Election 2020

Biden and Flournoy Have Clashed Over Policy in Past

The putative front-runner to be U.S. defense secretary hasn’t always agreed with her future boss.

By , a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Former Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michèle Flournoy
Former Defense Undersecretary for Policy Michèle Flournoy takes part in a panel discussion at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on June 2, 2014. Yuri Gripas/REUTERS

Michèle Flournoy is widely considered to be a front-runner to become President-elect Joe Biden’s pick as secretary of defense, the first woman to serve in the post. But Flournoy, a highly regarded career defense official, hasn’t always been on the same side of policy debates as her future boss, and that could potentially affect the Biden administration’s future approach to security concerns around the globe.

The disagreements between the two in the past have ranged from the U.S. policy stance from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria.

In Afghanistan, while Biden as Barack Obama’s vice president advocated for a pared-down counterterrorism (CT) approach that would focus narrowly on eliminating al Qaeda, Flournoy argued for a broader and more troop-intensive counterinsurgency or COIN strategy that would combine military and civil tactics to win over the population. 

“You’re right to foresee a possible difference of opinion between them. Their instincts are different,” said David Kilcullen, a leading counterinsurgency expert who briefed Biden and other leading officials of the incoming Obama administration in 2009. “She was always more focused on engaging and trying to stabilize Afghanistan for broader geopolitical and humanitarian reasons, and he was focused on pulling out (with a CT figleaf).” 

“That said, I don’t think it’s going to be a huge deal this time, largely because the horse has already bolted on Afghanistan. I am not privy to Michele’s thinking at all, but from a straight strategy perspective I don’t think she would see much alternative to a withdrawal, given the strategic realities of the campaign as it stands. And if she is picking her policy battles, this looks like a fairly forlorn hill to die on, this early in a new administration.”

As Obama writes in his just-released memoir, A Promised Land, Biden was consistently the determined outlier in the debate about putting more troops into Afghanistan, expressing little faith in the Afghan government’s reliability under then-President Hamid Karzai. “Whatever the mix of reasons, he saw Afghanistan as a dangerous quagmire and urged me to delay a deployment…” Obama writes.

Aided by tens of thousands of U.S. troops, COIN has not worked since then; initial hopes for spreading so-called “ink spots” of stability and political control in larger areas of the country to keep out the Taliban—winning over most of the Afghan population with aid and a multibillion-dollar policy to “clear, hold, and build” towns while at the same time killing insurgents threatening those towns—is already considered a lost hope in the Pentagon, which has mostly abandoned the strategy,

Biden himself has already indicated he wants a swift pullout soon, with some on his team suggesting he might even want to keep on Trump’s envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, who is in the middle of negotiating with the Taliban on an accelerated timetable that would draw down to 2,500 troops by Jan. 15 and have all U.S. troops out by the spring of 2021, scant months into Biden’s tenure. 

The pragmatic Flournoy, meanwhile, has admitted her views have shifted in recent years as counterinsurgency efforts have been frustrated and the Taliban have been resurgent. In a recent podcast with retired Gen.Stan McChrystal–former commander in Afghanistan—she said that if she had it to do over again she would have asked more stringent questions about when and where COIN can work. She indicated that she had overestimated the ability of Kabul to take over from the Americans. “I think we went in believing we had a different kind of partner in the Afghan government than we actually did.”

But speaking at an Atlantic Council Forum in Dec. 2012, just after Obama’s re-election, Flournoy had taken a more aggressive approach in supporting COIN. She admonished the U.S. military for becoming “risk-averse” because of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, adding “we have to be careful not to fall into the Vietnam Syndrome where we believe we’ll never do that again.” She said traditional Pentagon planning programs were “unsatisfactory” and “stale” and cramped by “an aversion to failure.” To produce the adaptive and flexible leaders needed to face the uncertain future threats, America needed to develop new asymmetric warfare techniques and “we have to be willing to fail,” she said, noting “we don’t get to choose” the nature of future conflicts. Flournoy was apparently not only talking about counterinsurgency in this context but also creative new uses of technology, for example creating a “network of networks” for command and control to fend off cyber disruptions, among other innovations.

