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Twelve Questions for Rear Adm. Moira Flanders

The appointment of Rear Admiral Moira N. Flanders as director of the Inter-American Defense College (IADC), whose last job was as the commander of the U.S. Naval Personnel Development Command, has created a lot of interest around the hemisphere.

Part of it is the fact that she is both a woman and comes from the U.S. Navy, the service of both the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael G. Mullen, and the head of SOUTHCOM, Admiral James G. Stavridis.

However, the marathon runner and personnel specialist has also moved quickly to put her own imprimatur on the College, making clear she hopes to both improve its curriculum and its ties to academic institutions around the hemisphere, a plan that includes creating the position of dean of academics this year.

Recently Flanders sat down in her spacious office at Fort Leslie J. McNair and spoke with CHDS chief of strategic communications Martin Edwin Andersen about her career, her plans, and the strengths she brings to one of the most important hemispheric security and defense education billets in Washington.

CHDS: Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001?

FLANDERS: I was working in the Navy Annex, the building on Colombia Pike near the new Air Force Memorial (near the Pentagon), where I was one of 19 representatives of navy officer corps communities—aviation, submarine, surface warfare, intelligence, etc.—doing plans and policy for officers. We had seen what had happened to the World Trade Center and heard a very loud, low plane fly over. We routinely heard planes fly over for military funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. Someone remarked, “That’s awfully low,” then immediately we heard the crash. The nurse corps community manager immediately went into her training and gathered us all, we went downstairs—we had to evacuate the building—and some of the people being taken out of the Pentagon were being brought to the Marine Corps gym and we took care of them before they were transported to the hospitals.

I took away the feeling that I was very proud to be part of an organization that could help a little bit that day. I also took away a feeling of sadness, that a building that seemed so impenetrable was penetrated, that there was so much destruction there and at the World Trade Center. I had been stationed with the Navy in New York already, so I was very familiar with the area. It was just a very surreal feeling. Outside traffic came to a standstill. People ran outside the buildings without their briefcases, purses, keys; there were people who walked home on I-395 or were given rides home by strangers. When I got finally got home late that night I also was overwhelmed by my neighbors in Old Town ; they didn’t know exactly what I did—they knew I was in the military and worked around the Pentagon, but they didn’t know how to reach me because cell phones weren’t working very well that day. So they were all just waiting to see if I would come home that night. People who didn’t even know my name, but they knew who I was, they were all waiting.

CHDS: What was your most important or best liked assignment in your career before coming to the IADC?

FLANDERS: They’ve all been wonderful, for different reasons. My first one, London, was perfect because of the location. I’ve been assigned to New York three times—twice in New York City and once in upstate New York—two of those three times was in Navy recruiting, which is very exciting because you are able to go out and talk to everyone about the benefits of joining the Navy and also how much you care for the Navy, so you can share your passion.

One of my more favorite assignments was working at the Pentagon, from 2003 to 2005, because I had a close working rapport with Mr. Gordon England, who was Secretary of the Navy and is now Deputy Secretary of Defense. Of all the wonderful people I’ve worked for, I’d put him at the very top because there is something so special about Mr. England. He treats everyone exactly alike—from an emir from a Persian Gulf country to the most junior person—everyone is treated equally, which is not to say shabbily, because everyone is treated very, very well. He is a decision maker. Sometimes we work for people with tremendous responsibility and ability to make impact on government or an organization and they don’t make decisions. Mr. England is a decision maker. He trusted that when people came in to see him, they knew their facts, so that it was very easy to get to the reason they were there, for him to say “yes” or “how can I help you?” Instead of coming back many times to get more information.

CHDS: Anyone else you would consider a mentor?

FLANDERS: A retired three-star admiral by the name of Patricia Tracey. She, along with Gen. (Carol) Mutter in the Marine Corps, was one of the first two women to ever rise to a three-star level. They were selected or promoted almost on the same day. She was a mentor throughout my entire career and one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. Also, Lt. Gen. Frances Wilson (president of the National Defense University), who I worked for about 15 years ago when we were both on the Joint Staff. She is definitely a “Marine’s Marine”, and smart and compassionate—I just think the world of her. So I was really, really happy when I called her and asked about being nominated for this job and she thought it would be a good idea, and now that I live and work on the same base that she does we’re able to see each other a little bit more often, which is wonderful.

CHDS: What languages do you have?

FLANDERS: German was my first language. My mother is from Salzburg, Austria. A little bit of Tagalog because we lived in the Philippines and I went through a year and a half of high school there, a little bit of Russian, because when my father retired he went to work at the Agency (CIA) and I worked two summers as an intern at the Agency in that area. And of course, Spanish; I took Spanish from my first days in public school in California all the way through high school and college at Virginia Tech. I was able to use Spanish while I was stationed in New York and recruiting. I’d go to Harlem and other areas and talk, mostly with moms, about the value of joining the Navy. On technical terms, in strategic discussions, I can comprehend better than I can speak because my grammar isn’t that good ... yet!

CHDS: What interests did you have in Central and South America and the Caribbean before you came to this job?

FLANDERS: It’s a strategic level interest. Being in the Navy I was fascinated by why the U.S. didn’t spend more time focused on Latin America —at least from the perspective of the jobs I held at the time. Adm. Mullen, now head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and formerly the head of naval operations, has what I think is a wonderful concept of a 1000-ship navy, which is a global navy that doesn’t matter how big or new or old or technologically advanced your country is, if you can help in the maritime arena, you are part of the 1000-ship navy.

