Not pictured in the famous photo of Obama administration officials watching the raid to kill Osama bin Laden, but standing just out of frame, was Michèle Flournoy. The Pentagon’s policy chief and third-highest civilian at the time, Flournoy played a pivotal but behind-the-scenes role to greenlight the operation. Yet her name is unknown to most outside the Washington foreign policy community.
Flournoy may soon step out of obscurity and into the proverbial picture. That’s because President-elect Biden is expected to nominate her to be his secretary of defense. If confirmed, the 59-year-old would become the first woman ever to lead the Pentagon.
It’s been a long time coming. A 2011 profile of Flournoy predicted she would one day sit atop the Defense Department. Three years later, she was the frontrunner to be President Obama’s fourth defense secretary but took herself out of the running due to family considerations at the time. And in 2016, the worst-kept secret in Washington was that Hillary Clinton would pick Flournoy to helm the agency once she was elected president.
“Well, Madam Secretary,” then-Vice President Biden joked that June after Flournoy introduced him at an event hosted by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), the think tank she founded. The crowd cheered and laughed. “I’m writing a recommendation for her, you know,” Biden added.
Many would. Flournoy studied at Harvard and Oxford, worked at the Pentagon in the Clinton administration, served in various high-profile roles in Washington’s most prestigious think tanks and consulting firms, built her own prominent research organization, and starred in Obama’s Defense Department.
Few in the Democratic Party have had such an upward trajectory in Washington’s cutthroat national security world. Fewer still earned near-universal respect while climbing the ladder — to the point that President Donald Trump’s first defense secretary, Jim Mattis, asked her to be his No. 2, an offer she turned down.
“There are one of three kinds of people who typically serve as secretary of defense,” retired Marine Gen. John Allen, who led US and international troops in Afghanistan, told me. “The first knows about the Pentagon’s enterprise but may not be knowledgeable about policy or security. The second is steeped in policy and security but not familiar with the enormity of the enterprise. And the third may not have a background in either but is connected politically.
“Michèle may be the first one I’ve ever known that’s all three,” Allen, who is now president of the Brookings Institution, said.
But while Flournoy would be a qualified, historic pick for Biden — helping him keep his promise to appoint a diverse Cabinet — she might not be a perfect fit for a Biden presidency.
Critics view her as more comfortable with the use of force than Biden is, pointing to how they differed greatly over escalating the war in Afghanistan during the Obama years. And though she’s well known to Biden, she’s not part of his cadre of loyalists or longtime staffers. That has led some to worry that Flournoy would struggle to gain influence within Biden’s team, even though she has a longstanding relationship with top aides like Tony Blinken.
In addition, her seat on the board of the defense contracting giant Booz Allen Hamilton, combined with her unwillingness to dramatically slash the defense budget, could rankle progressives.
Even so, no one else is seriously under consideration for the top Pentagon post, showing Biden’s clear confidence in her. “This is one of those wonderful moments when a female is the right person for the job,” Sarah Sewall, a longtime friend of Flournoy’s who served with her in the Obama administration, told me. “It’s a remarkable confluence of capability and gender coming together.”
After years serving just outside the spotlight, then, Flournoy is very likely to be front and center soon. “I don’t think she’d have any problem adjusting to that spotlight,” Chuck Hagel, Obama’s defense chief from 2013 to 2015, told me.
When a president chooses a defense secretary, the top two considerations are usually: 1) can this person run the world’s largest organization? and 2) do they mostly agree with me on national security policy?
For Biden, the answer to both those questions when it comes to Flournoy, based on most people I spoke to, is an unequivocal yes.
Flournoy led the Pentagon’s policy office from 2009 to 2012, an important job where she and her staff developed how the military should handle the wars in the Middle East, a rising China, the global threat of terrorism, and much more.
Those who worked in that office told me she gained the trust of the two defense secretaries during that time — Republican Robert Gates and Democrat Leon Panetta — as well as the respect of her subordinates.