As one of the founders in 2007 of the new think tank Center for a New American Security, which questioned the administration’s approach to Afghanistan, Flournoy had long been known as a strong COIN advocate against Vice President Biden’s later views. And notably it was former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, known for his extreme skepticism about the surge in Afghanistan and Iraq, whom Obama picked as his second-term defense secretary over Flournoy, though she had been Obama’s chief foreign policy spokesman during the 2012 campaign and previously undersecretary for policy.

“She did want to engage more rather than less,” said retired Army Col. Tony Pfaff, a professor at the U.S. Army War College who was involved in intelligence and planning during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “But now, I don’t think anyone can advocate for an adventurous COIN strategy anywhere, so not sure they’ll have a lot of room to disagree. Unless it is about building up advisor capacity in the regular Army–that’s a thing now” that he suggested Flournoy may support.

On Iraq, Flournoy also took a different, also more activist approach than Biden, who along with foreign affairs veteran Leslie Gelb called for a greater federalization of Iraq, in effect turning the country into three autonomous regions, Sunni, Kurd and Shia, and then getting out. Here too Flournoy pushed for national unity and a more troop-intensive COIN strategy. ”In Iraq I think she was more interested in maintaining the presence we have there, in part because of the threat from Syria,” said Kilcullen. 

In a 2007 article she wrote with her late CNAS colleague Shawn Brimley, Flournoy argued for “a strategy focused on maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as creating an internal balance of power among Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds that reduces the chances of mass violence and improves the chances of political reconciliation.” Her article said “the United States must retain sufficient ‘top-down’ engagement with Iraq’s federal government in order to retain leverage, influence behavior within Iraq’s army and National Police, and maintain a degree of situational awareness.”

Biden was later criticized for negotiating a too-rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011, leading to the rise of the Islamic State—one of the outcomes that Flournoy and other hawks had feared. Indeed, Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, in a rare parting of ways with Trump on foreign policy, has warned the president—and by implication Biden—that something similar could happen in Afghanistan.  

“The consequences of a premature American exit would likely be even worse than President Obama’s withdrawal from Iraq back in 2011, which fueled the rise of ISIS and a new round of global terrorism,” McConnell said on the Senate floor this week. “It would be reminiscent of the humiliating American departure from Saigon in 1975.”

A spokesman for the Biden transition did not respond to a request for comment.

Since she became undersecretary of defense for policy, considered the third most powerful civilian role in the department, Flournoy has become renowned in military circles for her creative approach to maximizing the effectiveness of U.S. military forces with minimal expenditure; she has urged the slashing of infrastructure and overhead to preserve training and modernization. She also shares with Biden the determination to find new ways to confront the rise of China while at the same time pushing for areas of cooperation on threats like climate change and containing North Korea. 

“Even if differences existed then I doubt they continue today,” said retired Brig. Gen Jim Warner, a former senior Pentagon official. “Flournoy is the fastest and deepest learner I know. I wouldn’t assume she holds the same opinions at this point as in the earlier Obama days. There were a lot of very smart and thoughtful people … who preached variations of the COIN gospel.” And who now admit they were wrong.  

Flournoy appears to have a good relationship with Biden—in June 2016, when it was expected Hillary Clinton would win the presidency, Biden jokingly addressed Flournoy as “madame secretary” at a speech and added, “I’m writing a recommendation for her, you know.” But the president-elect is also considering several other candidates as defense secretary, including Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a disabled Iraq vet, former homeland security secretary Jeh Johnson, who would become the first African American defense secretary; and retired Adm. William McRaven, who served as head of U.S. Special Operations Command and oversaw the missions that captured Saddam Hussein and killed Osama bin Laden.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh