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Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Speech at the Center for a New American Strategy Conference

As Delivered by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, Center for a New American Strategy, Thursday, June 10, 2010

Thank you, Nate.  It’s great to be here with you today.  This feels like a homecoming for me: I’m happy to see so many friends here.

I’ve had to stay away from CNAS events since taking office in February of last year, but now that I’ve given speeches at practically every other think-tank in Washington, the Pentagon’s lawyers have agreed to let me to be with you today—I guess you could call it a work-release program. 

John and Nate, I‘ve been deeply impressed with the way you have guided CNAS through an important transition.  When Jim Miller and Kurt Campbell and I and so many of our other CNAS colleagues left to join the Obama Administration, some skeptics wondered if the organization could survive.  Under your leadership, CNAS didn’t just survive, it thrived. Congratulations to you and all the terrific staff and fellows for proving that Jim and Kurt and I were not indispensible!  Not even close!

It’s customary in these situations for government officials to talk only about our successes, give ourselves plenty of pats on the back, and conclude with some lofty sentiments about our ability to meet every challenge and seize every opportunity.

I don’t want to do that. 

I do think this administration has done great work—and yes, I do want to say something about our successes. But I want to focus the bulk of my remarks not on our successes, but rather on the challenges we have not yet managed to overcome. Because I don’t think we can afford to rest on our laurels: we have a lot of work ahead of us.

Where We Were

First, let me step back and recall where we were 16 months ago.

It’s easy to forget the nature of the hand we were dealt—what Kurt Campbell and I called the “Inheritance” in a 2007 CNAS report. We took office amidst the most profound economic downturn since the great depression. The situation in Afghanistan was in a downward spiral. Iraq’s stability was uncertain.  Iran was pursuing its nuclear program and expanding its support for proxies, and North Korea was continuing its destabilizing behavior. Our allies and partners in Asia were worried about U.S. disengagement from the region, and our relationship with Russia had soured.

I could go on, but you get the idea. This administration didn’t have the good fortune to come into office at a time of prosperity and peace. Instead, we got contraction and crises. 

I don’t mean to imply that the Bush administration didn’t try to grapple with these same issues—they surely did. On Iraq in particular, the progress that had been made since early 2007 was striking. And the transition process between the outgoing and incoming administrations was perhaps the most collegial and professional in decades. That we in the Obama administration inherited a profoundly difficult set of challenges is simply to state the obvious—This was the most critical national security transition since the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s.  

Where We Are

So, that’s where we were, 16 months ago. Where are we today?  And where do we need to go tomorrow?

The security environment is complex and changing, but America’s interests are simple and enduring.  They are highlighted in the President’s National Security Strategy, which was released last month. Chief among our interests are security, prosperity, respect for universal values, and a resilient international order than promotes cooperative action in pursuit of common interests.  

It is vital for the United States to promote an international system that enables liberty, human rights, and open access to markets and ideas. These common global goods—and the pursuit of a just international system—formed the basis for six decades of American grand strategy, and if anything, that vision is even more vital today, in this globally interconnected era.

Paying close attention to core US interests has guided how this administration has approached today’s challenges.  Here’s the self-congratulatory part of these remarks: we really have come a long way. We have sought, with a significant degree of success, to renew our relationships with allies, partners, emerging regional powers, and to reinvigorate American leadership globally. We have overhauled our strategy, leadership, and resourcing in Afghanistan, and we have focused on consolidating progress in Iraq.

In all these efforts, and countless others, we have tried to remain always pragmatic, as well as principledwe have sought to minimize what I would call national security adventurism, and develop approaches to problemsthat reflect our enduring interests, recognizing the limits of what is possible given the world we live in, and the economic and fiscal constraints we face.

At DoD, I think we have begun to make real progress in rebalancing and reforming the Department. Our 2010 QDR embraces a key lesson of more than eight years of war: intelligent adversaries will seek to confront our weaknesses, not our strengths. U.S. forces in this century will need to prevail against a wide range of challenges: from insurgencies and state failure, to regional powers seeking to deny U.S. access to critical regions, to the ever expanding “hybrid” possibilities in between.We will need the agility of a David, not the clumsiness of a Goliath.

Our efforts to rebalance the force center on ensuring that our military can be truly versatile across the full range of possible conflicts. For far too long we assumed that, for example, counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, building security capacity and stability operations were “lesser included” cases—subsets of the canonical contingencies that dominated our defense planning. As long as we planned for conventional warfare, so the argument went, we could succeed in these other operations.

We all know where that approach got us.  So today we are elevating the most plausible series of challenges as the basis for our force planning. These challenges include counterinsurgency and capacity-building operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but also preparing for new threats tothe primary means that the United States utilizes to project power—our military bases, sea and air assets, and the networks that support them.

The point here is not to assume that future conflicts will look just like current conflicts. The point is that future conflicts and threats may take many shapes. Yet we can’t prepare simultaneously and fully for every possible contingency—so we need to focus on flexibility and agility, on creating a force that is prepared for the most likely threats, and can adapt quickly to the unpredictable.

