The biggest foreign policy cabinet appointment remaining to President-elect Joe Biden is the Secretary of Defense. It has been widely speculated that Michele Flournoy is the frontrunner for that position, and she has quickly become a polarizing figure among Democrats.
I have already said that I find the debate over Flournoy a bit misguided. On matters of policy she is far too hawkish for my tastes, and I largely agree with the criticism she is getting on that score. But I wonder who it is that people think would be better than Flournoy that would also be close to the same page as Biden on foreign policy and would have any hope of getting confirmed by the Senate. Remember, this is the head of the Pentagon we’re talking about here.
We need to keep in mind that Senate confirmation, even if the Democrats take both seats in the Georgia runoff and thus hold thin control of the chamber, is no given. West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is as hawkish as many of his Republican colleagues, and AIPAC poster boy Bob Menendez of New Jersey is likely to lead the Foreign Relations Committee itself. Ben Cardin of Maryland is also likely to be a prominent foreign policy voice. There are too many Democrats who will follow the lead of those men.
So before we even get to the Republican side of the aisle, the Defense nominee is going to face serious right-wing scrutiny. Someone less hawkish than Flournoy is going to be a target. Think of what the Republicans did to one of their own when Barack Obama nominated Chuck Hagel to the post.
A divided debate
One of the things that is interesting about the Flournoy debate is the nature of the arguments being presented by her detractors and her supporters. Each side is talking past the other, basing their arguments, for the most part, on a different set of standards.
Progressive critics of Flournoy are examining her policy record. For example, CODEPINK founder Medea Benjamin said of Flournoy, “Her whole history has been one of going in and out of the Pentagon, first under President Clinton, then under President Obama, where she supported every war that the U.S. engaged in, and supported increases in the military budget, and then used her contacts in government in these kind of hawkish think tanks that she either joined or helped create. She sits on the board of a corporation that works with defense contractors. She herself has made a lot of money by parlaying these insider contacts into positioning companies to be able to get these very plush Pentagon contracts. She also sees China as an enemy that has to be confronted with higher-tech weapons, which justifies increased Pentagon spending and puts us on a dangerous path of an increased cold war with China. So, these are just some of the reasons we think she would be a disastrous pick as secretary of defense.”
But Flournoy’s supporters are often choosing to emphasize other aspects of Flournoy’s history. Specifically, they talk about her impressive administrative abilities and her unassailably admirable record of mentoring and promoting younger people, especially women, into leadership positions that have been notoriously difficult glass ceilings to crack.
Tamara Coffman-Wittes of the Brookings Institute tweeted that, “As a leader in and out of government, Flournoy set policy and tone to enable her teams to have healthy work and family lives. She grows talent and gives it room to shine. POTUS-elect Biden wants a foreign policy for the rising generation, and she has supported next gen policy talent for years. So seeing Flournoy as Secretary of Defense wouldn’t only be a symbolic first for women in National Security. It would be a commitment to a new way of leading National Security policy and the National Security workforce, one that eschews the toxicity of old images of defense leaders and embraces an inclusive vision for our future.”
Coffman-Wittes was not alone. Ilan Goldenberg of the Center for a New American Security tweeted, “Every institution Michele has ever led has thrived. It’s become more effective, efficient, better run. Its staff have been happier and the place has been better off when she has left than when she started. That’s what we need in one of the world’s largest bureaucracies… NO ONE. ABSOLUTELY NO ONE In Washington has done more to develop talent in the national security space than Michele. I still get regular emails from her asking me to talk to young people who have come to her for help and advice.”
These examples are, from what I’ve seen, largely typical of the arguments for and against Flournoy. Progressives are concerned about her policy views while centrists are particularly enamored of her leadership abilities.
Having dealt a bit with Flournoy during the Obama years, and having spoken with many other people who have worked with and for her, I think both sides are correct.
As someone who prioritizes policy above everything else (although not to the exclusion of everything else) when judging government officials, I would oppose Flournoy, all things being equal. But as I explained, things are not equal. The most prominent name aside from Flournoy that has emerged is Jeh Johnson, who was Secretary of Homeland Security under Obama and currently sits on the board of Lockheed Martin. Hard to see how that would be an improvement.
I also see, perhaps, more value in the managerial reputation that Flournoy has. I don’t know how visible it was to folks who didn’t have the chance to interact with people working in Washington, in and out of government, during the Trump years, but the ineptitude and dysfunction throughout the federal government was as much of a problem in its own way as the racist, corrupt, and cruel policies and actions of that administration.
I can’t speak from any sort of personal experience about Flournoy’s abilities in that regard, but I do trust the judgment of Goldenberg and Coffman-Wittes on this (despite the fact that I have profound policy differences with both), and their views are echoed widely. It matters.
It’s also worth remembering that the Defense Secretary is going to reflect the president’s policy. Ultimately, it will still be Biden who makes policy, and the Defense Secretary will carry it out. Of course, the cabinet will be part of the policy process, but if Biden is going to lean in one direction on foreign policy, it is not going to be because of the members of his cabinet. Rather, the members of his cabinet will be the result of his policy direction.
The bottom line is that while I agree with the objections to Flournoy that have been voiced by progressives, I very much doubt there is a realistic alternative that will be any better. Joe Biden has become more judicious over the years regarding the use of American military force, but he remains a believer in US military power, a hawk on Israel-Palestine with all that implies for Mideast policy, and someone very much part of the Washington foreign policy establishment. I don’t think Michele Flournoy is going to have much impact on that, and I don’t think any alternatives to her are going to be much of an improvement.
In short, I agree with progressive objections to Flournoy and have no problem with voicing them. But given the disproportionately limited political leverage we still have in an administration we did an enormous amount to elect, this is not the hill I want to see progressives go to battle for, let alone die on.