOWMAN: These days Michele Flournoy gets a lot of exercise walking the corridors of the Pentagon. She passes the office of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. This is the E-ring, the Pentagon's power corridor.

Is this where you thought you would end up?

Dr. MICHELE FLOURNOY (Under Secretary of Defense for Policy): Well, I - from the beginning I was very interested in international relations.

BOWMAN: So she punched the tickets, grad school, Washington think tank. After ten years of that, in the mid-90s, she landed a job at the Pentagon for what she calls her first tour.

Dr. FLOURNOY: And it wasn't until an old mentor of mine called me, who was coming into the Pentagon in the Clinton administration, that I - the first time I thought about government service. Ted Warner.

Dr. TED WARNER (Senior Defense Analyst, RAND): I'd been impressed from my first interactions with her of the keenness of her mind and how articulate she was.

BOWMAN: Ted Warner was assistant secretary of defense, a notch down from the job his protégé has today. He was immediately taken with this easygoing woman who came from modest means in California, who received scholarships to Harvard and Oxford. But what really struck him was Flournoy's ability to listen and then ask the right questions.

She was put to the test early on. The issue was Somalia. Eighteen American soldiers died in a failed mission in 1993. The story was made famous in the book and movie, "Black Hawk Down."

Dr. WARNER: That mission was transformed more to an attempt to stabilize and perhaps create even a new government in Somalia.

BOWMAN: That's Ted Warner again.

Dr. WARNER: And of course, that effort did not bear fruit and Somalia is still a failed state in 2009.

BOWMAN: Flournoy helped write a scathing report about what happened. The American people, she wrote, had no sense of the U.S. interest at stake in Somalia, the military objectives there, or even the strategy for achieving them. Those lessons have stayed with her, especially now as she's overseeing a new report on Afghanistan.

She's focused on what's in America's interest, first making sure Afghanistan does not once again become a haven for terrorist camps. Also, what can be achieved in the short term, like training more Afghan forces? And what's good for America's military, a subject she cares deeply about.

Dr. FLOURNOY: I really sort of fell in love with broader questions of how do we build the military of the future. How do we use the military in a way that advances and protects U.S. interests. How do we become responsible stewards of a treasured institution?

BOWMAN: One way: by saying the U.S. military can't do the job alone. So the new strategy will call on contributions from civilian experts to help stabilize Afghanistan.

Janine Davidson is a former Air Force pilot who has worked with Flournoy.

Ms. JANINE DAVIDSON (Senior fellow in foreign policy, Brookings Institution): She's basically talking about the importance for the military, especially the Army, to learn how to work with other agencies to conduct sort of complex operations abroad.

BOWMAN: Flournoy brings a pragmatism that critics say was lacking in the person who held the same job for most of the Bush administration. Douglas Feith was considered an ideologue who failed to prepare for the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq.

Last year, Feith spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep.

INSKEEP: Whose job was it to force a decision on what you feel is a critical issue, and many other people feel is critical, as well? Who was going to secure Iraq? That's the question.

Mr. DOUGLAS FEITH (Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy): I can give you a captain-of-the-ship type answer and say, well, the president is in charge or the secretary of defense is in charge. But I don't think that was what your question was. I thought your question was where did the decision-making process actually break down? And as I said, I only saw my window.

BOWMAN: For all his attempts to downplay his influence Feith was seen as a divisive player, something no one would accuse Flournoy of.

Mr. RICHARD ARMITAGE (Former Deputy Secretary of State): I'd say she, clearly in addition to all her skills and her personality, she benefits by the ABF theory - anybody but Feith.

BOWMAN: That's Richard Armitage, who served as deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush and often tangled with Feith. Armitage is on the board of Flournoy's think tank, the Center for a New America Security, which has brought Democrats and Republicans like Armitage on board.

Mr. ARMITAGE: She's unflappable. She's very cool. She's very gracious. And I have never heard anyone say an unkind word about her, which is a real trick in Washington.

BOWMAN: She's also mindful of her role as a mentor to younger women.

Dr. FLOURNOY: I hope to open up some doors for other generations of women behind me. There are some incredibly talented people, many who are going to be coming into this - the Pentagon to work here as part of this administration.

BOWMAN: Those talented people in the Pentagon's policy office will find few problems as difficult as Afghanistan and their boss Michele Flournoy will be at the center of trying to solve it.

Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.

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