- By John HudsonJohn Hudson is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where he covers diplomacy and national security issues in Washington. He has reported from several geopolitical hotspots, including Ukraine, Pakistan, Malaysia, China, and Georgia. Prior to joining FP, John covered politics and global affairs for the Atlantic magazine’s news blog, the Atlantic Wire. In 2008, he covered the August war between Russia and Georgia from Tbilisi and the breakaway region of Abkhazia. He has appeared on CNN, MSNBC, BBC, C-SPAN, Fox News radio, Al Jazeera, and other broadcast outlets. He has been with the magazine since 2013.
When Michèle Flournoy turned down a chance last year to be the first woman to serve as U.S. defense secretary, she cited “family concerns” for her decision. On Tuesday, Flournoy hinted at another potential reason: the White House’s tendency to micromanage decision-making at the Defense Department.
Flournoy, now CEO at the Center for a New American Security and a foreign-policy advisor for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said the Obama administration has a tendency to push the Pentagon’s tactical decisions to “the senior reaches” of the White House, a dynamic that often infuriates defense officials.
“Too often that happens because of two reasons: one, a lack of role clarity, who has what job; and two, a risk aversion,” she told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Since the late 1990s, the White House’s National Security Council staff has quadrupled in size to about 400 people, a trend that accelerated during President Barack Obama’s presidency. This has resulted in long-running complaints from the State Department and Pentagon about White House staffers meddling in agency decisions. Sometimes the griping is genuinely about process; other times department officials who simply disagree with White House policy use the micromanaging argument to save face.
Without referencing specific disagreements in the fight against the Islamic State or confronting Russia in Ukraine, Flournoy echoed the long-held Pentagon view that an overactive White House rarely produces the best policy decisions.
“One of my former mentors, John Hamre, used to say, ‘If you want to make a staff more strategic, cut it in half.’” she said. “I think as you grow staffs — and this includes the National Security staff — they tend to get more into operational details and tactical kind of oversight.”
Few around Flournoy doubted her sincerity of wanting to focus homeward instead of on the military after former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced his resignation in 2014. But if the bloated NSC was a factor in Flournoy’s decision to take herself out of the running, she may not have to wait long to get back in the saddle.
Flournoy is widely expected to be on Clinton’s short list for defense secretary should the Democrat win the 2016 presidential election. Flournoy’s work assisting Clinton on her campaign’s foreign-policy messaging presumably won’t hurt her prospects for the high-profile defense job.
During her testimony, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama agreed with Flournoy that White House overreach can inhibit strategic thinking. “We’ve got a problem. We’ve got a breakdown,” he said.
Meanwhile, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) maintained his view that the administration doesn’t have a clear strategy for retaking the Islamic State’s stronghold in Raqqa, Syria.
In response to McCain, Flournoy said she approved of the White House’s strategy to rely on air power and the training and equipping of local forces in Syria. But she said current efforts could be intensified — a common refrain of Clinton’s campaign.
“I don’t think invading Syria is the answer,” Flournoy said. “But I do think we, as the United States, need to play more of a leadership role diplomatically, more of a leadership role in terms of enabling others militarily and with intelligence, and being in a more forward-leaning posture — because this threat is getting worse, not better.”
Flournoy testified beside Michael Vickers, the former defense undersecretary for intelligence, who said he shared some of her complaints about NSC overreach.
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