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Michele Flournoy could be first woman to run Pentagon, may bring many more women with her

Biden may announce Michele Flournoy as his nominee for defense secretary as early as Tuesday, say three people familiar with the decision.
Image: Michele Flournoy
Former Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michele Flournoy prepares to testify during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in Washington on March 13, 2019.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Michele Flournoy, Joe Biden's probable pick to run the Pentagon, would be the first female secretary of defense if confirmed and could appoint an unprecedented number of women to senior roles at the Defense Department. But she could also face resistance from progressive Democrats for what they see as her hawkishness and her ties to the defense industry.

Biden is poised to announce Flournoy as his nominee as early as Tuesday, according to three people familiar with the decision. Throughout her long career in national security, she has built an infrastructure of female colleagues and friends, many of whom regard her as a mentor in a field still dominated by men. The Biden-Harris Pentagon agency review team, a transition task force that is more than 50 percent female, includes some of those women who could now fill top jobs.

"She has been a mentor to women in the national security space over the course of 20 some years or more," former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said of her friend and colleague. "So there is a crop of women who are highly, highly qualified and would certainly be very eligible to go into a number of positions in the Pentagon."

Rosa Brooks, who served as an adviser to Flournoy at the Pentagon from 2009 to 2011, considers herself one of Flournoy's mentees, and thinks she will "make it a priority to bring in women at every level."

Said Brooks, "I also think she's someone who is strongly committed to having a diverse team in every possible way: not just gender but race, religion, age, type of background experience."

Among the women who the people familiar with the decisions say are on the short list to serve in a Flournoy Pentagon are Kathleen Hicks, currently senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank. She also served as the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy in 2012 and now leads the Biden-Harris agency review team at the Pentagon.

Michelle Howard
Vice Admiral Michelle Howard accepts the Chairman's award at the 44th Annual NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles on Feb. 1, 2013.Matt Sayles / Invision/AP file

Alice Hunt Friend, also on the short list, is an expert on Africa and civil-military relations who spent time making policy at the Pentagon and is now at CSIS.

Michelle Howard, a retired four-star admiral who became the first woman to serve as vice chief of staff for any U.S. military branch, is under consideration to be the first female Secretary of the Navy, the people familiar said. She's also on Biden's Pentagon landing team.

Sharon Burke, currently at the New America think tank, is a former assistant secretary of defense for operational energy who served in both Republican and Democratic administrations. Burke's expertise in energy security and climate change fits with one of Flournoy's priorities: recognizing the U.S. military's role in climate change.

Other women who could be named to a Flournoy Pentagon, according to the people familiar with the decision-making, include defense budget expert Susanna Blume, Russia policy expert Celeste Wallander, International Security Affairs expert Mara Karlin, and former Undersecretary of the Navy Janine Davidson.

Asked about the possibility that Biden may nominate her, Michele Flournoy wrote in a statement, "I'm thrilled that Joe Biden will be our next president and I would be honored to help him succeed for the American people in any way that I can."

Then-Vice President Biden may have telegraphed his intent four years ago. After Flournoy introduced him at a Center for New American Security (CNAS) event in June 2016, Biden began his speech by saying, "Well, Madame Secretary — I mean — I don't know." The crowd cheered and Biden played to the audience, saying, "I'm writing a recommendation for her, you know."

At the time Flournoy was expected to be Hillary Clinton's choice to be Secretary of Defense. When Donald Trump won the 2016 election in an upset, he selected retired Gen. James Mattis instead, who then tried to hire Flournoy as his deputy. She declined, citing policy disagreements.

Celeste Wallander, Arben Imami, Mirko Okolic, Ante Kotromanovic, Fatmir Besimi, Milica Pejanovic-Djurisic
U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander, left, signs a join statement during a defense ministerial meeting of the U.S.-Adriatic Charter in Skopje, Macedonia, on March 29, 2012.Boris Grdanoski / AP file

From 2009 to 2012, Flournoy served as the policy chief and third highest ranking civilian in the Pentagon, responsible for advising Secretaries of Defense Robert Gates and later Leon Panetta on national security and defense policy. In 2017 she co-founded a national security advisory firm, WestExec Advisors, with Antony Blinken, Biden's choice to be secretary of state.