Here we have this incredible Western Hemisphere, with all this coastal property and we just don’t seem to have spent enough time focusing on it. I was reading The New York Times and the Washington Post, and very few articles were dedicated to Latin America or even Canada. We seem to be very Euro-centered and Pacific Rim-centered—and that’s important—but we have so much potential if we focus a little bit more on the Western Hemisphere. The numbers of people, the numbers of transformations that are happening in these countries, it’s very, very exciting, but I don’t think most people think enough about Latin America or the Western Hemisphere in the maritime domain.

CHDS: What do you hope to accomplish at the IADC?

FLANDERS: My last job was the naval personnel development command, with about 1,000 people spread out mostly in the United States and a few overseas, and we were responsible for all the individual training for enlisted people and officers, mostly in the Navy, but also some joint training—things from intelligence to cryptology to surface warfare to mechanical engineering—and I learned a lot about the science of learning.

When I came here I was very, very impressed by the quality of the students we have, certainly comforted by the reputation that the school has in Latin America, as evidenced by some of the graduates who have acceded to the very highest positions in the military and in government. I think the curriculum needs some updating. And I think that it is a wonderful time for me to be here, and to have the college run as smoothly as it is, to be able to now focus—with the advisors, and with the help of CHDS, NDU and the Inter-American Defense Board on improving the curriculum.

So that’s my goal, to improve the curriculum and to work towards making it a master’s degree granting program. We already have two wonderful programs—with American University and the Universidad del Salvador, in Buenos Aires, Argentina —so students can already work towards a master’s degree, or two if they want, but I think it is also important that we work to make it a master’s degree-granting institution.

CHDS: So, in your view, is the college working up to its potential?

FLANDERS: The representatives to the Inter-American Defense Board from Colombia referred to it as “a diamond,” and maybe it is a “diamond in the rough” and maybe it can be polished a little bit more. I don’t think there is necessarily anything wrong with it, but it has the potential to be even better. We don’t have all of the IADB or OAS member states sending students up here, so we are going to work harder to get even more students—we have 16 countries represented and we’d like to get all the countries represented, if possible.

And we need to partner a little bit more internationally, within the Western Hemisphere, to tap into some of the wonderful programs available not just in the U.S. but in Latin America and Canada to ensure that we are remaining current. We are trying to do that—we have six seminars throughout the year, bringing in guest speakers from NGOS, foreign institutions, U.S.-backed government institutions, but I think we also need to bring that sort of expertise into the day-to-day classroom.

CHDS: What is the College’s relationship with the IADB?

FLANDERS: We are the academic organ of the Board and there has been tremendous change in the last few years. The College began its first class in October 1962, the IADB is a little bit older—1942—and the chairman of the Board was also always the director of the College, and that person was always a U.S. general or a flag officer. In June 2006, that changed, and the chairman of the IADB is now elected by the member states of the OAS. So the OAS took more of the leadership role and having IADB part of it, and the U.S. gave up the chairmanship of the Board—although that doesn’t mean someone from the U.S. will not be chairman one day in the future, and the U.S. is now more exclusively devoted to improving the College.

That’s another reason I think the timing is good; instead of having to do what my predecessor did—being dual hatted as chairman and director—I can focus on being director, and on the student body and curriculum of the college.

CHDS: One thing that has people commenting is that your coming here not only shattered a professional “glass ceiling” but a rather enormous “glass ceiling” for women. Those with long memories about the College say that women have never had a very important role here and now you are heading up the institution. People are also interested in the fact that, besides being a woman, you come from the Navy, as do the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the head of SOUTHCOM, Admiral Stavridis. Is there a message here for the region?

FLANDERS: I am very happy to be here. The part about me being the first woman director is an honor, but it was not something I thought to myself—that I want that job because I will be the first woman—because a lot of women have gone before me and shattered those ceilings: Gen. Mutter, Adm. Tracey, my next door neighbor is a three-star army general and she is the first woman in the job she is in.

I was a little concerned about being the first woman here because of what I thought the culture was used to having, but I have only found openness and generosity and genuine receptivity to me being director here. And maybe that’s because of my background, and what I have articulated to the students, to the advisors, to the Board and to the ambassadors who have come through here in the last couple of weeks giving presentations. My focus is here, internally, to improve the College, and I have the background that gives me some ability/credibility perhaps to get that done. So I think people have almost forgotten that I am a woman.

CHDS: What about the fact you come from the Navy? Some people in the region have asked if your provenance is some kind of message in itself?

FLANDERS: I don’t see Adm. Mullen, Adm. Stavridis and myself as the Navy taking over; but as the right people in the right place at the right time. My predecessor, Maj. General (Keith) Huber did an absolutely fabulous job in external relationship building, and I hope that whoever relieves me in two or three years will be able to say that I did a very good job focusing internally, moving the College forward.

CHDS: How do you get from here to there, to where you want the College to be?

FLANDERS: A lot of communications, a strategic plan, working with the students—we’ve got some incredible students here, two Ph.D.s, some of whom have been educators in their own military or in their own governments, so capturing their ideas, talking to the advisors, who almost 100 percent were students last year, and talking to CHDS, INSS (the Institute for National Strategic Studies), working with American University, with former graduates. We’ve also got a foundation that we have created to get a little more stability and continuity in remaining close to our alumni. And bringing in some experts to help us move forward.

I think that is very important because we have such a turnover here of students, advisors, staff, to have a position, maybe a Dean of Academics, a Ph.D. civilian to provide continuity and academic rigor and credibility, who knows how to work with other academic institutions.

CHDS: So you are planning to advertise for that?

FLANDERS: Yes, and it won’t necessarily be a U.S. filled position; it could be anyone who is the best person for the job, from the Western Hemisphere or maybe from outside our Hemisphere. The person will have to have a strong academic background and tremendous knowledge of our region. We will be advertising the position this calendar year, 2008.