Leadership Ideas, Information and News

Monday, January 30, 2012

Sustaining Leadership Hinges on Flexibility, Policy Chief Says

By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2012 – U.S. policymakers today can draw some useful lessons in managing “profound transitions” from President Harry S. Truman’s actions in 1950, the Defense Department’s policy chief said today.

In what she called her last public speech in office, Michèle Flournoy, undersecretary of defense for policy, told an audience at the Reserve Officers Association National Security Symposium here that Truman took a multidimensional response to bring about fundamental changes in America’s foreign policy.

Truman, five years after World War II ended and with a new Cold War icing relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, also had to consider a newly communist China and North Korea’s invasion of neighboring South Korea, she noted.

Truman and a “truly extraordinary” group of his senior advisors responded to the changing security landscape with a series of programs, reviews and initiatives that led to the Marshall Plan, an independent Air Force and the establishment of the Defense Department and Central Intelligence Agency, Flournoy said.

Truman’s efforts also contributed to the founding of NATO and the United Nations and set a foundation for eventual victory in the Cold War, she added.

The nation’s leaders today face an even more complex strategic era, Flournoy said: swift economic and military growth in China, asymmetric and hybrid forms of warfare incorporating growing threats in the cyber domain, proliferation of nuclear weapons, and trends from the Arab Awakening to global climate change.

“As if all this weren’t enough, in 2008 we suffered the most acute financial crisis since the Great Depression, shaking the very foundation of America’s national security -- our economic strength,” she said.

President Barack Obama has led a whole-of-government effort to ensure the nation’s security strategy accounts for all of these factors, Flournoy said. The defense strategic guidance the president announced Jan. 5 and the defense budget decisions Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta rolled out last week reflect a changed approach to America’s global responsibilities, she added.

The strategy emphasizes a focus on the Asia-Pacific region and the Middle East, reduces force size and protects investment in technology and advanced systems, she said.

Operational concepts are evolving and changing, Flournoy said, but the range of possible missions makes it critical that forces can surge, regenerate and mobilize quickly.

“The underlying theme that runs through all this is an emphasis on flexibility, agility, readiness -- on retaining capability across the full spectrum of missions,” she said. “This is the key to sustaining our leadership in an era of complex challenges and hard fiscal choices.”

One of the most discussed words in the defense strategic guidance is “reversibility,” she noted. Some commentators have seized on the word as a sign “that somehow our principles are not firmly fixed, or that our decisions on key programs are subject to rapid change,” she added.

The truth is completely different, she said: “[Reversibility] refers to our ability to make course corrections in response to strategic, economic or technological change.”

For example, she said, even as DOD reduces force size, “we will keep a relatively high proportion of mid-grade officers, who will be at a particular premium if we need to build up those forces quickly.”

Flournoy, who on Feb. 3 will leave the office she has held since February 2009, said DOD’s civil-military team has grappled with a number of national challenges in an integrated way.

During the recent debate over defense spending priorities, Panetta’s commitment to open communication only intensified as the process developed, she said.

“The strategic trumped the parochial time and time again,” Flournoy added. “This is a remarkable thing to witness.”

Flournoy said as she steps down from her current policy role, she has “a lot of faith” in defense leaders’ ability to make sound decisions as “these very difficult choices have to be made in the months and years ahead.”

“When circumstances are difficult, we as a country, as a people, do find a way to come together for the broader national interest,” she said.

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