Flournoy may face criticism during confirmation for her ties to the defense industrial base. In 2018 she joined Booz Allen Hamilton's advisory board, and in January 2007, she co-founded CNAS, a bipartisan, nonprofit D.C. think tank that relies in part on donations from defense contractors.

After Biden won the election, two progressives in Congress, Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., sent him a letter urging him not to select a secretary of defense with close ties to the defense industry. Mark Esper was a lobbyist for Raytheon, Patrick Shanahan was a 30-year Boeing executive, and even James Mattis, a career Marine, served on the board of General Dynamics before being sworn in as Secretary of Defense in 2017.

Congressional progressives are also questioning her stance on withdrawing U.S. troops from war zones. Rep. Ro Khanna, D.-Calif., tweeted, "Flournoy supported the war in Iraq & Libya, criticized Obama on Syria, and helped craft the surge in Afghanistan. I want to support the President's picks. But will Flournoy now commit to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan & a ban on arms sales to the Saudis to end the Yemen war?"

During the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Flournoy advocated for a more troop-intensive counterinsurgency approach to the conflicts, a view Biden did not share.

The U.S. footprint is expected to be at just 2,500 troops in each country when Biden steps into the White House in January, with the military on a glidepath to zero by May 2021 in accordance with the peace agreement.

Flournoy warned against a hasty troop withdrawal at the Aspen Security Forum in August, saying, "I think it would be a mistake for the U.S. to precipitously draw down or withdraw, particularly to leave before that peace is solidified," she said. "Because we would basically be pulling the carpet out from under our Afghan government partners, and Afghan women and Afghan civil society, that we fought so hard to help achieve a place at the table."

Brooks called assertions that Flournoy is a warmonger or hawk "bizarre."

"In my experience working for her, she was consistently the person in the room who would raise all the hard questions about using military force: asking whether there were non-military alternatives; pushing people to think about the risks and costs of using force, etc. She believes in the importance of strong and credible military deterrence, but the emphasis is on that last word: deterrence. The goal is to avoid using force except as a last, last resort," she said.

Brooks points out that Flournoy has a son serving in the Navy, and "as a mother she is all too aware that when we talk about using military force, real human lives, both on the U.S. side and on the side of adversaries and civilians, are at risk."

Former Secy. James, who broke gender barriers as just the second woman to serve as Secretary of the Air Force, says Flournoy already has contacts with world leaders and being a woman will not impact relationships.

"They will do business. They have to do business or they will be left behind," she said. "She would be a familiar face. And they, I think, very her as extremely well-qualified."

In addition to her focus on the military's role in combating climate change, Flournoy is expected to prioritize modernizing the military to counter China and Russia, including more focus on artificial intelligence and unmanned drones. At the Aspen Security Forum in August she warned that the U.S. risks losing technological edge over China's military within 10 years without a new strategy and investing in new weapons.

Brooks points out that as Pentagon policy chief Flournoy pioneered the creation of more flexible, family-friendly work policies, including four-day work weeks and job sharing. Despite opposition to the policies, "even the initial skeptics were eventually won over," Brooks said.

Brooks co-founded The Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS), which was created by a group of women, many of whom were alumni of Flournoy's team at the Pentagon.

"The informal conversations we had about barriers to women's advancement in the national security workplace ultimately led to the founding of LCWINS. Michele was incredibly supportive from the very beginning and is on our Honorary advisory council," Brooks explained.

In addition to her knowledge of the Pentagon, she knows how Capitol Hill works and her relationship with the uniformed military is "excellent," James said.

"Her appointment would be historic because she would be the first woman," she said, adding, "even before the historic nature of it though, she's extremely well-qualified for the position."