Hillary Clinton’s history-making Pentagon chief in waiting

In Democracy, Nuclear Policy, Peace, War on November 2, 2016 at 10:21 pm

By Jeremy Herb and Connor O’Brien
11/01/2016 02:13 PM EDT

Michèle Flournoy was high on the list to be President Barack Obama’s secretary of defense, which would have made her the first woman to ever hold the job. But she made a strategic retreat in taking her name out of the running two years ago — and a calculated risk: A President Hillary Clinton, whose hawkish views more closely hew to her own, would give her another chance to run the Pentagon.

Clinton advisers now say the 55-year-old former top Pentagon policy official and leading national security strategist has deftly made it seem that she’s the only choice for the job if Clinton is elected, the odds-on favorite to reach the highest rung in the defense establishment that has stubbornly remained a boys-only club.

“She really has emerged as the main — maybe the only — game in town,” said one campaign adviser, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.

Unlike most of the other Cabinet posts that Clinton would have to fill if elected, no significant alternatives have emerged as a potential challenge to Flournoy — aside from the possibility that Clinton would opt to keep on the current defense secretary, Ash Carter, who also has long ties to the Clinton camp.

Flournoy, a veteran of the Bill Clinton and Obama administrations, is cofounder of the Center for a New American Security, an incubator for Democratic national security officials with a realist, at times muscular foreign policy. She rejected overtures to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in 2014, citing personal reasons.

But sources close to her say she was also waiting for Clinton, whose willingness to support the 2003 invasion of Iraq, military action in Libya, and setting up a no-fly zone over Syria more closely align with Flournoy’s own worldview.

This summer, for instance, Flournoy calledObama’s approach to the Syrian civil war, to focus almost solely on diplomacy, “a mistake.” In another swipe at her former boss, she testified last year: “I wish we would have begun arming of the moderate opposition when they were far stronger and in greater numbers a while back.”

“I think Michèle will be a helluva lot more comfortable in a Clinton administration,” Leon Panetta, Obama’s former CIA director and defense secretary who is now a high-profile surrogate for Clinton, said in an interview.

The biggest knock on Flournoy is that she is a creature of the Washington policy word and lacks the political shrewdness to push bold ideas like former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who canceled dozens of programs as Obama’s Republican Pentagon chief.

“I don’t see her as a Bob Gates-type figure, a big personality who’s willing to sort of gore sacred cows,” said a senior Republican defense official, who like several others requested anonymity to give a candid assessment of Flournoy’s record before the Nov. 8 elections. “She just seems much more of a technocrat, a work within the system type of person.”

Still, she has been talked about as a likely defense secretary from the moment she was tapped by Obama as the undersecretary for policy in 2009. And she has unusually good relations with key Republicans on Capitol Hill, making Senate confirmation a likely non-issue no matter who has control of the Senate.

Influential policy wonk

The case for Flournoy is easy to make: She’s worked in the Pentagon in two administrations, has a deep understanding of military policy and would be a history-making selection as the first female defense secretary.

Her stature was on display earlier this month when her think tank had pulled off a rare feat: convening the civilian heads of the Army, Navy and Air Force for a public event.

The CNAS discussion, held at the ornate Willard InterContinental hotel just blocks from the White House, was intended to cover civilian-military relations and the challenges the three secretaries see facing the services in the next administration. And although the possibility of Flournoy becoming the Pentagon chief was never openly discussed, the event served as a symbol of her sway with and ascendance in Washington’s national security establishment.

Flournoy has risen through the Washington ranks as the consummate policy wonk.

A Harvard grad with a master’s degree in international relations from Oxford University, Flournoy got her start in Democratic national security circles in the 1980s focusing on nuclear weapons, arms control and non-proliferation issues, including stints at the Arms Control Association and Harvard Kennedy School, where she ran the “Avoiding Nuclear War” project.

Flournoy “dug in” on the non-proliferation issue, she explained at a recent event, gaining an expertise that ultimately led her to be tapped in Bill Clinton’s administration as the Pentagon’s principal deputy assistant secretary for strategy and threat reduction and the deputy assistant secretary for strategy.

After working as an adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Flournoy went on to cofound CNAS in 2007 with Kurt Campbell, a longtime colleague who also came from CSIS.

The national security-focused think tank was small but quickly influential: both Flournoy and Campbell moved to the Obama administration, with Flournoy snagging the undersecretary for policy job and Campbell an assistant secretary of state.

A stream of CNAS analysts soon followed into national security and foreign policy jobs in the Obama administration. Robert Work moved from Navy undersecretary to CEO of CNAS to deputy Defense secretary in 2014.

As the top Pentagon policy official under both Panetta and Gates, Flournoy had a hand in a wide array of issues. In her first year, Flournoy played a major role in Obama administration deliberations to dispatch an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to get a handle on the deteriorating security situation.

It was Flournoy who came to Gates with concerns about whether Gen. David McKiernan should remain the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gates wrote in his book, “Duty,” describing Flournoy as a “straight shooter.”

Gates, who was appointed first by then-President George W. Bush and kept on by Obama, said in an interview that Flournoy was deeply involved with his efforts to cut dozens of Pentagon programs in 2009, as well as helping to convince him to support the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

“She was tough but tactful,” Gates said. “I don’t think there’s going to be much catchup time for Michèle if she was going to be appointed to that position.”

Flournoy was willing to take on the White House’s National Security Council, Gates said, a frequent focus of tension for Pentagon leaders under Obama.