“She cultivates this level of incredible loyalty because people love working for her,” said one former Pentagon official who, like others, didn’t want to be identified for this story while the Biden transition is still considering people for jobs. “She listens to them and takes their advice on.”
But it wasn’t just the civilian side of the Pentagon that liked Flournoy. The military side — the Joint Staff, which often tussles over control of strategy and plans inside the department — appreciated her work, too.
The Pentagon’s policy office “was probably the most influential” ever with Flournoy at the helm, the former staffer said. “Nothing went from the Joint Staff to the secretary without a policy team check. Very few games were being played while she was there.”
Hagel, who became the secretary after Flournoy’s departure, said she had clearly left a major mark on the building. “That staff was in good shape,” he told me, “and that was much due to Michèle’s leadership and her expertise.”
That expertise, honed partly at think tanks like CNAS and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, has made her one of the Democratic Party’s leading lights on defense and foreign policy. Her views are relatively centrist and traditional, sounding a lot like Biden when she makes the case for the United States as a global force for good.
“It is all but impossible for America to adopt an inward-looking strategy that embraces isolationist tendencies,” she wrote in a co-authored 2008 article titled Making America Grand Again. “The United States’ relationship to the rest of the world necessitates a strategy that maintains a degree of basic order in the international system.”
She riffed on that same theme five years later, just after stepping down as the defense undersecretary for policy.
“I am one who believes that the United States, as the sole superpower in the world, still has an indispensable leadership role to play,” she told a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) audience in Washington. “There’s really no other country that can lead the way we can, that can convene the way we can, that can put together international coalitions to solve shared problems the way we can.”
That stance has its pros and cons, said Van Jackson, who worked for Flournoy both at the Pentagon and at CNAS.
“Her worldview is classic liberal internationalist … It means alliances, multilateralism, and deterrence,” he told me. “The left hates her for basically all these same reasons, which add up to justifying huge defense budgets and risk creating some of our security problems in the world.” Still, he hastened to add, “She prides herself on being a not particularly partisan or ideological technocrat. She’s the ultimate restoration of competence.”
Such competence will be needed to deter China, which she — like Biden — views as America’s greatest direct challenge.
“The United States and China could all too easily stumble into conflict,” she wrote in a June Foreign Affairs article. “The more confident China’s leaders are in their own capabilities and the more they doubt the capabilities and resolve of the United States, the greater the chance of miscalculation — a breakdown in deterrence that could bring direct conflict between two nuclear powers.”
She’s argued that avoiding such a dire scenario requires making “big bets,” as she calls them, on advanced technologies like unmanned weapons boosted by artificial intelligence. Developing that arsenal is well underway, but Flournoy has said more could be done to get it all online and working. “We’re talking the talk, but where is that substantial commitment of multiyear funding? That’s, I think, something we need to work towards,” she told Defense News in September.
Flournoy has also said the Pentagon could and should do more to quell what Biden thinks is the top long-term challenge to the US and the world: climate change.
“The Department of Defense has a critical role to play in this effort. It also has a strong interest in doing so,” she wrote in an October CNN op-ed. She continued:
Climate change doesn’t just imperil coastal military bases with storm surges or delay exercises when heat waves and fires make it impossible to train. Climate change is already causing the armed forces to plan for new contingencies: from being prepared to undertake more frequent disaster relief missions to anticipating instability and conflict created by resource scarcity and population migrations.
Her recommendations for how the military could help curb climate change include the Pentagon more quickly developing greener fuels for fighter jets and replacing older vehicles with hybrid ones.
Flournoy’s pedigree and years of experience, added to her general alignment with Biden’s worldview, make her selection a no-brainer for many. A piece of advice she has given people is “Choose the boss, not the job,” and in this case, Flournoy would be happy with both.
