Biden’s Likely Defense Secretary Pick Flournoy Faces Progressive Pushback

From concerns about ties to defense contractors to worries about forever wars, at least one of the president-elect’s potential nominees is raising hackles.

This article is part of Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of U.S. President Joe Biden’s first 100 days in office, detailing key administration policies as they get drafted—and the people who will put them into practice.

Then-U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy
Then-U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy arrives for a bilateral meeting in Beijing on Dec. 7, 2011. Andy Wong-Pool/Getty Images

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden named a slate of experienced hands for his national security team on Monday—but stopped short of selecting a defense secretary. Now, backers of Michèle Flournoy, his likely pick for defense secretary, are trying to head off a last-minute push by some left-leaning Democrats trying to derail her selection, with many progressives seeing her nomination as a continuation of what critics refer to as America’s “forever wars.”

In a letter obtained by Foreign Policy organized by No Exceptions, a mostly inactive nonprofit that previously advocated for opening more military service roles to women, expected to be signed by more than 100 former U.S. and military officials and national security experts, Flournoy is described as a consensus-builder able to heal the tensions and mistrust sown during the Trump administration. 

“This level of wide-spread trust and confidence will enable Michèle to build a coherent defense strategy and restore trust amongst allies and partners,” the authors wrote. “She will repair the actual and reputational erosion of the last few years, while recruiting and sustaining talent to set our country on a confident and renewed course.” 

For weeks, the left-leaning Center for International Policy has petitioned the Senate not to confirm cabinet picks on the incoming Biden team with corporate and lobbying ties, an effort that has been backed by Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva. The organization is also working with the Congressional Progressive Caucus on a letter seeking clarity on Flournoy’s client list at WestExec Advisors, the consulting firm she started in recent years, and asking the former top Pentagon official to recuse herself if she worked on major weapons programs in the private sector.

Progressive groups led by Just Foreign Policy and Demand Progress are planning a letter asking Flournoy and Biden’s already-announced top national security picks, Avril Haines and Antony Blinken, to account for perceived past foreign-policy mistakes, including U.S. policy in Yemen, Libya, Syria, and with regards to Saudi arms sales.

The dueling letters reflect the simmering tensions between the progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party as Biden tries to hold Democrats together while he prepares to enter the Oval Office. On Monday evening, Biden got a boost in efforts to begin his stalled transition as General Services Administration chief Emily Murphy finally issued a letter of ascertainment certifying the former vice president as the winner of the November election, a move that will formally allow his team access to federal transition resources and to begin onboarding at U.S. government agencies.

The Biden transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But several foreign-policy experts in contact with the transition team said that it is highly unlikely the pushback would derail Flournoy’s likely nomination. Additionally, it is unclear who progressives would like to replace Flournoy in the event their campaign to quash her nomination gained traction. 

In a letter earlier this month, progressive Democratic Reps. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Barbara Lee of California urged Biden not to select a new nominee for the Pentagon job with a track record of working with defense contractors—a trip wire during the confirmation hearing of President Donald Trump’s former Defense Secretary Mark Esper. The former secretary, who was recently fired by tweet, was a senior lobbyist for Raytheon, a major defense contractor, before joining the Trump administration. Flournoy serves on the board of Booz Allen Hamilton and, along with Blinken, founded WestExec Advisors, a Washington consulting firm that reportedly advises the defense industry, private equity firms, and hedge funds. 

But Flournoy’s wide experience in the Defense Department, which began nearly three decades ago in the Clinton administration as a principal deputy assistant secretary of defense and carried her through the Obama administration, where she served as the agency’s Senate-confirmed undersecretary of defense for policy, is seen as likely to help her clear a possible Republican-controlled Senate. She also became known for co-founding the Center for a New American Security in 2007, a bipartisan think tank focused on defense issues. 

Still, some progressive foreign-policy experts view her consulting work as a liability, fearing her ties to the defense industry could pose conflicts of interest if she were to take up the top post at the Pentagon. 

Mandy Smithberger, of the nonpartisan group Project on Government Oversight, has questioned whether Flournoy’s policy proposals for a new administration “benefit the bottom line of current or former clients of her consulting firm” in a piece on the influence of defense contractors over a Biden administration’s Pentagon.

Moreover, as Smithberger noted, one-third of Biden’s Pentagon agency review team work for think tanks, organizations, or companies that receive defense industry funding—a point of contention with progressive foreign-policy circles.

Notably, Blinken, who was picked for secretary of state, has faced less public pushback for his work with WestExec than Flournoy. Some Democratic foreign-policy experts said that is because the Pentagon is simply a bigger institution where conflicts of interest with defense contractors would more quickly arise than at the State Department. Others said Blinken has done a better job making inroads with progressive groups in the runup to the elections. Still others attribute it in part to sexism; Flournoy is being unfairly held to a different standard than male counterparts, they said.

Progressive foreign-policy experts who have questions said that the future administration could allay these concerns by requiring nominees like Flournoy and Blinken to more fully disclose their investments and business dealings before taking up their government posts.

Andrew Albertson, the head of the advocacy organization Foreign Policy for America, described Flournoy as extremely qualified for the job of defense secretary and said some of the pushback from the left wing of the party was less about her and more about grievances over U.S. defense policy overall.

“I think progressives are frustrated by the fact that the defense budget has grown to more than half our discretionary budget every year and shows no signs of stopping, and frustrated that they haven’t found a real formula for turning the [National Defense Authorization Act] from a wish list into a real policy document that makes hard choices,” he said. “And that’s some of what you’re seeing bubble up.”

Despite widespread support of Flournoy from many foreign-policy experts, who dismissed any nefarious influence from her past ties to the defense industry, some progressive Democratic lawmakers have raised a battle cry. 

“Flournoy supported the war in Iraq [and] Libya, criticized Obama on Syria, and helped craft the surge in Afghanistan,” Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive backer of Sen. Bernie Sanders and an architect of the 2019 War Powers Resolution to end U.S. involvement in Yemen, tweeted on Sunday. “I want to support the President’s picks. But will Flournoy now commit to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan & a ban on arms sales to the Saudis to end the Yemen war?”

Flournoy, as Pentagon policy chief during the Obama administration, clashed with Biden when he was vice president over the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, as did much of the Obama administration, and in the past pushed to keep more U.S. forces in Iraq. 

Opposition to Flournoy is tempered, but not fully allayed, by the historic prospect of a first female defense secretary. In a call with the likely pick earlier this month, progressives specifically raised issues with Flournoy’s ties to defense contractors and expressed frustration that she wasn’t willing to agree to an outright ban on U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, instead favoring just a ban on offensive weapons sales. Some progressives have also been frustrated by the Biden team’s unwillingness to commit to defense spending cuts and to redirect more of the Pentagon budget toward domestic priorities. News of the call was first reported by Politico.  

Some others on Capitol Hill weren’t as committed to opposing Flournoy and other Biden picks, and simply sought to get assurances on key policy decisions for progressives. 

“I think you’ll find the concerns with Biden’s picks to be fairly limited,” said one House aide.

Update, Nov. 25, 2020: This article was updated to provide further details on progressive pushback over Biden cabinet picks.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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