A big part of Secretary Gates’ reform agenda also involves demanding that the Department change how it does business—forcing the bureaucracy to set priorities, make hard choices and enforce limits.

Some of you are probably familiar with CNAS board member Norm Augustine, a leader in defense aerospace and a mentor to many people here. Some years ago he made a tongue-in-cheek prediction that “in the year 2054, the entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft. This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy 3-1/2 days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.” 

He was joking, but in all honesty, the trend-lines on the costs of sustaining and equipping our armed forces are not good. As Secretary Gates recently said in his Kansas speech, “The Navy wanted 32 of the next generation destroyer—the DDG-1000; because of skyrocketing costs, we will build three. The Air Force wanted 132 B-2 bombers; at $2 billion each, we built 20.  This is unsustainable.” I agree, and I don’t know any serious defense analyst who argues that our current program is sustainable. We can’t keep spending more and more to get less and less. 

If we fail to make the tough choices necessary to reduce overhead and increase efficiencies, our options in the future will dwindle and become ever more unacceptable. Secretary Gates had the vision to see this and the character and leadership to turn insight into action.  And I believe the need to make hard choices will define this generation of national security leaders.

And we are making those choices. Last year the Department cut or cancelled more than 30 major weapons systems that were either performing poorly or were not suited to real-world demands. We saved about $330 billion dollars, as measured over the life of the terminated programs. 

These choices were not popular, but they were necessary. We need to redirect resources into the high-priority areas that are essential for our military to prevail today and prepare for tomorrow. If we cannot continue to do this, we will undermine our own long term interests, and those who come after us will pay the price.

Where We Need to Go

So:  this administration inherited daunting national security challenges, but we have been able to craft a principled and pragmatic approach to addressing many of them. We have succeeded in making a number of needed course corrections, and at DoD, we have succeeded in initiating a difficult but essential process of rebalancing and reform.

So can we pat ourselves on the back a little bit? Yes, I think we can.

But our early progress is still shadowed by the daunting challenges that remain.  We’ve done a lot—but much work remains.

To put it bluntly, we’re trying to face 21st century threats with national security processes and tools that were designed for the Cold War—and with a bureaucracy that sometimes seems to have been designed for the Byzantine Empire, which, you will recall, didn’t end well. We’re still too often rigid when we need to be flexible, clumsy when we need to be agile, slow when we need to be fast, focused on individual agency equities when we need to be focused on the broader whole of government mission.

I spend many hours in interagency meetings at the White House—many, many hours—and over the last year or so it has struck me that our focus on rebalancing and reform at the Pentagon needs to be replicated across other national security Departments and Agencies. Because DoD’s problems are hardly unique: the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. intelligence community all face enormous challenges setting priorities and making tough choices.

The interagency community is beginning to grapple with tough challenges. DHS and the Intelligence Community have completed their first quadrennial reviews, and the State Department is hard at work on its Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review. I know exactly how much fun these reviews can be, and I don’t envy my colleagues at other agencies who are experiencing those joys for the first time. But if we as a government can’t get better at linking ends, ways, and means, we will not adequately position the United States to protect and advance our national interests in the face of a very challenging 21st century security and economic environment.  And just to translate for any lay persons in the audience: that’s defense wonk speak for “adapt or fail.”

Let me give two examples of consequential issues where we as a government have struggled—over decades in some cases—to craft some common sense solutions, and where frankly we have yet to make satisfactory progress. Both these examples stem from the imperative to get better at building the capacity of our partners.

Building and sustaining strong security partnerships is a central and enduring element of America’s national security strategy, but our tools and processes for doing so are often outdated and inefficient.

Start with our approach to building partner capacity.  Providing military and security sector assistance to other nations has been a core element of America’s engagement with allies and partners for many years.  From helping rebuild strong security institutions in Europe and Asia after World War II, to assisting former Soviet states in the aftermath of the Cold War, to our work around the world today—from Iraq and Afghanistan, to the Philippines and Yemen—security assistance is absolutely vital.

We need partners and allies who can effectively secure their own borders, work with us to address transnational threats like terrorism, and provide legitimate and effective security and governance to their populations. We also need partners who can stand and fight alongside our forces and contribute to peacekeeping and stabilization missions. As the President wrote in the National Security Strategy: “The burdens of a young century cannot fall on American shoulders alone—indeed, our adversaries would like to see America sap our strength by overextending our power.”

Oursecurity assistance system was inherited from the Cold War. It was built to provide major weapons platforms to allies over a period of many years. It was not designed to provide counterinsurgency assistance to Pakistan—or counterterrorism assistance to Yemen—or counternarcotics assistance to Colombia or Mexico—on an urgent basis. It lacks flexibility and responsiveness: witness our struggles to build the military capacities so critical to successful transitions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nearly five years ago, the Defense Department obtained authorities enabling the military to provide training and equipment to other countries with urgent security needs.  This expansion of authority and funding was very helpful, adding much-needed flexibility to a creaky and slow-moving system.  It has also produced some notable firsts in terms of interagency coordination, among them the so-called “dual-key” decision-making process between DoD and the State Department. But these changes have also stirred debate over the appropriate roles and missions of Defense, State, and USAID, among others.

