NEW YORK — After two weeks of political fisticuffs over the possible appointment of former Republican senator Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, talk in Washington may have shifted decisively in favor of former undersecretary of defense for policy Michele Flournoy.
A policy wonk’s policy wonk, Flournoy left the undersecretary position, the third-highest civilian post in the Pentagon, in February 2012. Throughout her career, she has garnered praise, awards and respect from the defense establishment.
Talk of appointing her as defense secretary first surfaced in 2008 as a replacement for Robert Gates, and again in March 2011 as Gates’ “deputy and potential successor.”
But she left the Pentagon earlier this year in order to focus on raising her three children, saying the position “does take a toll on the family.”
At 52, Flournoy boasts one of the most illustrious resumes a civilian can have in the Pentagon. Her education ran through Harvard and Oxford. She taught at the National Defense University and was a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, among other highly regarded policy research institutes. She held senior defense policy posts during the Clinton administration, as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction and deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy.
Hagel’s critical views on Israel and reported homophobia have made him somewhat radioactive as a candidate, but Flournoy’s emergence has been welcomed by conservative and pro-Israel groups, among others.
A senior Republican Senate aide told Politico that Flournoy was well versed in Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system, which is partially funded by the US, as well as regional arms sales and the importance of Israel’s military edge over its neighbors.
On Iran, her views seemingly fall in line with the pentagon’s official position, that a military strike against Tehran’s nuclear facilities must be kept on the table, though the option is not an effective one.
“It is something that would buy us time, but it would not by itself solve the problem in any enduring way,” Flournoy told a Tel Aviv conference in May.
She was appointed undersecretary of defense for policy in 2009, after having co-led Obama’s transition team at the Department of Defense and just two years after co-founding the Center for a New American Security, a national security policy think tank.
Would she return to the Pentagon so soon after leaving in order to focus on her family?
Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell, a cofounder of CNAS with Flournoy and a family friend, told Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift in late November that balancing work and family “is a real concern to her,” but Flournoy “believes deeply in public service and if the call comes she will serve.”
Flournoy would bring to the position a deep knowledge of the military. That knowledge and experience give extra credence to her sometimes critical voice on issues of American national security.
Earlier this month, she told the Atlantic Council that American defense planners must be wary of harming the military’s counterinsurgency capabilities or failing to learn lessons from the experience of Afghanistan and Iraq merely because those conflicts are ending. “We have to be careful not to fall into the Vietnam Syndrome where we believe we’ll never do that again,” she said.
According to Janine Davidson, Flournoy’s former deputy assistant secretary for plans, the former undersecretary is a pragmatist, not a hawk. “She knows what battles to choose,” Davidson recently told the National Journal.
“She’s very pragmatic about the application of military in an engagement and prevention role…. [I] think she has a very grounded sense of what America’s role in the world should be and how the military should support that role,” Davidson said.
With what he termed “un-Washingtonian bluntness,” AOL defense blogger Otto Kreisher noted Flournoy had called the Pentagon’s planning process “unsatisfactory” and “stale” at the Atlantic Council event. She criticized the military’s training programs, which she said have “an aversion to failure,” a fact that prevents them from training leaders to be flexible in the face of an uncertain future.
She also criticized the deficit caused by defense spending of recent years and said the military must “pay as we go,” including cutting “infrastructure, organizations, and overhead” rather than training and modernization, according to Kreisher.
The criticism is particularly significant coming from Flournoy, who was responsible in her most recent position for overseeing part of the Department of Defense’s planning process.
Finally, Flournoy enjoys a major advantage over beleaguered presumed nominee Hagel: she is a Democrat.
While her name was floated as the female alternative to Hagel by women’s groups, it struck a chord far beyond the narrow confines of the optics of women’s achievement, sparking conversation among Democratic opinion makers about the Democratic Party’s self-image.
The Democrats are newly triumphant, with a reelected president, a Democratic Senate and a majority of the votes cast for the House (though they still lost the House because of the high concentration of those votes in heavily Democratic districts).
Many Democrats have warmed to Flournoy simply for being a Democrat.
Campbell, the family friend and cofounder with Flournoy of the CNAS, has noted bluntly that both Clinton and Obama both appointed Republicans, William Cohen and Robert Gates, to the post of defense secretary, a move that “reflected some anxiety about the strength of our own bench.”
When leaks about the possible Hagel nomination first surfaced earlier this month, the left-wing Daily Kos opined that “Democrats won the elections, thus Democrats get to run things. Yet there’s a bizarre tradition of sorts where Democratic presidents suddenly act like Republicans are right – that only they can run our national affairs – and thus appoint Republicans to head the Pentagon.”
“On the left there is rumbling,” Democratic television personality Rachel Maddow commented on her primetime MSNBC show last week, “that Democratic presidents should stop putting Republicans in the defense secretary job.”
That Democratic “rumbling” preceded the White House’s trial balloon about Chuck Hagel, and may be transforming into an anger Obama will not want to ignore.
As early as November 9, a “senior Democrat” told Newsweek’s Clift that Flournoy is “brilliant, smart as hell, has deep knowledge across the defense issues — personnel, weapons systems, strategy, she knows how to run the Pentagon, and she’s very well liked.”
The message for Obama is clear. It is Democrats, not Republicans, who have become the loudest champions of the “non-Hagel” candidate.
With the idea of a Hagel appointment being savaged by Republican senators, security hawks, gay advocacy groups, mainstream newspapers including the Washington Post, advocates for stronger sanctions on Iran and Cuba, and pro-Israel campaigners from both sides of the aisle, Obama would have to be unusually committed to Chuck Hagel’s nomination for it to go forward.
In case he is not – as the failure to announce the nomination last week alongside that of Senator John Kerry for secretary of state indicated – most observers agree that the president could do far worse than the competent, learned hand of Flournoy in the Pentagon.
Joshua Davidovich contributed to this report.