Ex-Obama defense official warns of foreign policy ‘vacuum’

A former top Obama defense official called on the U.S. to remain “vigorously engaged” abroad and urged the administration to make the case for a strong American foreign policy.

"The hard truth is that international security abhors a vacuum," wrote former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy and co-author Richard Fontaine in the National Interest Thursday. 

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"If the United States is seen as abandoning its role as the primary supporter of international order, other powers — or the forces of chaos — will fill the gap,” they wrote. "The price will be exacted in precisely those benefits — prosperity, security and freedom — that the order was designed to enhance."

Flournoy is now the CEO of the Center for a New American Security, and Richard Fontaine is the organization’s president. 

Their op-ed comes as the Obama administration faces a number of foreign policy challenges, from Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and violence in Gaza to Iraq, where a Sunni militant group, the Islamic State in Iran and Syria, has captured territory.

The U.S. now has nearly 1,000 troops in Iraq to aid local forces and assess the security situation and has used airstrikes to target ISIS and humanitarian drops to help refugees.

The president, though, has been stressed that he will not put boots on the ground or escalate U.S. involvement.

Critics say President Obama is more focused on ending U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan for political reasons, instead of doing what the security situation on the ground requires. 

Obama in May characterized his foreign policy as "don't do stupid stuff," drawing criticism from Republicans and defense hawks, and even his former secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

“Great nations need organizing principles, and 'don't do stupid stuff' is not an organizing principle,” Clinton told The Atlantic in an interview this week. 

Clinton later called Obama to tell him that the remarks were not intended as an attack on his foreign policy, however, and downplayed talk of a rift between the two.

Flournoy, who also worked in the Clinton administration, and Fontaine said the public and lawmakers are more focused on economic recovery and growth at home. But they also say the administration is partly responsible for what they see as American disengagement.

"The United States has sought to disengage from Iraq and Afghanistan, placing more emphasis on when our troops would come home than on how we would protect our national interests as those wars end," they wrote. 

"The siren song of disengagement is misguided and dangerous, for a simple reason: the world will not permit America to retreat significantly from its global leadership role without very real and substantial costs," they warned. 

Those costs would include slowing economic growth, growing vulnerability to emerging threats and a reduced ability to influence other nations.  

They urged political leaders to draw clear connections between foreign policy and domestic concerns, such as job creation, energy flows, prices, wages and homeland security. 

"U.S. global leadership may not be politically popular today. But it has hardly been more essential," they wrote.