November 26, 2020
Michèle Flournoy, a top contender to be President-elect Joe Biden’s secretary of defense, got a round of public endorsements on Wednesday from progressive-minded lawmakers and disarmament advocates as the veteran national security official faces headwinds from others on the left who are critical of her past views and ties to defense contractors.
“We are keenly aware of the critical need for a leader with Flournoy’s expertise on complex national security issues,” Reps. Jim Langevin (D-R.I.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), two subcommitteee chairs on the House Armed Services Committee, said in a joint statement. “Ms. Flournoy’s sound policy experience will be vital to ensuring strong civilian oversight of the military, professionalism and ethics in our special operations forces, workforce diversity, and activities to strengthen our technological edge through science and innovation.”
Another progressive member of the panel, Rep. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), an Iraq War veteran, also tweeted that “Michèle Flournoy has a deep understanding of the existing DOD bureaucracy and the future of our defense. That’s a rare combination.
“I would love to see her nominated for Secretary of Defense,” he added.
Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, also received an endorsement from a collection of former senior defense officials, diplomats and arms control experts who lauded her support for international treaties and other efforts to reduce the number and role of nuclear weapons in war planning.
Flournoy “knows that a top priority of the Biden administration must be to restore U.S. leadership on a variety of issues, including on nuclear risk reduction,” they wrote in an open letter that was signed by former Defense Secretary William Perry and Rose Gottemoeller, a former undersecretary of state for arms control and deputy secretary-general of NATO.
“She has frequently expressed her strong support for extending the New START nuclear control agreement with Russia,” they added. “She has raised important questions about the need for and affordability of the current nuclear modernization plans. And she has criticized the Trump administration for lowering the threshold for nuclear use.”
Flournoy, they wrote, “is best poised to ensure the Department of Defense does not, through momentum and inertia, over-invest in unnecessary or dangerous legacy systems — including nuclear weapons systems — ill-suited to addressing the pressing dangers of today and tomorrow.”
Flournoy has long been on the Democratic short list for the top Pentagon job, which would make her the first woman to serve as the civilian leader of the U.S. armed forces.
Many observers were surprised that she was not included in the rollout this week of other members of Biden’s national security and foreign policy team.
But Biden and Flournoy have disagreed in the past, particularly over the war in Afghanistan; Flournoy played a leading role in the surge of U.S. military forces into the country in 2009 when then-Vice President Biden was opposed to a further commitment of troops.
POLITICO first reported this week that the president-elect has not yet settled on a Pentagon chief and that former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is also in the running.
“Michèle is still at the top of the list but they still want to keep looking — and that’s a change,” said a former senior national security official tracking the transition closely. The sense is: “Let’s not be rushed here.”
Flournoy, along with some of her allies on the Pentagon transition team, have come under fire from some on the left who consider her too hawkish and cozy with the defense industry.
She co-founded a think tank, the centrist Center for a New American Security, which gets a significant amount of funding from Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon, according to a study published last month by the Center for International Policy.
Flournoy also started a consulting firm, WestExec Advisors, that has not disclosed its clients. And she also serves on the board of Booz Allen Hamilton, a major Pentagon contractor.
That doesn’t make her unique; Johnson also sits on the board of Lockheed Martin, the largest U.S. defense contractor. And some progressive groups are demanding that whomever Biden selects for top Pentagon roles should reveal any previous defense industry clients as part of a broader effort to reduce the influence of contractors in shaping policy.
Flournoy has sought to allay some of their concerns, including participating in a call with a number of progressive groups just before the election, in which she committed to review arms sales to Saudi Arabia, which has fueled a humanitarian disaster in Yemen’s civil war.
Yet as Biden narrows in on a choice, other progressive-minded national security veterans and military advocacy groups are increasingly coming to her defense.
Nearly a dozen military family advocacy groups endorsed her over the weekend, recommending a “speedy confirmation process.”
“We appreciate her undisputed expertise on a wide variety of subjects at the Defense Department, and we appreciate her deep commitment to America’s troops and their families,” the groups told POLITICO in a statement. “We particularly appreciate that she is a member of a military family herself.”
On Wednesday, her supporters in the arms control community told Biden “We believe Michèle Flournoy is the best candidate for the job.”