AMU Editor's Pick Military Opinion Original

What Would Michèle Flournoy Be Like as Defense Secretary?

By Jeffrey V. Gardner, PhD
Assistant professor Homeland Security Studies at American Military University

Now that Joe Biden is President-Elect, the speculation has ramped up about what the new Cabinet might look like. When it comes to picking a new Secretary of Defense many have anticipated that Biden could appoint the first woman ever to lead the Pentagon. A common contender for the Cabinet post mentioned in policy circles – and certainly being discussed within the so-called Pentagon Puzzle Palace – Michèle Flournoy would be returning to the lofty heights of its E ring, where the top brass are located.

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Who is Michèle Flournoy?

Flournoy previously served as the most senior woman ever to work in the Pentagon when she was Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from February 2009 to February 2012. She worked for Robert Gates and then Leon Panetta when they were the 22nd and 23rd Defense Secretaries respectively. After leaving government service she co-founded the centrist Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank that quickly became one of the very top national security research institutes.

In fact, some light might be shed on her views by looking into CNAS at its birth. “At the time, Flournoy and the CNAS were described as a new batch of ​“liberal realists,” wrote Branco Marcetic in In These Times, who crafted foreign policy supposedly based on pragmatism, not ideology. Accordingly, they ”stood on the opposite side of progressives who wanted to scale back U.S. involvement in the world…Aiming to be ​‘strictly non­partisan,’ as Flournoy put it, CNAS also courted Republicans, and its board also featured Bush’s former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage.”

Prior to her position as Under Secretary of Defense, she was a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where I worked with her briefly on the “Beyond Goldwater-Nichols” project of 2005. She also discussed the importance of a well-planned national security transition effort for new presidential administrations in this CSIS video from October 2016. Prior to CSIS, she was a research professor at the National Defense University.

Flournoy a Gold Standard Think Tank Leader with A Stellar Academic Background

Not only is Flournoy a gold standard think tank leader, her academic background is stellar with degrees from Harvard and Oxford. However, based on my personal experience, she does not come across as arrogant. She was known in the Pentagon as very skilled, energetic and pragmatic. Additionally, she is a seasoned planner and strategist who cut her teeth on defense planning during her first stint in the Pentagon during the Clinton administration as a principal author of the first Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) in 1997.

What Might Flournoy Emphasize for DoD as Defense Secretary?

If she is selected to lead the Pentagon, her most obvious area of emphasis will be fiscal responsibility. During an interview with Defense News in August Flournoy predicted that defense budgets are “probably going to flatten in the coming years, no matter who wins the election.  That means you have to make trade-offs and you have to make hard decisions, which means you probably need to buy fewer legacy forces in order to invest in the technologies that will actually make the force that you keep more relevant, more survivable, more combat effective, and better able to underwrite deterrence.”

A common Democratic Party perspective during the Presidential campaign was to question how long the United States could sustain massive military spending and an over­stretched overseas presence while dealing with daunting domestic crises like the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, she wrote an op-ed in 2017 for The Washington Post titled “Trump is right to spend more on defense. Here’s how to do so wisely.” This leads directly to the next area she might emphasize, which is the rapid acquisition of future technologies for the military.

Ramping up advanced technology such as Artificial Intelligence (AI) and integrating it into weapon systems and evolving warfighting concepts is likely to be a second focus area for her. This has been frequently discussed by Joe Biden, and it appears to have come directly from Michèle Flournoy.

In that same August interview, she discussed a “’whole laundry list’ of future technologies on which to make big bets.” She called for a “’network of networks’ for secure communications as well as command and control that can survive an attack from any domain — space, air, naval, land and cyberspace — that China could seek to use.”

As Flournoy explained, “We need a command-and-control system that is powered by artificial intelligence to enable that kind of resilience in a much more contested environment.” She also authored an article along this same theme in 2016 titled Sustaining and Enhancing the US Military’s Technology Edge.

As Defense Secretary Flournoy Is Likely to Pursue More Aggressive Cyber Defense and Cyber Offensive Command and Control Capabilities

Directly related to this advanced technology aspect and secure command and control communications (C3) Flournoy is also likely to pursue more aggressive cyber defense and cyber offensive command and control capabilities for the Defense Department. She wrote on this topic in Foreign Affairs as co-author of Battlefield Internet: a Plan for Securing Cyberspace in 2018.

In that article, she advocated for the United States to “assert that as a matter of policy, any cyberattacks that result in civilian harm will be treated as equivalent to comparable physical attacks and will be met with equally serious consequences…the United States must back up its threats by imposing real costs on perpetrators. That means not only developing offensive options, such as retaliatory cyberattacks but also drawing on a broad array of national tools.”

We should also expect Flournoy to focus on deterring China’s aggression in Asia. In June of this year, she wrote in Foreign Affairs “How to Prevent a War in Asia.” In that article, she emphasized that, while neither the U.S. nor China seeks a military conflict with the other, the “uniquely dangerous mix of growing Chinese assertiveness and military strength and eroding U.S. deterrence, that risk is higher than it has been for decades, and it is growing.”

However, do not expect her to give Russia a pass. As a contributing Atlantic Council author to a report for the Brookings Institute, Flournoy views Putin as a threat. In addition, the West has “not devoted sufficient attention to the threat posed by Russia and its implications for Western security.” She recommended direct military assistance to Ukraine well before Trump became President. During an NPR interview in 2018, she stated that we should have “a clear-eyed view of the threat that Putin poses not only to, you know, our democracy in terms of future meddling, but also in terms of the coherence of the West and NATO long term.”

In short, if Michèle Flournoy is selected to lead the DoD and is confirmed by the Senate, we can expect a sharp thinker and pragmatic woman who will steer the military into the future. This future, however, is likely to be challenged by reduced defense budgets and aggressive peer threats from Russia and China. We can also expect her to strive for cutting edge and technologically superior American forces that also operate against all threats from terrorists to nation-states battling us in a contested cyberspace.

About the Author:

Dr. Jeffrey V. Gardner is an assistant professor of Homeland Security Studies at American Military University. Jeff is a retired active duty Army Lieutenant Colonel serving over 21 years. Since 2013 he has worked for NATO to develop and run events related to counter-terrorism, intelligence, countering hybrid threats, and comprehensive defense. He is an Air War College graduate, possesses three master’s degrees, and has a Ph.D. in Public Policy and Administration — Homeland Security Policy and Coordination. For AMU, he teaches courses such as Introduction to Homeland Security and Homeland Defense (HLSS302); The Private Sector and Homeland Security (HLSS305); Intelligence and Homeland Security (HLSS320); and Homegrown Violent Extremism (HLSS323).

Wes O'Donnell

Wes O’Donnell is an Army and Air Force veteran and writer covering military and tech topics. As a sought-after professional speaker, Wes has presented at U.S. Air Force Academy, Fortune 500 companies, and TEDx, covering trending topics from data visualization to leadership and veterans’ advocacy. As a filmmaker, he directed the award-winning short film, “Memorial Day.”

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