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A Case For Continued 'Forward Engagement'


Despite these tough economic times, writes Michele Flournoy, now is not the time for a more modest U.S. foreign policy. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs, President Obama's former undersecretary of Defense argued the benefits of forward engagement, which means a continued U.S. military presence in many parts of the world, a more effective and efficient presence in Europe, Asia and the Middle East that can help build international partnerships, control potential threats and help maintain the U.S. position as a leader in global affairs.

Well, we want to hear from our listeners in uniform. If you served in Europe, Japan, South Korea, Bahrain, how did the U.S. military presence there change things? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of Defense for the Obama administration. She co-wrote a piece entitled "Obama's New Global Posture" for the July-August issue of Foreign Affairs and joins us now by smartphone from her office in Bethesda, Maryland. Nice to have you back with us.

MICHELE FLOURNOY: Neal, it's good to be back. Thank you.

CONAN: And I do want to get to your piece. But first, I have to ask you about Syria where last week, a bomb killed four of President Assad's top aides. And yesterday, a senior official not only confirmed the existence of chemical and biological weapons but talked about the circumstances in which they could be used. This is spinning out of control.

FLOURNOY: Clearly, the situation is getting much, much worse. I think that the diplomatic efforts have been redoubled in response to this to try to get Assad to step down, to get those closest in his - to him in his inner circle, to break with the regime and to buy into a transition plan. That is the only way to prevent a civil war in Syria.

CONAN: I hear what you say, but why in the world would President Assad step down? He's the leader not just of Syria but of the Alawite sect that has, well, no place to go.

FLOURNOY: Well, I think if you could have him lose confidence that his inner circle was going to stick with him and that you could promise Alawite leaders minority rights protected, a voice in the new government, I think you do have a chance of actually engineering a transition before this descends into full-fledged civil war. And that's exactly what I know the Obama administration and partners in the region and our European partners are trying to do.

CONAN: And who exactly could promise Alawites that kind of position in the new Syria?

FLOURNOY: Well, that's the thing. I think it's a matter of getting some greater cohesion from the political opposition that's out there and for them to articulate a clear plan that basically makes those promises, similar to what happened in Libya where the opposition finally galvanized, and they made some very clear statements about inclusiveness, about protection of human and minority rights and so forth. And that allowed some from the regime to basically defect and to switch sides.

CONAN: OK. Getting on to your piece in Foreign Affairs, there are, as you know, plenty of people who will say, given the United States' economic difficulties, given the situation in the world, it is time to bring a lot of our troops home to save some money, to stop being - positioning ourselves as the sort of policeman of the world and, indeed, the guarantor of, well, freedom of navigation and all those sorts of things.

FLOURNOY: Well, I think, you know, as we came out of Iraq and as we begin the transition and the drawdown in Afghanistan, we're really at a strategic inflection point where we have to ask, what's the right way to reposture our military? And, of course, many, many thousands of troops will be coming home, those who were deployed in Afghanistan and so forth. But the United States, for over 70 years, has had a forward-deployed posture of some sort because having our forces present in key regions where we have vital interests really underwrites our leadership. It deters threats before they become manifest in some cases. It certainly reassures our allies and our partners.

And also having those forces present helps to build partner capacity so that our friends have the capacity to deal with the problems in and around their own territories and don't always have to call on the United States. So it's a very cost-effective investment to underwrite U.S. interests and U.S. leadership globally.

CONAN: And you also argue that closing bases overseas can be a false economy.

FLOURNOY: It can. One of the things that we found is if you have forces stationed forward, you may need, for example, one ship forward-stationed to cover a given mission. If you don't have that ship forward, you may have to have four ships rotating in and out of a theater to be able to do the same job just because of all the transit time and the maintenance requirements and so forth. So if it's properly tailored to the need, it can be very cost-effective and, frankly, more cost-effective than sending forces from the continental United States.

CONAN: And an example would be Bahrain, where the United States 5th Fleet is based in the Persian Gulf, just off the shore of Saudi Arabia there. And obviously, it takes a long time to get a cruiser or a frigate or, indeed, an aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. That's why they're based there often. But obviously, the U.S. presence has other effects, too, not all of them positive.