At a recent event for young foreign policy professionals, Flournoy lightheartedly recalled a moment in the Situation Room when she got a “‘what planet are you on, Michèle?'” response from Obama during a debate about U.S. troops in Afghanistan, though she explained it was a discussion in which the Pentagon eventually convinced the White House to come on board.

“Please don’t tweet the ‘what planet are you on,'” she joked after telling the anecdote.

Flournoy also received praise from those working under her, including her deputy Rosa Brooks, who described Flournoy as “a wonderful boss, thoughtful and empowering to her staff.”

One of her priorities as the Pentagon policy chief was to get a better handle of “strategic communication” — using the mass media and information operations to advance U.S. goals.

“I feel like we are doing it really badly,” she told Brooks during her tenure at the Pentagon, as Brooks recalled in her recent book, “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.”

Flournoy abolished an office set up by the George W. Bush administration called “Support to Public Diplomacy” because none of its staff could clearly explain its functions.

Hillary’s hawk

But Flournoy’s history with Clinton goes back to the days of her 2008 bid for the White House, when she worked as a national security adviser to Clinton in the primary campaign, in a group that also included Carter.

When she was approached to potentially replace Hagel in 2014, Flournoy said she was passing due to family concerns.

But many suspected at the time the decision was also a gambit: She was gambling the job would be available two years later — and that being the first secretary in a Clinton administration was a much better gig than the last in an Obama administration.

Panetta, who was defense secretary from 2011 to 2013, said Flournoy relates more with Clinton’s view “that the United States has to exert world leadership, and it cannot just stand back and hope that the rest of the world will somehow get their act together.”

Others who have worked with Flournoy from both parties also see her as a much better fit for Clinton than Obama.

“I can imagine she felt she was going to be very frustrated in the last two years [of the Obama administration],” said a national security official who served in the Bush administration. “She would have already been facing enormous challenges in part because of his bias for inaction. I think she has more a generally robust approach that’s more in tune with secretary Clinton.”

That hawkish streak could run afoul of liberal Democrats, however, who are wary about Clinton’s views on military action in Syria or dealing with an aggressive Russia.

“There’s only one broad concern for both Hillary and Michèle, which is the tendency toward hawkishness,” said a Democratic national security official. “I think it would be healthy and helpful on Syria, but I’d a little worried on overdoing it on Russia and China.”

Flournoy, who declined an interview request, has not played a direct role in formulating the current Clinton campaign’s foreign policy positions, where a divide has emerged over the way forward in Syria that could play out in a Clinton administration, too. And she was not one of 16 national security and foreign policy officials that met with Clinton in September, a group that’s likely to fill many of the high-level national security jobs in a Clinton administration.

One area of her biography that could make some on the left bristle: Flournoy has called for Senate Armed Services to relax its longstanding policy of requiring Pentagon nominees to divest all assets that could present a conflict of interest, which she argued discourage individuals in the private sector with “management acumen” from serving in the Pentagon.

Instead, she voiced support for a system, endorsed for many other federal agencies, where nominees place their assets in a blind trust and recuse themselves from any issues that could be a conflict of interest.

National security officials from both parties say Flournoy is a policy whiz, but has less experience with the nuts and bolts of the Pentagon, like overseeing weapons programs or personnel issues like health care.

Flournoy also does not have the political acumen that someone like Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who has long insisted he doesn’t want the top Pentagon job, would bring to the role.

“Michèle is not independently well known for any kind of political achievements of her own,” said the Democratic official. “She’s a staffer, she’s worked her way up the various shops and done great service in think tank positions — she’s obviously a very accomplished person — but not an independent political force.”

Since leaving government, however, Flournoy has sought to shore up some of those perceived weaknesses.

For instance, she tackled the Pentagon’s bureaucratic issues by criticizing the “tyranny of consensus” in the Pentagon that she argues leads to “watering down solutions to the lowest common denominator.”

“The current process is antithetical to the kind of competing of ideas and innovation that the department really needs to grapple with the key questions,” Flournoy testified in 2015.

She also has advocated a “de-layering” of headquarters staff, a new round of base closures, repeal of the spending limits set by the Budget Control Act and an overhaul of the Pentagon’s strategic self-assessment known as the Quadrennial Defense Review, which she led in 2010.

Republican allies

Flournoy is unlikely to have difficulty winning confirmation, which could be a key consideration for Clinton, particularly if Republicans remain in the majority in the Senate.

In fact, several Republicans wished she had been nominated in 2013 by Obama instead of Hagel, a former GOP senator from Nebraska.

“I remember being on airplane going to Munich with a bunch of Republican members of HASC [the House Armed Services Committee] and senators who were just coming out of Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearing,” said the Bush administration official. “They said, ‘God, if the president only sent us Ash Carter or Michèle Flournoy, we’d be strewing rose petals in front of them right now.'”

While introducing her at a 2015 hearing, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain(R-Ariz.), who is hoping to retain his gavel after November, joked Flournoy’s title “should have been secretary of defense.”

A senior Republican congressional aide predicted Flournoy would be able to improve the Pentagon’s relations on Capitol Hill because “there’s already the basis of a working relationship” with her. The aide predicted her bigger challenge might be inside the building and addressing the civilian-military divide.

“There may be some honeymoon effect,” the aide said. “But there’s deep lingering problems between the military and civilian leadership there as of the last eight years.”

Bryan Bender contributed to this report.


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