Michèle Flournoy Takes Herself Out of Running for Top Pentagon Job

Michèle Flournoy Takes Herself Out of Running for Top Pentagon Job

Michèle Flournoy, widely seen as the front-runner to replace Chuck Hagel as the next secretary of defense, abruptly took herself out of the running for the job Tuesday, complicating what will be one of the most important personnel decisions of President Barack Obama’s second term.

Flournoy, the co-founder and CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank that has served as a farm league for future Obama administration officials, would have been the first female secretary of defense had she risen to the position. The news of her decision to withdraw was first reported by Foreign Policy.

But in a letter Tuesday to members of the CNAS board of directors, Flournoy said she would remain in her post at the think tank and asked Obama to take her out of consideration to be the next secretary of defense. Flournoy told the board members that family health considerations helped drive her decision and the fact that two of her children are leaving for college in the next two years.

"Last night I spoke with President Obama and removed myself from consideration due to family concerns," reads the letter, first obtained by FP. "After much agonizing, we decided that now was not the right time for me to reenter government."

Flournoy’s decision means that only one of the three widely rumored names for the post remains under consideration: Ashton Carter, the former deputy secretary of defense. When Hagel’s departure was announced Monday, speculation had immediately turned to Flournoy, Carter, and Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a former Army Ranger. But Reed took himself out of the running shortly after Hagel announced his resignation.

The decision by both Flournoy and Reed to pre-emptively turn down the job underscores the immense challenges facing the next secretary of defense and raised immediate questions about whether senior officials and lawmakers were scared off by the prospect of taking a post that would require dealing with a White House that has centralized much of the policymaking and strategic decisions in the West Wing. Both of Hagel’s predecessors, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, complained about administration meddling and overreach in their respective memoirs. "Despite everyone being ‘nice’ to me, getting anything consequential done was so damnably difficult," wrote Gates.  

Beyond the bureaucratic issues, the next secretary will also have to manage the war against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria, find a way to close the U.S. prison facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, competently execute a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, and right-size the nation’s military as Congress attempts to lift the across-the-board defense cuts known as sequestration.

The new Pentagon chief will also face a Congress fully controlled by Republicans devoted to battering the administration for missteps, real and perceived. That will mean having to make repeated trips to Capitol Hill to face angry questioning by incoming Senate Armed Services Committee chairman John McCain of Arizona, who is salivating at the chance to push the next secretary to agree that stronger steps need to be taken against the Islamic State and that military force should remain on the table if the Iran talks break down.

Those questions could be hard for the nominee to answer because Obama himself seems deeply conflicted about how far he wants to go in battling the Islamic State and countering Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. No matter how experienced or good a defense secretary is at the job, he or she will be responsible for implementing policies forged elsewhere. If the White House is indecisive or reverses itself on key decisions, senior cabinet members can get caught in the lurch. That’s precisely what happened in the summer of 2013, when Obama ordered the military to prepare for airstrikes against Assad after the Syrian strongman gassed his own people, only to reverse himself without first telling Hagel.

With Flournoy out, White House officials will now need to make the hard choice of how to replace Hagel from an array of talented but flawed candidates.

Carter, while respected for his intellect and management skills, was at times acerbic and condescending, according to a pair of senior officials who have worked with him. Privately, some senior Pentagon civilians have told the two officials that they would quit if Carter became defense secretary.  

A former administration official said that Carter had also alienated members of Obama’s close-knit inner circle — the very people pushing for Hagel’s ouster and charged with finding his successor — by openly expressing his displeasure at being passed over when then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced his resignation in 2012. One of those key players is National Security Advisor Susan Rice, and Carter could quickly find himself at odds with the strong-willed Obama confidante.

Carter might still get the job, but two former senior administration officials said that they expected the administration to broaden their search to also include Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, Army Secretary John McHugh, and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus.

All would come with clear pluses and minuses. James would, like Flournoy, be the first woman in the post, but she hasn’t been in her current job long and isn’t widely known in Washington or in foreign capitals. McHugh is personally close to the president and well-respected in the Pentagon, but tapping the former GOP congressman would mean that three of Obama’s four secretaries of defense were Republicans.

Mabus, an avuncular former governor of Mississippi and ambassador to Saudi Arabia, campaigned for Obama in 2008 and was one of the then-senator’s senior Middle East advisors. Obama later tapped him to run the Gulf Coast restoration efforts after the BP oil spill. But with his tenure at the Navy focused largely on cost-cutting, Mabus would not bring the expertise in counterterrorism and war-fighting that Obama might want in the man or woman charged with heading the fight against the Islamic State.

Flournoy and Carter were both vetted for the top Pentagon job the last time around, in December 2012, before Obama offered the position to Hagel. Several U.S. officials closely involved in working with Hagel favored Flournoy and were surprised to learn that she had withdrawn herself from consideration. These officials said it was unclear if the White House had prepared and cleared a list of potential replacements before Hagel resigned, raising the possibility that if new candidates other than Carter and Flournoy had to be vetted and cleared through Congress, the process could drag on for months. That would leave Hagel in the uncomfortable position of having to manage affairs without the confidence of the president and his aides.

Gopal Ratnam contributed to this report.

This post has been updated.