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Sébastien Roblin Biden defense pick means progressives may lose big by winning pressure campaign

It's a classic example of how Washington personnel choices and political agendas are evaluated and shot down over narrow and ill-informed criteria.
Image: Lloyd Austin
Retired Gen. Lloyd Austin arrives as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden announces Austin as his nominee to be defense secretary during a news conference in Wilmington, Del., on Dec. 9.Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Progressives are patting themselves on the back for knocking out Michele Flournoy, the candidate widely expected to be President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of defense. And they should be celebrating — if their goal was elevating opaqueness over transparency, furthering a double standard on defense industry ties and defeating the most qualified person for the job, who would have been the first woman to lead the Pentagon.

Flournoy’s real crime is that she had the temerity and know-how to publicly spell out a detailed strategy.

In a classic example of the shallow dimensions on which Washington personnel choices and political agendas are evaluated and shot down based on narrow and ill-informed criteria, progressive pressure contributed to Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, losing out based on narrow and at times arbitrary grounds. Retired four-star Gen. Lloyd Austin, while eminently qualified as a former commander of the military’s Central Command, is arguably a worse choice from a liberal perspective and reinforces the worst instincts of Beltway powerbrokers.

The chief charge made against Flournoy in the progressive pressure campaign was that she was beholden to defense industry interests because she served as a board member at Booz Allen Hamilton, an information technology consulting firm with some controversial ties to Middle Eastern autocrats, and forming her own consultancy, WestExec Advisors, connecting the defense and technology sectors.

But progressive cheering for Austin is a particularly risible double standard, as he is a member of the board of directors of Raytheon, the corporation that builds Tomahawk missiles used in cruise missile strikes.

Michele Flournoy speaks during a conference at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, on Jan. 10, 2017.Chris Kleponis / AFP - Getty Images file

The reality, unfortunately, is that it’s hard to find high-ranking individuals who dedicated their careers in government service to defense policy who have not sought defense-related jobs upon leaving office. That doesn’t mean industry ties shouldn’t be scrutinized, but it should be done with the understanding that some corporate connections are more extensive and troubling than others. Is hawking missiles fundamentally less objectionable than intelligence consulting services?

Furthermore, Austin has a major liability that Flournoy doesn’t: He only retired from the military in 2016, and the 1947 National Security Act now states that commissioned officers are only eligible to be defense secretary seven years after their retirement in order to maintain civilian control of the military, a principle Democrats ostensibly care about.

Biden will have to request a waiver from Congress for permission to flout the rule, just as President Donald Trump did for his first defense secretary, retired Gen. James Mattis. Many Democrats rightly criticized Trump for seeking that waiver — which means they will be engaging in rank hypocrisy if they endorse it for Austin, or they will contribute to pushing Biden to withdraw the nomination.

But that’s hardly the only place where Austin’s candidacy is more troubling than Flournoy’s. The most logically consistent critique progressives have leveled against Flournoy is that she supported increased U.S military interventions abroad, including the Afghanistan surge in 2010 and the Libya intervention in 2011.

In some if not many cases, however, this perception of Austin’s supposedly more dovish tendencies is almost certainly a naive projection: For example, Norman Solomon, co-founder of RootsAction, uses Flournoy’s interest in“military encroachment” against China as a point against her. But the Biden administration is certain to implement a strategy of military competition with China no matter who’s defense secretary. And Flournoy’s fluency with Indo-Pacific tensions was reassuring to U.S. allies concerned that Austin’s experience is in Middle East counterinsurgency conflicts.

Moreover, Flournoy’s hawkishness has arguably been caricatured. She has been wary of Trump’s policies encouraging a nuclear arms race and expressed a desire for greater cooperation with China on global health, climate change and nuclear proliferation.

Since progressives are primarily interested in downsizing the U.S. military’s gigantic budget and its overseas presence and combat operations, having an assertive vision on national security like Flournoy’s is understandably not seen as a good thing. The problem is that there’s scant reason to think Austin, a former four-star general, has any desire for a smaller Pentagon than does Flournoy.

While Austin is respected and has demonstrated capability, he is not known for having a particular vision on national defense policy. In fact, he was dubbed an “invisible general” who avoided the limelight. Because Austin’s views on various interventions are not generally known, he appears less hawkish by default. The left is holding it against Flournoy that she has expressed her views on the record, and their attacks encourage silence and misdirection for those who hope to hold higher office.

Indeed, Flournoy’s real crime is that she had the temerity and know-how to publicly spell out a detailed strategy. She was widely respected by national security professionals for her knowledge of issues, leadership style and skills in mentoring subordinates. Furthermore, she had articulated an ambitious vision for modernizing the U.S. military and reforming its defense acquisition process. And she actually has made an effort to reach out to progressive groups.

In fact, some observers believe Flournoy may have been “too experienced and connected, and that would have given her sway that could have rattled others,” whereas Austin is perceived as a “good soldier who would carry out the president-elect’s agenda.”

Progressives also cherry-pick Austin’s record. They cite his role in executing the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010-11, though he in fact reportedly recommended against it. Furthermore, this example is not a roundly persuasive success story if you consider that a few years later, the Islamic State militant group captured the metropolis of Mosul, leading to thousands of Iraqi deaths and necessitating a large-scale U.S. intervention. Austin’s management of that campaign is also controversial.

Austin, of course, can’t be blamed for all that went wrong in the Middle East, or for the spectacular failure of a program implemented under his command to arm moderate Syrian rebels, as these involved decisions made by many actors. But why is Flournoy’s record again and again judged more harshly?

And why is there more fury directed at Flournoy and not Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state — and co-founder of WestExec with Flournoy?

To be clear, Austin remains qualified for the office if you ignore the law as written and may turn out to be a capable secretary of defense. There are political advantages to choosing a low-profile nominee — such as protecting against the kind of flak that may have sunk Flournoy’s prospects — and there’s no telling that he wouldn’t pursue bold policies once ensconced in that office.

Progressives also cherry-pick Austin’s record. They cite his role in executing the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2010-11, though he in fact reportedly recommended against it.

Of course, progressive opposition wasn’t the only reason Flournoy lost out. Biden, by his own account, had a close working relationship with Austin. Furthermore, the Congressional Black Caucus reportedly lobbied strongly on behalf of the retired general, who would be the first African American to hold the office. That’s long overdue given the important contributions of Black Americans to the U.S. military since its very inception, though a female defense secretary would also have been an important first.

While progressive activists aren’t the only ones responsible for Biden’s defense secretary pick, they should question whether they expended their political capital in a way that truly advanced their principles. It’s entirely possible that an experienced civilian official with a transformative agenda may be more receptive and likely to advance progressive concerns over transparency, nuclear proliferation, diversity and overseas alliances than a “good soldier” known for avoiding public scrutiny. Taking pride in “sticking it” to the defense establishment shouldn’t feel like victory if it doesn’t lead to something better.