War Stories

The Case for Michèle Flournoy

Why the objections to the front-runner for secretary of defense don’t hold up.

Flournoy gestures with her hands while speaking in front of a blue background.
Former Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michèle Flournoy speaks during a discussion at the Aspen Institute on Nov. 30, 2015, in Washington. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The biggest mystery surrounding the Biden transition this week: Who will be the next secretary of defense?

For months, the odds-makers tagged Michèle Flournoy as a shoo-in for the job. Smart, experienced, strategically minded, a popular boss among those who have worked for her, she served as undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration; she would almost certainly have been Hillary Clinton’s secretary of defense if the 2016 election had gone differently; Trump’s first secretary, Jim Mattis, even wanted to hire her as his deputy, but Flournoy turned him down because she didn’t want to work for Trump.

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Yet when President-elect Biden introduced his national security team on Nov. 23, he was joined on stage by his picks for secretary of state, national security adviser, director of national intelligence, and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations—but not his choice to be the civilian head of the most powerful, best-endowed military force on Earth.

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The same day, Politico reported, on the basis of interviews with “six people close to the transition,” that Biden was “not entirely sold” on Flournoy. The reasons cited were plausible. Unlike the choices for top diplomat and intelligence chief, Antony Blinken and Avril Haines, who have worked closely with Biden for a decade or longer, Flournoy has never been a member of his circle. More than that, during the Obama administration’s internal debate over how to fight the war in Afghanistan, Flournoy supported Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s plan to deploy an additional 40,000 troops and to adopt a full-scale counterinsurgency (aka “nation-building”) strategy—which Biden opposed, preferring to send just 10,000 more troops to help train the Afghan army and to fight terrorists, such as al-Qaida.

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In other words, from Biden’s viewpoint, Flournoy might be too much a Pentagon insider, and the plaudits she’s received across a wide range of players in the defense community—from generals, admirals, think-tank intellectuals, and members of the congressional armed services committees—could strike him as a cause for caution, not a quick embrace. In his new memoir, Barack Obama recalls Biden warning him—in the context of the debate over Afghanistan—not to let the Pentagon roll him or box him in on budgets and troop levels. Biden may well view Flournoy as someone who could abet his own rolling and boxing-in.

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Once it was clear that Biden was undecided, some leftist groups issued their own protests, calling Flournoy an agent of the military-industrial complex because the clients for her consulting firm, WestExec, include defense companies and because she sits on the board of Booz Allen Hamilton, a prominent defense contractor.

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In the absence of Biden’s decision, other names have been floated for the job, including Jeh Johnson, former secretary of homeland security and general counsel at the Pentagon; retired Gen. Lloyd Austin III, former commander of U.S. Central Command; and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard who lost both her legs in the Iraq war and has since served eight years on the Senate Armed Services Committee. All three satisfy Biden’s diversity checklist: Duckworth is a woman; Johnson and Austin are Black.

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Here is why I think Flournoy, though not without faults, would make the best choice: why some of Biden’s reported misgivings about her have a distinct upside, even from his perspective; why some leftists’ critique is lame; and why the other floated candidates fall short by comparison.

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It is true that Flournoy has a more interventionist bent than Biden, but so does Blinken, who has long been Biden’s closest, most trusted adviser on foreign policy. It is worth noting that, during the debate over Afghanistan, Biden was the only member of the National Security Council who did not support some version of McChrystal’s surge plan. It is also worth noting that, in an interview this past March, well before Biden was sure to win the Democratic nomination, Flournoy admitted that she had been wrong during the debate and that Biden—who, as she noted, was widely criticized for his position at the time—turned out to be right. In other words, she would come to the job a bit chastened in her enthusiasm for counterinsurgency.

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Flournoy also knows her way around every corridor and crevice of the Pentagon and every appendix in its budget books, and her authority is widely respected in the building. If Biden is worried about being rolled, he should want a principled insider as his defense secretary. The outsiders are the ones who get rolled. (The few exceptions include Robert McNamara, who disciplined the military’s excesses through systems analysis, until the military learned the technique and ground him down; Clark Clifford, who refused the Joint Chiefs’ requests to send more troops to Vietnam; and—surprisingly—Dick Cheney, who, as the Cold War ended, ordered massive cuts in spending on weapons.) If Biden told Flournoy he wanted to cut the Pentagon budget by 10 percent without damaging the nation’s defenses, she is the one, among the candidates on the short list, who would know how to get it done.

