Recent media reports suggest that questions about former Secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy’s qualifications as Secretary of Defense are being raised, including whether her ties to the defense industry should disqualify her candidacy.
The main criterion for assessing a Secretary of Defense nomination at this dangerous point in US history is whether the candidate has the experience, skill and steadfastness to oversee the most powerful military in history and the far-reaching defense institution it supports. From all reports (including my own) the answer to these questions regarding Mrs Flournoy is clearly a resounding ‘yes’.
Michele Flournoy’s experience and experience as a Pentagon official and in numerous roles since leaving the Department of Defense is impeccable. I’ve seen firsthand the hundreds of posts she has made on U.S. defense policy and strategy during her official tours at the Department of Defense since 1993 – when we both began our tenures as officials at the Pentagon – and the recommendations she made in has submitted a wide range of questions to presidents and defense ministers. The body of her work, roughly 27 years old, reflects well-founded, rigorous, careful, and solid policies, all developed through consensus building with other military and civilian officials.
Ms. Flournoy has a particularly effective approach to civil-military relations and effective civilian control of the military at a time when such relations are in need of repair. Her leadership on these matters is based on her well-earned reputation for effective civil defense management, actively seeking and listening to and including those views in their decisions on the matter of the uniformed military on important defense decisions. She has consistently followed this approach since joining the Department of Defense in 1993 and continuing through 2020.
Her first major undertaking in government was a month-long study of the lessons learned from the disastrous US intervention in Somalia from 1992 to 1993, culminating in the Battle of Mogadishu, when 18 brave American soldiers lost their lives. Ms. Flournoy responded to the Secretary of Defense’s mandate to find out what went wrong and how to strengthen future U.S. operations with her trademarks: distinctive tenacity, strategic thinking, and digging up all the relevant details of the causes of the disaster.
She worked tirelessly, leafing through the daily SITREPs or situation reports from the on-site units to understand what had gone so badly wrong. She was determined to do everything possible to be in danger for our men and women. By the time she had finished her assignment months later, her recommendations reached much higher levels, based on the complex series of decisions and events that led to the disaster. Most importantly, she set out the need to greatly strengthen integration between U.S. diplomatic, humanitarian, and military efforts, noting that the separation between the three was fatal to both the entire operation and fallen U.S. military personnel. She recommended new intergovernmental organizational approaches to avoid such horrific outcomes in the future.
Throughout the endeavor, Ms. Flournoy worked extremely closely with key U.S. Forces personnel in the wide range of units and organizations involved, and incorporated their views into their assessment. In the decades that followed, Ms. Flournoy would make a number of other important contributions to the US national defense within and outside the government, including as chief architect of the US national defense strategy in the late 1990s and, most recently, as a deliberator with specific policy recommendations to address the US Rebuild deterrence against a newly aggressive and dangerous Chinese military.
Of course, transparency of financial relationships should be an added factor in any cabinet nomination. In the case of the Minister of Defense, any continuing links with the defense industry should be dealt with through transparency, divestment of relevant assets, and separation of business links that would create a potential conflict of interest. (An additional way to address concerns could be to withdraw from making important defense purchase decisions for companies for whom it is considered useful.)
The most important point, however, is this: the fact that she has experience and deep knowledge of the defense industry – which ultimately gives the U.S. military the ability to protect the nation from military threats – should be seen as a plus. Such experience is far preferable to a candidate who has no experience in the defense industry and would therefore be less willing to deal with industry-related issues.
Importantly, Ms. Flournoy recently outlined a vision of the need to leverage new technology to help the U.S. military remain competitive and maintain deterrence against China into the late 2020s and early 2030s. Two key elements of their vision are the development of a secure, viable, artificial intelligence-based C4ISR and much larger investments in unmanned systems. Achieving this vision will require difficult decisions about how to fund such capabilities and tough negotiations with Capitol Hill and the defense industry. Ms. Flournoy, for example, is known with a vision for US national defense and a process to achieve those goals that will result in winners and losers in the defense industry, among other things.
Michele Flournoy is clearly in a position to direct the essential work for the country – making sure the defense industry produces the equipment and skills needed for the U.S. armed forces in a cost effective manner. (For these purposes, it is also important who is appointed Deputy Secretary of Defense and Under-Secretary of State for Income and Maintenance.)
Overall, there have been decades of outstanding success why Ms. Michele Flournoy can be nominated as Minister of Defense. If confirmed, Ms. Flournoy would be the first female Secretary of Defense in American history, a long overdue milestone that the Biden administration would be credited with for decades to come.
Barry Pavel is Senior Vice President and Director of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. Previously, he was a career member of the Senior Executive Service in the Office of the Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs.