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Former U.S. official explains Obama´s Middle East policies (HAŽARETZ NEWS) By Natasha Mozgovaya 05/24/12) Source: http://www.haaretz.com/news/world/former-u-s-official-explains-obama-s-middle-east-policies-1.432256
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If national security issues were the focus of the U.S. presidential elections, former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy of the United State Michele Flournoy thinks "there would be no question" President Obama would win. "It´s interesting, because historically it´s really not since Truman that national security issues have been a strong point for a democratic president", she says.
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But while there is broad consensus in the United States that the operation targeting Al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden was a success, the planned pullout from Afghanistan is a bit more questionable. And U.S. involvement in the Libyan crisis made Obama´s opponents mock what they called his strategy of "leading from behind".
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It´s actually "leading with support, leading in a way that allows others, who also have an interest, to share the burden," Flournoy explains. "Leading is not being out in front and alone. It´s about bringing together all interested parties to combine the force of their will and capabilities to succeed together. So when the United States can do that by playing an enabling role, it comes with lower cost and risk to us. It´s great, why shouldn´t we? That´s real leadership".
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Flournoy will be in Israel next week to address participants of the fifth annual International Conference of the Institute for National Security Studies, which will take place on Tuesday. Her talk will focus on the implications of the Arab Spring and other topics that affect both the U.S. and Israel.
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While she is still part of the dialogue about these issues, these days, Flournoy smiles the way only former administration officials do, when they gain their lives back after several grinding years on the job. That´s because Flourney left her position in February. She admits she has spent more time with her children in the past three months ago than she had spent with them in the previous three years, due to her never-ending work. Flournoy was part of President Obama´s transition team in 2008, she was at the Pentagon when the decision to wind down the war in Iraq was made, she was there when the order came to beef up the military presence in Afghanistan, in an effort to break the Taliban´s momentum - and when the decision came to pull out. She was there when the military´s "don´t ask, don´t tell" policy was repealed, and when the Pentagon grappled with the challenge of shifting the focus toward the Asia-Pacific region, while keeping an eye on the Middle East and the AfPak region, and she was there for the cyber-threats. And of course, the entire time she was there, there was talk of defense budget cuts in the background.
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When she was at her post, Flournoy was the most senior female Pentagon official. While she admits that 15 years ago her colleagues had some difficulty getting used to her female, civilian and democratic presence, she says the gender gap in the military today is almost a non-issue. "If you excel in what you do, people get over the difference in packaging very quickly. When we had the first women leaders lunch at the Pentagon in 1993, there were 10 people at the table, and for months people were wondering what we were talking about. There were some great conspiracy theories about it! Now if I invited all the female leaders in the Pentagon to such a lunch, we would overflow an entire executive dining room."
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Some analysts speculating about Flournoy´s future have gone as far as to suggest that one day, she might return to the Pentagon as the first female secretary of defense. Meanwhile, though, Flournoy has her eye on the private sector, and in the next few months, she plans to be deeply involved in the Obama reelection campaign.
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No turning back
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The United States, she admits, is still trying to digest changes in the Middle East, but the firm conclusion is that "the only way to reestablish stability at this point is to push through the political and economic reform process; there is no turning back."
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She continues, "We´ve been very clear that we expect any new Egyptian government to abide by the peace treaty with Israel. As Egypt thinks about its future security cooperation, the future of the international assistance it receives - all of this will be premised on the country maintaining its international obligations. Whatever rhetoric is coming out of the Islamic parties - those that are now in transition from being in the opposition to being responsible for governance - as a state, Egypt has certain obligations. We must be very clear and candid as we begin our conversation with our new interlocutors."
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These new circumstances, however, do not absolve Israel from acting. That´s the message Flournoy will bring to Tuesday´s conference. While she can talk in detail about the advantages of the Iron Dome anti missile system that the United States helps Israel fund, she agrees with former Shin Bet chief Ami Ayalon that it doesn´t solve the bigger political challenge Israel is facing.
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"One thing that I worry about is people using the anger of the Arab street vis-a-vis Israel, due to the lack of progress of the peace process," she says. "I worry that regimes might want to change the subject and inject Israel into their domestic debates. And I think that the best counter to that is to restart a truly viable peace process, even with the uncertainty of the reconciliation of the Palestinian Authority with Hamas.
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"In the long term, the two-state solution is the only answer for the security of the Jewish people. It will give Israel space to really live in peace in the region. The absence of this process creates all kinds of room for regimes in the region to change the subject and make it about Israel, when it´s not about Israel, but about their own internal conditions. The absence of any serious peace process really hurts Israel."