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As for the other possible candidates, Austin should be rejected on two grounds. First, it is important, especially now, with the Pentagon in such disarray, to reassert strong civilian control of the military. Since the Defense Department was created in 1947, Congress has just twice passed waivers to the law barring former officers from holding the position: in 1950, for retired Gen. George Marshall, and in 2017, for retired Gen. James Mattis. Marshall came to the job with a broad background, having been Army chief of staff during World War II and secretary of state just after. Mattis, though a superb wartime commander, was an undistinguished defense secretary who relied almost entirely on an entourage of former Army officers. His only strong point was tamping down Trump’s most destructive impulses, until Trump prevailed, at which point he quit.

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On his own terms, Austin does not merit the high bar of a waiver. He was an able ground commander in Iraq but a disaster as the head of Centcom. Allotted $500 million to train and equip a rebel army in Syria to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime, he recruited fewer than 60 fighters, and all but four or five of them either fled or were killed in the first flush of combat. The 2015 Senate hearing, where Republicans and Democrats pummeled Austin for his Syrian shortcomings, was, in the words of a fellow four-star general at the time, “one of the worst hearings on Capitol Hill ever.”

Johnson is a smart and amiable lawyer, but he knows nothing about military strategy or the Pentagon’s byzantine politics. Duckworth is much admired; her war injuries alone would earn her the respect of the armed forces. But good soldiers don’t necessarily make good defense secretaries. Obama learned that lesson when he nominated Chuck Hagel—a former senator and two-time Purple Heart winner for his service as an infantry squad leader in Vietnam—on the premise that he’d be a great ally and supporter of the grunts fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. He may have been that, but he washed out as defense secretary; Obama asked for his resignation after a year-and-a-half.

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The leftist objections to Flournoy are misleading. Flournoy created the firm with Blinken, who curiously hasn’t drawn as much fire for the association, mainly as a holding zone for Obama officials until another Democrat was elected president. The firm’s work mainly involves geostrategic risk assessment, but yes, if nominated, she should disclose the client list (Blinken has said he is asking clients to waive their nondisclosure agreements, which otherwise forbid him from doing so). A recent breathless article in the New York Times noted that the firm’s clients include Shield AI, a surveillance-drone company that “signed a contract worth as much as $7.2 million with the Air Force this year.” Imagine: $7.2 million. That comes to one one-hundred-thousandth (0.00001 percent) the size of the Defense Department budget. There are larger rounding errors in that budget.

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Booz Allen Hamilton is a bigger deal, earning $4.4 billion in contracts throughout the federal government last year. But the company deals in analytical talent, intelligence software, and communications gear, mainly in use by the CIA and National Security Agency—not in gold-plated weapons systems.

Those worried about possible conflicts of interest should also note that Johnson sits on the board of Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor, whose products include the highly controversial $254 billion F-35 stealth fighter. Austin is on the board of Raytheon Technologies, which, after a recent merger with United Technologies, became the second-largest defense contractor. Either of them, if nominated, would follow in the dubious footsteps of Mark Esper, Trump’s recently fired defense secretary, who had been Raytheon’s chief lobbyist, and Patrick Shanahan, a former Trump acting defense secretary, who briefly came to his job after 20 years at Boeing, the third-largest defense contractor.

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Left-leaning defense analysts also note that, unlike many defense secretaries, Flournoy has been a consistent, strong advocate of nuclear arms control.

I do have some hesitations about Flournoy. She is too interventionist for my taste, her chastening notwithstanding. Her thinking on defense issues, though broad and deep, is fairly conventional; if Biden is looking for conceptual breakthroughs at the Pentagon, she might not be ideal, though I don’t know who would be. Finally, while it’s a good thing for the secretaries of state and defense to be simpatico in their views, to avoid the internecine quarrels that have marred many administrations, Flournoy and Blinken may be too much in synch. As I’ve previously written, I hope that junior and midlevel staffers challenge their views—just as Blinken and Jake Sullivan, Biden’s choice to be national security adviser, did when they were junior and midlevel staffers, challenging the likes of Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates, in the Obama White House.

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No appointment is without risk. So far, Biden’s nominees seem to be selected based on expertise, competence, political savvy, and closeness to the president-elect. Flournoy may have some hurdles to leap on that last trait. Maybe she and Biden have had a chat, and didn’t click. If that’s the case, then Biden should find someone else; a president has to trust his Cabinet secretaries, especially those entrusted with national security. But if that’s not the issue, or if they can find a modus vivendi, Flournoy scores high on the other criteria. He should nominate her.

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