By Other Means

Flournoy for SecDef

Ten reasons the president should ditch Chuck for Michèle.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Michèle Flournoy would make a great secretary of defense. I worked for her for more than two years at the beginning of the Obama administration's first term, and seeing her in action convinced me of it.

Am I biased in her favor? You bet. I've worked with and for many people over the years, and I've had colleagues I wouldn't trust as secretary of the local dogcatchers' association. But I'd trust Flournoy with any job in the nation. And, for the record, I don't want another administration job. I already have a job that I like, and tenure is a beautiful thing. But as a citizen, I'd sure like to see Flournoy back at DoD.

Here are 10 reasons she'd be a terrific choice for defense secretary:

Michèle Flournoy would make a great secretary of defense. I worked for her for more than two years at the beginning of the Obama administration’s first term, and seeing her in action convinced me of it.

Am I biased in her favor? You bet. I’ve worked with and for many people over the years, and I’ve had colleagues I wouldn’t trust as secretary of the local dogcatchers’ association. But I’d trust Flournoy with any job in the nation. And, for the record, I don’t want another administration job. I already have a job that I like, and tenure is a beautiful thing. But as a citizen, I’d sure like to see Flournoy back at DoD.

Here are 10 reasons she’d be a terrific choice for defense secretary:

1. She’s smart. Really, really smart. She reads — not just the page of bullet points on top of the decision package, but the memos and correspondence underneath. She stays on top of new books and papers on defense and security issues, emerging debates, new technologies, and new theories. She’s always willing to consider counter-arguments. She’s got good judgment, too: She’s seen trends come and go, and she doesn’t just jump on the latest fad (yes, there are fads in defense policy just as there are fads in junior high school).

2. She’s good looking. By which I mean that she’s not a middle-aged white guy. She’d bring some needed gender diversity to the national security leaders boys’ club. And make no mistake: A woman who rises to the top in the unforgiving world of national security has to be twice as good as most of the men around her. Michèle Flournoy’s that good.

3. Goddammit, people like her. Flournoy’s the rare senior political appointee (of either sex) who’s not a prima donna. She doesn’t need to be on center stage all the time, and she treats everyone — from foreign leaders to top military brass to the most junior member of the support staff — with courtesy and respect. In more than two years working on her personal staff, I never saw her say an unkind word to anyone. She’s loved by her staff and respected even by those who disagree with her profoundly.

4. She picks good staff, and listens to them. She cares more about good judgment and good ideas than about good political connections or campaign credentials. During her time as under secretary for policy, she created a solid, loyal, and cohesive team of people who worked well together. And she trusts her staff enough to let them take the lead once they’ve convinced her they know what they’re doing. She listens carefully and asks tough questions, but if staff can convince her they’re doing the right thing, she’ll back them up without micromanaging.

5. She knows the building. She’s worked at the Pentagon during two administrations and gone from a relatively junior position to being the department’s number-three civilian official. She knows the people and the culture — the good, the bad, and the ugly. She knows when to let the sluggish bureaucracy churn at its own pace, and when and how to light a fire under it. In a bureaucracy as vast and complex as the Pentagon, it’s not enough to have good ideas — you have to know how to work the system so your good ideas will get implemented. That’s part of the reason political appointees with little time inside the department often fail to get much done. If Flournoy’s appointed as SecDef, she won’t need to waste a year or more just learning the ropes. She already knows them.

Flournoy’s also a skilled translator. She understands the military and its culture, but she also understands the different assumptions and political pressures that motivate White House officials. The civilian-military gap is often at its widest in Washington, and Flournoy has a unique ability to bridge it.

6. She has a vision of where the department needs to go. Unlike Secretary Panetta, a generalist who was brought in as a transitional secretary to help the department through an election year and a tough budget season, Flournoy would come to the job as someone who has spent her whole career in defense policy. She has a deep understanding of how the security environment has changed over the past decades and the ways in which the United States will need to adapt. We’ll be facing high-end asymmetric threats at the same time we’ll be dealing with the "low end" consequences of state weakness and instability. We’ll need to invest in increasing our agility: We’ll need to be able to respond to advanced anti-access and area denial technologies, and we’ll need to help partner states counter terrorist insurgencies. We’ll also need to respond to the challenges that will be produced by climate change and similar dispersed, inchoate phenomena, and this will require us to build the capacity of allies, partners, and the international system.

Flournoy also understands that change will need to occur during a period of extreme fiscal constraint. She knows where the department’s lean and where there’s fat. She knows what can safely be cut and where we need to invest. Under Flournoy, strategy would drive budget, not the other way around.

7. She cares about the institutional heath of the Pentagon as a workplace. To be brutally honest, many senior political appointees couldn’t care less about the morale or career paths of their subordinates — they care about themselves and about advancing the president’s agenda, generally in that order. Flournoy’s the rare exception: She’s dedicated to advancing the president’s agenda, but she also cares about the people she works with, and invests time and energy into making sure her subordinates can have rewarding careers.

During her time as under secretary for policy, she hosted town-hall meetings, undertook anonymous surveys to find out what staff thought worked well and what they hated, and empowered teams of employees to develop and implement new training programs and streamline bureaucratic processes. She encouraged offices to let people experiment with flexible schedules and innovative staff structures. She created new awards to recognize good writing and high-quality work by junior action officers. She didn’t just pay lip service to making the Pentagon a better place to work — she put her heart into it, and policy staff morale increased greatly in response.

8. She cares about the humans who fight and die in wars. Flournoy knows far better than most that war is never something that can be taken lightly. She made sure she was notified every single time a service-member was killed, and I saw how deeply it affected her. She also worked hard to ensure that everything possible was done to prevent civilian casualties in Afghanistan. She’s married to a Navy veteran, and she won’t take the military for granted, but she won’t be intimidated by its hierarchies and traditions, either: She knows that “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” isn’t rarely a good answer. As the spouse of a service member myself, those are exactly the qualities I’d like to see in someone whose decisions will have life or death consequences.

9. She’s got courage. Flournoy’s a loyal team player, and at the end of the day she will do everything she can to advance the president’s agenda. But along the way, she will quietly but consistently speak her mind. I’ve seen her politely but firmly challenge the views of the president’s closest staff. She didn’t always win, but she always stood up for what she believed — and her thoughtfulness and integrity often won over skeptics.

10. She’s not lobbying for the job. Flournoy’s got plenty of great alternatives: She can walk into any think tank job, any defense industry job, and most academic jobs as it is. She’s already an enormous success, and odds are she’ll be SecDef eventually. But right now, she has three kids at home and she knows just how tough it is to balance family life with an all-consuming job. If President Obama wants her as secretary of defense, he may have to work to convince her to take the job this time around. That’s a good thing: The desperate make lousy public officials.

Want someone who will be a great secretary of defense? Find someone who’s not sure she really wants the job.

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.

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