With the coming departure of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, President Obama has a unique opportunity. Unless Chuck Hagel’s apparent nomination stalls in Congress, the president may not be able to take advantage of this opportunity. Nonetheless, there has probably never been a better female candidate for the position than Michele Flournoy— the former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy and co-founder of the Center for New American Security that the Washington Post is touting for Secretary of Defense.
She is not a perfect candidate. Unlike previous secretaries, she has not moved between numerous government organizations in Washington, and has probably not built as many relationships with key decision-makers in the same way that Panetta, Gates or Rumsfeld did. Most of her career has been spent in the Department of Defense (aside from stints in academia and at non-profits).
The larger block that’s missing on the resume is the military service itself. While the Secretary of Defense is — and should always be — a civilian, his or her responsibility as an advocate for soldiers and chief strategist in the government’s second most expensive department makes a background in uniform helpful. This is especially true during the next few years: the Department of Defense will need a secretary who understands military life if the department is going to confront the suicide epidemic that is particularly prevalent among junior enlisted soldiers — in the past year killing more soldiers than died in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, Flournoy has compelling characteristics lacking in other candidates; first and foremost, an uncanny understanding of the capabilities that the military will need to confront potential challenges. It’s easy to think that America’s commitments abroad are receding; the Obama administration has made this line standard, but its actions have tended in the opposite direction. Not only has the administration increased commitments in Afghanistan, but it has expanded into regions like Libya, Somalia, and Yemen, and opened the door for the possibility of conflicts in Syria and Mali.
Regardless of one’s position on the administration’s policies in North Africa and the Middle East, the Pentagon will need leadership capable of building a strong enough military to enforce the president’s agenda. This will also come at a time when there is enormous pressure to downsize the active military.
Dealing with details like this will be Flournoy’s chief strength in the position. As the author of numerous studies on military training and readiness, she understands the grittier details of a bureaucracy with over 1.5 million employees.
Unfortunately, the chief knock against Flournoy for the Obama White House might be that no one has ever heard of her. Typically, when the president seeks out an appointee for the Department of Defense’s top slot, he wants someone who people know — or at least someone that some people know. Former Congressmen seem to slide into the secretary’s office easily enough.
But today’s Pentagon needs a secretary who will be apolitical. If there is one thing that the Obama administration has taught us, it is that foreign policy is largely a non-partisan issue. At least where foreign policy is concerned, President Obama has tended to extend and expand President Bush’s policies rather than curtailing them. If he plans to stay this course, he will not need a Secretary of Defense who is capable of talking; he will need one who is capable of doing.