2 Former Pentagon Officials On The Future Of Syria And America's Role
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A critical round of talks in Vienna on the Syrian conflict has an even higher sense of urgency this week. Iran is now among the countries discussing Syria's future. Russia invited Iran, and the U.S. dropped its opposition. The U.S. has long resisted any effort to bring Iran into discussions about Syria, but the reality is Iran is a major player in that civil war. In addition, its place at the table will be the first time that Secretary of State John Kerry talks formally with his Iranian counterpart about something other than the nuclear deal. The new voice at the table has gotten a cool reception from Saudi Arabia, Iran's rival for influence in the Middle East. And against this new backdrop, our colleague David Greene spoke about Syria and the region's future with two women who worked in the Pentagon for two different presidents.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
One is Mary Beth Long. She was assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs under President George W. Bush. And she has seen no clear policy on Syria from President Obama.
MARY BETH LONG: I think the administration's hands-off stance that they took over two years ago is actually contributing to the destabilization.
GREENE: Of course, President Obama is dealing with this reality. When the United States has acted boldly to remove dictators, it hasn't gone all that well recently. Think about the chaos now in Iraq and Libya. Michele Flournoy was President Obama's undersecretary of defense for policy. And she does not discount some of what Russian President Vladimir Putin has been saying, that pushing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad out of power too quickly could really have consequences.
MICHELE FLOURNOY: I think the one point in which Putin is right is that we don't want to have a complete disappearance of the Syrian state.
GREENE: So we had a conversation with the two of them together about Syria, America's role there and the potential consequences of regime change. Mary Beth Long and Michele Flournoy do agree that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has to be removed. And they agree that that has to be done really carefully. Let's remember, Mary Beth Long, who we'll hear from first, worked for a president who toppled Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Michele Flournoy was in Obama's Pentagon when the United States and NATO dropped bombs in Libya, forcing Moammar Gadhafi from power.
Can you blame Americans - as we look back at foreign policy over the last decade or so, watching a dictator toppled in Iraq and then it seems like the United States not being prepared for the chaos that followed - watching, then, the next president, President Obama, helping to topple a dictator in Libya and seeming to not be prepared for the chaos that followed - do you blame Americans for seeing maybe a pattern here?
LONG: I certainly think that we haven't learned as much as perhaps we should have as far as the destabilizing effect of removing a leader and removing a system that's been in place and removing institutions and force that's been in place for many decades. The other thing that we haven't learned is that America and our failure of American leadership actually has exacerbated the problem. So we have to stay in the game. We have to have skin in the game, and we have to have credibility and leverage in order to shape events. And we've given that up in this administration, I'm afraid.
GREENE: And, Mary Beth Long, do you include President George W. Bush in that criticism as a leader who might not have managed the post-removal of a dictator chaos well in Iraq?
LONG: I absolutely think that America - the U.S. and the coalition - greatly underestimated the results of removal of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and that we dealt with a lot of problems afterwards. So yes, we made mistakes.
GREENE: And Michele Flournoy, let me ask you about Libya. I mean, there are Libyans right now who are saying that they wish that Gadhafi was never removed. Is there a lesson there about the consequences of removing a dictator?
FLOURNOY: It's an illusion to think that you can walk away and not, you know, take responsibility for, invest in, the post-conflict reconstruction. And I think that held - certainly held in Iraq. It's been the case in Afghanistan. It's been the case in Libya. So that is certainly true. You know, I would agree that the U.S. needs to exert more leadership in this region. I think part of our problem is that we've looked at things as each is - you know, Iraq in isolation, Syria in isolation, Libya in isolation - when what's really going on here is historic changes at the regional level. And so we need to think about a regional strategy that works towards restoring a degree of stability and preventing the Islamic State from really becoming a true state.
GREENE: Now, some, like Russia's president, are much more blunt about the lessons learned from Iraq and Libya. He has said that if Assad is removed, Syria will fall into anarchy, and ISIS could take over. And Mary Beth Long, from the Bush administration, said the reality today is the U.S. might just have to accept leaders it doesn't like.
LONG: In some cases, we might have to live with a partner or an activity that, in the long-term, is distasteful or even undesirable in order to get the strategic effects or in order to move step-by-step toward the goal that we want.
GREENE: It sounds like you would follow that by saying that we might have to live with Assad. But you're not saying that, are you?
LONG: No, we can't live with Assad. More importantly, the region can't live with Assad, and the Syrian people can't live with Assad. The question will be, as a practical matter, there's very little possibility of Assad going anytime soon. Realistically, people will start talking about a managed transition or a managed exit in which the U.S. will be able to say, we want Assad to go. We are not taking off the table the fact that he has a role to play. But in the interim, we will do A, B, C, D, and hopefully the international community can come to an agreement about how long that interim is and what can be done to make things better during that period.
GREENE: Michele Flournoy, let me give you the final word. Has the world changed to a point where the United States cannot determine outcomes in other countries in a way that it used to? Does the United States need to accept that its role in deciding who's going to lead countries is just - it's not what it used to be?
FLOURNOY: I don't think it's what it used to be, but I don't think that's an excuse not to lead because when we are at our best, we lead the international community. And it is the power of that community of interest that can sort of shape the arc of history.
GREENE: The voice of Michele Flournoy. She served in the Obama administration in the Department of Defense, and she's co-founder of the Center for a New American Security. We also heard from Mary Beth Long, who was assistant security of defense for international security affairs under George W. Bush. She's the founder and CEO of Metis Solutions. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.