We need to move beyond these often sterile debates about what’s in DoD’s “lane,” what’s in State’s “lane” and so on. Instead, we need to focus on the mission as a whole: what does the United States government need to be able to do to achieve our national objectives? How can we most effectively leverage existing capabilities, resources and expertise to achieve those objectives, while simultaneously seeking new and more effective ways to build partner capacity in the longer term?

Last December, Secretary Gates proposed one possible way ahead.  Drawing on a model employed by the United Kingdom, he suggested a “pooled resources” approach that shares funding and responsibility across departments.

The idea is for DoD, State and perhaps other agencies to contribute resources to create one or more pooled funding mechanisms. These pooled funds would be used for urgent programs that cut across traditional DoD and State mission areas like stability operations and conflict prevention, and would incentivize interagency collaboration on a deeper and more meaningful level.

This is hardly a panacea, but it’s a creative way to break through some of the current impasses. It doesn’t require massive change—just relatively minor adjustments. But it has the potential to increase our flexibility, responsiveness and ultimately our impact.

Let me briefly give you another example of a significant challenge—export control reform. Export control involves a complex set of authorities and legislation designed to prevent adversaries from getting access to U.S. technology or equipment that could be used against us. Like security assistance, though, our export reform laws and processes were designed during the Cold War—and are increasingly out of sync with what’s needed to ensure America’s national security and economic competitiveness in today’s world. It’s bureaucratic, cumbersome, and rigid.

For instance: Not too long ago, a British C-17 spent hours disabled on the ground in Australia—not because the needed U.S. part wasn’t available, but because U.S. law required the Australians to seek our permission before doing the repair. The byzantine bureaucratic machinations required to solve the problem was embarrassing. Similarly, close, long-standing allies and partners like South Korea have bought U.S. aircraft—say, F-16 fighters—only to discover that they need separate agreements to buy spare parts, wires, or even lug nuts for the planes. Such bureaucratic hurdles strain our bilateral relationships, and our credibility as the security partner of choice. 

Today’s export-control regime too often impedes the effectiveness of our closest military allies, tests their patience and goodwill, and hampers their ability to cooperate with us—this at a time when we are counting on them to stand and fight with us in places like Afghanistan. 

Our security interests would be far better served by a more agile, transparent, predictable, and efficient export control regime. Tinkering around the edges of our current system isn’t enough.

So, last August President Obama called for a comprehensive review of our export-control regime. He called for reforms that focus controls on key technologies and items that pose truly significant threats, such as those related to weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional weapons. As Secretary Gates has said, “We need to build a system where higher walls are placed around fewer but more critical items.”  This would protect our national security while enabling greater defense trade and cooperation with our allies and partners.


Within the administration, we are beginning to work through complex interagency issues like security assistance and export control reform.  We are also examining how to rebalance our defense, diplomacy and development programs and budgets.  And I can personally attest that this is hard work.  So many things militate against effective, whole of government collaboration: different departments and agencies have different institutional cultures, different skill sets, different career incentives, different technological platforms, different budget cycles, different lexicons.  Just as interoperability is a challenge for building partnerships and coalitions, it’s frankly a challenge across our own departments and agencies as well.

Some of you may know of a famous monograph written by Robert “Blowtorch” Komer, who was a senior US civilian during the war in Vietnam. He returned from Vietnam, joined RAND, and wrote a monograph called “Bureaucracy Does its Thing”— a revealing critique of our failure to adapt U.S. tools of statecraft during the conflict. 

Komer argued that the U.S. government “attempted to handle an atypical conflict situation by means of institutions designed for other purposes. Such constraints as institutional inertia—the inherent reluctance of organizations to change operational methods except slowly and incrementally—influenced not only the decisions made but what was actually done in the field.”  That this monograph enjoys renewed popularity among a rising generation of national security experts speaks volumes—and it should compel us all to renew our efforts to rebalance and reform our national security instruments.  

Complaining about bureaucratic rigidities in wartime is, of course, as old as war itself. Robert Graves lambasted World War I absurdities in Goodbye to All That, and Joseph Heller captured World War II’s absurdities in Catch -22. But the fact that every generation faces these challenges doesn’t make them less acute.

I and many of my Obama Administration colleagues spent several years working on interagency reform issues in think-tanks like CSIS and CNAS, and we drafted reports and made recommendations on how to rebalance our resources and reform our approaches. I believe those of us who ended up in government have an obligation to try to implement some of the ideas we developed. It’s always easier to critique than govern—but we need to move forward with this important reform agenda.

To do that, we need your help. We need your ideas and your support—and sometimes, we need you to hold our feet to the fire, to remind us of the ideals and ideas we brought into government, and demand that we live up to them.

We can rebalance and reform. And if we want this great nation to remain a global leader and a force for good in the 21st century—we must

Thank you.


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