But being the consensus pick, one that even conservatives like, is one thing. Doing the job with few stumbles is another — and that’s not guaranteed.
Back in 2010, then-Vice President Biden furiously disagreed with Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special envoy for Afghanistan, that the US had an obligation to stay in the war.
“Fuck that,” Biden replied, according to a book on Holbrooke’s life and career by George Packer. “We did it in Vietnam, Nixon and Kissinger got away with it.”
Prior to that encounter, Flournoy had been part of an Afghanistan strategy review team alongside Holbrooke that recommended sending 4,000 more US troops into the country to train Afghan forces. But when the Obama administration later in 2009 sent in 30,000 more service members to the country as part of the “surge” — much more than she and others had proposed — Flournoy became one of the war plan’s supporters.
“Our overall assessment is that we are heading in the right direction in Afghanistan,” she told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June 2010. While she acknowledged there would be setbacks, Flournoy asserted “we are making progress, sometimes slow, but we believe steady.”
This episode, among others, has led many — including those who know her well — to suggest Flournoy is more comfortable with military options than Biden. “Her instincts are more traditional military thinking. Biden’s instincts are not,” a longtime associate of Flournoy’s told me. “She’ll bring something different to the policy debate, which I think is good.”
That could potentially cause some discord between Biden and Flournoy, especially in a heated debate over whether to use force during a crisis. “If she thinks something is right, and it’s the unpopular opinion within the administration, she would push to get it done and convince other people,” her former Pentagon colleague told me. But another former DOD official insisted that “once the president makes a decision, she’ll champion it” publicly.
Another potential point of contention is the defense budget. Flournoy has long worried about what happens to the military when Pentagon funds get slashed.
“Historically, we’ve managed drawdowns very, very badly. We tend to balance our budget on the backs of the force. You cut force structure, you cut readiness, you cut modernization, which is sort of your seed corn for the future. And typically, we end up with a hollow force. Not always, but that’s kind of the tendency if left to our own devices,” she told the 2013 CFR audience.
Comments like these have led critics — mainly from the left — to fear that she won’t entertain reducing the defense budget as she aims for the Pentagon to make those “big bets.” Progressives disagree with her stance on “military superiority as a standard for force structure and … on China policy,” said Jackson, now at the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. “The left sees her as the endless war advocate.”
Her supporters, though, say Flournoy has repeatedly made clear in articles that she believes the Defense Department can’t just spend more and more money. If it’s going to investment in something new, something old must go away. If she holds to that stance as the defense secretary, though, she’ll likely find stiff resistance from certain military branches or even some members of Congress to getting rid of legacy weapons and other items.
And, it should be noted, Biden for now says he doesn’t anticipate any major defense spending cuts.
Finally, Flournoy has spoken and written often about the need to improve diversity in the Pentagon’s ranks, both civilian and military. In September, she co-wrote a CNN op-ed with Diversity in National Security Network co-founder Camille Stewart on the subject.
“Nowhere will a qualified team of advisers with a diversity of lived experience and expertise be more important at every level than in the national security realm,” they argued. “As commander in chief, a President Biden would recognize racism as the national security issue it is. … From the board room to the Situation Room, bringing more diverse views to the table is proven to enhance the quality of decision-making and organizational performance.”
Stewart told me she believes in Flournoy’s commitment to this cause, but has some doubts that those working under her — who would have to make the needed changes to improve diversity — will actually follow through. “I have confidence that she will make it a priority,” Stewart told me. “I do not necessarily have confidence in the people who will have to execute that.”
If Flournoy doesn’t make progress on that front, she could receive public pushback from Stewart and others who want her to prioritize diversifying the Pentagon’s workforce — just like she promised.
The challenges most expect Flournoy to face, though, likely won’t sully her work as Pentagon chief. Even with the bright lights on her, they expect Flournoy to succeed.
“I can’t think of anybody in recent times who’s more prepared to be secretary of defense,” her former Pentagon colleague said.