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Flournoy is definitely not among those questioning the necessity of Defense Minister Ehud Barak´s frequent visits to the U.S. capital.
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"People may tease Barak about his frequent visits, but it´s actually a sign of a very robust and candid partnership. There is a lot of collaboration where we agree and a fierce discussion where we don´t agree. We are constantly comparing issues, including the Arab Spring with all its promises and perils. And we are also having a very deep and ongoing discussion about what it takes to ensure Israel´s qualitative military edge in a changing region."
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But there is also the feeling that Barak´s many D.C. visits were aimed at allaying administration concerns that Israel might surprise the U.S. with an attack on Iran´s nuclear facilities. Flournoy doesn´t confirm this, but acknowledges that "it´s a point of discussion between us that neither one should surprise the other. That´s part of what has made this relationship work."
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Military option on the table
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Flournoy also notes that the question of employing a military option to deal with Iran is not a matter of U.S. budgetary cuts. "Changes in defense spending are more about slowing some planned growth in the defense budget. So it´s not a question of capability, it´s a question of whether that approach will actually achieve our objectives at an acceptable cost.
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"The President," she continues, "has been very clear that the military option is still on the table. I worked at the Pentagon and I can tell you it´s been planned, it´s been exercised, it is there for the president as an option. But it´s the judgment of this administration that it´s not yet time to exercise this option, because it also has downside risks in terms of what would the Iranian response be, would it potentially trigger ballistic missile attacks on Israel, would it trigger, intentionally or through miscalculation, broader conflict in the Middle East? What would be the impact on the price of oil and the secondary impact on all of our economies? It´s not something to be entered into lightly, particularly if a military strike only buys you one to three years. It´s not a permanent solution to the problem."
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As for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu´s skepticism about the talks with Iran (he insists Teheran is merely trying to buy time ), Flournoy says, "Every national leadership has a calculus about how it protects its strategic interests, and this calculus is affected by both internal and external factors. What this [U.S.] administration is trying to do is use the combination of pressure and negotiations to influence the Supreme Leader´s calculus. The policy has been very clear: the United States and Israel share the same objective, and that is preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. President Obama has said many times that it´s his objective, that containment is not an option, because Iran´s acquisition of nuclear weapons would create a cascade of proliferation in the region."
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She notes that there is, of course, discussion on how best to achieve this objective. "At the end of June, new sanctions targeting Iran´s financial system and oil products will kick in and squeeze Iran even more tightly. At the same time, with this kind of pressure, the question is: can you negotiate some steps that would at least buy us more time, if not solve the problem? The enrichment of uranium beyond 3.5% - that´s really the thing that makes everyone most nervous. That is the piece that, if we can negotiate its reversal, would create time and space to address the more fundamental problem."
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Those suggesting to pursue regime change in Iran, she says, "haven´t thought through the details very carefully. Given the nature of this Iranian regime, everyone would like this regime changed, but when you chose military operation to change the regime and then put a new one instead, it makes the Iraq war seem like a walk in a park. I don´t think an outside intervention of any kind would be received well, no matter what your intentions were."
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No easy solution in Syria
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Last weekend´s NATO members´ meeting in Chicago proved the alliance doesn´t have much appetite for a military intervention in Syria either, despite the growing number of Assad regime´s victims, Flournoy said.
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"One of the biggest obstacles is that you don´t have a unified opposition. The political opposition is separate and fairly disconnected from the military opposition. Within the opposition on the ground you have everybody, from Al-Qaida to defectors from the Syrian army, and everybody else in between, so it has been very difficult to figure out exactly ... they have not formed themselves into a viable power to take on the Syrian regime.
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"The Syrian regime is also much more well equipped than the Libyan regime was, and has the continued backing of Russia. You have a much more divided international community, there is no clear position on it from the Arab League, there is backing of the Iranian regime. There was a unique set of circumstances that came together in Libya, that is not happening in Syria. So the focus there is trying to increase the pressure on Assad and particularly on those around him, to try to make them understand that they´ll have a better future if they join the political transition forces in Syria, and provide non- military support to the opposition who are trying to get humanitarian supplies into areas of need."
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Flournoy says there is no easy and quick solution to the Syrian crisis. "I think it´s very hard to predict where this is going to end, but I think the focus should be on applying the pressure that splinters the regime and creates space for political transition, as opposed to a very violent civil war." (© Copyright 2012 Ha´aretz 05/24/12)
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