FLOURNOY: Well, I think our naval presence in Bahrain - actually, most of the impacts, if not all, are very, very positive. I think one of the things you have to do when you're deciding on your posture is be very sensitive to your partners' concerns. And one of the things that's changed over time is our ground presence in the Middle East and our - the footprint of our ground forces. It used to be much larger.

Because of Arab sensitivities, it has become a much lighter footprint with more over-the-horizon capabilities that can come in for exercises or for crisis response as needed. But they aren't necessarily sitting right there in, you know, on the ground in major Arab capitals or near major Arab capitals. And I think that change has created a more sustainable posture for us in the Middle East. So we try to be sensitive. We have to be sensitive to our partners' concerns about the nature of our presence.

CONAN: Let's get some callers involved in the conversation. Our guest is Michele Flournoy, co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, former undersecretary of Defense for policy in the Obama administration. And let's see if we can begin with Lauren(ph), and Lauren's on the line with us from Jacksonville.

LAUREN: Hi. Honored to be on your show right now. I just wanted to reiterate what the undersecretary was saying. I was stationed overseas in Japan for the past year and a half. Now down in Jacksonville, but I think the U.S. has a huge influence overseas. As far as when the tsunami hit last year, we were able to provide supplies and like, immediate relief to the Japanese and basically, just provide complete support. As well as the deterrence comment that she made - I mean, with, you know, problem is waiting in the South China Sea on an almost constant basis, I think it's absolutely imperative that the U.S. maintains a presence over there, and it continues to improve relations with countries that in the past we hadn't any relations with.

On my past appointment, we did, for instance, some exercises with Singapore, Vietnam, just countries that in the past the U.S. really, wow, was not as, you know, present in. I just completely agree with what the undersecretary is saying, that it is completely important to our nation's defense and security to keep our, you know, U.S. naval forces stationed, you know, home-ported in foreign countries.

CONAN: Thank you very much, Lauren. And I wanted to focus on the South China Sea and ask Michele Flournoy, this is an area - vital waters. It's said to have substantial supplies of natural gas and oil underneath it as well. All of it claimed by China, parts of it claimed by six other nations. The United States, Secretary Clinton recently at a conference, the ASEAN conference in Cambodia, said, look, the United States has no territorial claims here. But it does have an interest in freedom of navigation. What did she mean there? And why is the United States siding against China with the other six powers?

FLOURNOY: Well, the United States has taken any positions with regard to the territorial disputes per se. But what we - what I think the administration has done very effectively is to lay out certain principles, that these disputes should be resolved without the resort to use of force, that we should allow for freedom of navigation through international waters whatever the claims and disputes may be. And I think, you know, given the amount of trade, the amount of the international commerce that is dependent on the Strait of Malacca and that whole area, it's - we all have an interest, a very strong economic and security interest, in ensuring free passage in those waterways.

And so one of the things that influenced President Obama's call for a posture review and a rebalancing towards Asia-Pacific is the increasing importance of this region to the United States' economy, and wanting to make sure that we have the - both the military presence and the relationship from the region to ensure the stability on which our future economic prosperity with that region depends.

CONAN: Lauren, you're still based there in Jacksonville?

LAUREN: Yes, sir. I just got re-stationed here this past January. So new - yeah, new to the Jacksonville area but was stationed overseas. So, yeah, I mean, I agree with the whole freedom of navigation. I mean, going, you know, in deployment, going through, you know, the Strait of Hormuz and all that, I do think it's, you know, imperative just to maintain that presence pulling into Bahrain. We don't have usually a carrier stationed over there, just having one in that area for, you know, BMD defense and all different sorts of different operations that the Navy conducts. I completely agree with President Obama's stance and undersecretary's in keeping our, you know, our armed forces forward-deployed.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.

LAUREN: All right. Have a good day.

CONAN: Again, we're talking with Michele Flournoy. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Aaron's(ph) on the line. Aaron with us from Weaverville in California.

AARON: Hi. How are you today?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

AARON: I was stationed on the Kitty Hawk from 2004-2007 in Yokosuka, Japan. And the way I always perceived a role as a sailor over there - and not just the sailors, but the airmen and the Marines who were stationed in the areas as well - is that we were supposed to be ambassadors in a sense, and try and help out with whatever was necessary. And unfortunately it became a bit difficult because the younger sailors that were 18, 19, 20 years old, there were a lot of instances where alcohol was involved and a lot of people got hurt because of it. And I think it might have done some damage to our - what's the word - to our reputation over there in the Tuska(ph) area.

CONAN: And, Michele Flournoy, incidents not just in Japan and Okinawa, but in South Korea as well.

FLOURNOY: You know, there have been incidents, no doubt, and we've had to work through the impacts of those on our relationship. But I think the various services have gone through extensive efforts to help young soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marine understand their roles as ambassadors, that small incidents like this can have strategic import. And they're very important part of sort of American diplomacy, if you will. But beyond that, I think if you'd ask anyone in Yokosuka today or in Japan today, even with those incidents, would they want the U.S. there? Hands down they would say yes.

I mean, the extraordinary appreciation that has been expressed for what our forces who are in Japan were able to do in the wake of the tsunami, in the wake of the nuclear accident, you know, the Japanese have - it has brought us closer as allies. There's an incredible bond between peoples on that front. They are so grateful. So I think, you know, you have to weigh all of these things. And I think on balance, the strategic value of having our forces there, it really outweighs anything else.

The other key piece here is that we're not just sitting around. When we are somewhere, whether it's permanently stationed or on a rotational basis, we're working with those partner countries. We're building their capacity. We're helping them to become more capable. And that's a win-win all around.

CONAN: Aaron, thanks very much.

AARON: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's go next to - this is Michelle(ph), and Michelle with us from Columbia, South Carolina.

MICHELLE: Hi. I'm glad I have this opportunity. When I spoke to the person, I was talking about my experience in South Korea. But I can say that my experience in South Korea, my experience in Germany, my experience in Spain and in Italy was the same. The young people in Korea - I was at the demilitarized zone in the 2nd Infantry Division - they were young. They did not want to be there on the year tour. They were very rude to the Koreans. And the example I gave is their name for sir is (speaking in foreign language) in Korea. And they would say, hey, she, she. And (speaking in foreign language) is ma'am, and they'd say, hey, ma, ma. And they would use profanity. And I'm telling you, those Koreans were tired of us. And then our second tour in Korea, I was in Seoul, and it was a little better because they could go downtown Seoul and shop. But they still treated the Koreans terribly. In Germany, they knew they weren't supposed to - I mean, we got all kinds of briefings.

CONAN: All right. I don't mean to cut you off, but I wanted to give Michele Flournoy a chance to respond. And part of the question that I think is being posed here is, why so many years after the end of the Second World War, why with Germany now one of the leading economic powers of the world, with the Soviet Union long gone, are American bases still in Germany?

FLOURNOY: Well, actually, there are still American bases in Germany, but the posture has been reshaped since the end of the Cold War. And one of the things that President Obama announced earlier this year was that two of the four combat brigades in Germany, U.S. combat brigades, will be coming out. So that will leave a smaller footprint with - along with some enabling forces and some air forces. But that was deemed strategically sufficient to sustain our commitment to NATO, to keep an active training program with our allies. But we didn't need so many forces forward-station-concentrated in Europe at this point.

I think, you know, to the broader question, I think that the services have become much more attuned to some of these issues and are really thinking carefully about the quality of life for young service members overseas, particularly if they're on unaccompanied tours. And I know that certainly influenced the discussion about how to posture our forces in parts of Japan, in Korea, also Guam and elsewhere.

CONAN: Michele Flournoy, thanks very much for your time.

FLOURNOY: Thank you.

CONAN: Former undersecretary of Defense for the Obama administration, co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, with us from her office in Bethesda.

Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin will join us. We hope you will too. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.