Biden likely to break gender barriers, chooses Defense Department veteran Michele Flournoy to lead Pentagon

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In 2010, then-Under-Secretary for Policy Michele Flournoy spoke with Marine Lt. Gen. John Paxton. Flournoy, a politically moderate Pentagon veteran, is viewed by US officials and political insiders as President-elect Joe Bide’s first choice as Pentagon head. AP

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to take a historic step and select a female Pentagon leader for the first time, breaking one of the few remaining barriers for women in the department and the presidential cabinet.

Michele Flournoy, a politically moderate Pentagon veteran, is viewed by US officials and political insiders as the first choice for the job.

His selection would come on the heels of a tumultuous period in the Pentagon which saw five men occupy the most senior positions under President Donald Trump. The most recent Defense Secretary to leave was Mark Esper, who was sacked by Trump on Monday after pushing back on issues such as troop withdrawal and the use of the military to quell civil unrest.

If confirmed, Flournoy would face a future that would involve shrinking Pentagon budgets and potential military involvement in the distribution of a coronavirus vaccine.

Democrats have long sought to appoint a woman to the most senior position in a department that only opened up all combat jobs to women in the military about five years ago. Flournoy had been Hillary Clinton’s expected choice if she had won the 2016 election. Her name appeared early as the leader of Biden’s cabinet, officials said on condition of anonymity to discuss personnel matters.

Seen as a firm hand that fosters strong military cooperation abroad, Flournoy, 59, has served in the Pentagon several times, starting in the 1990s and more recently as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy in 2009 to 2012. She sits on the board of directors of Booz Allen Hamilton, a defense contractor, which may raise concerns among some lawmakers. But his moderate views would likely secure broad bipartisan support in a position that requires Senate confirmation.

Few other names were mentioned, although former Homeland Security Department chief Jeh Johnson was listed as a possible choice at one point. Choosing a woman would be in line with Biden’s commitment to have a diverse Cabinet.

She has been outspoken on American foreign and defense policy, especially during the past year. She is in favor of closer international cooperation after four years of a Trump White House that touted an “America first” policy and was more suspicious and critical of allies.

“Whoever the next president is,” she said in March, “whether it’s a second term for Trump, Vice President Biden or whoever it is, one of the main agenda items will try, I think, to mend some of this perception “that America may no longer be a reliable partner.” “But I don’t think it will be easy or that it will happen overnight. I think it will take a lot of work over several years to regain that confidence and that status.

She also warned of sweeping and immediate changes.

“One of the most dangerous trends is – after a change of administration, especially when there is a change of party – for the new team to come in and use the term ‘repudiation’. But to come in and assume that whatever their predecessors did was wrong, you know, they throw the baby out with the bathwater, basically, and they overly correct in another direction, ”she said in one. Hudson Institute forum.

Arnold Punaro, a retired two-star Navy general and former director of personnel for the Senate Armed Services Commission under Democratic Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia, recently said he considered Flournoy “incredibly qualified” to lead. the Pentagon.

The Department of Defense is one of three Cabinet agencies – the others being the Treasury and Veterans Affairs – that have never been headed by a woman. Some of the 28 men who have held the leading defense post since its inception in 1947, including three who served in the Trump administration – Jim Mattis, Esper and current Acting Secretary Christopher Miller – are military veterans. Flournoy did not serve in the army.

Like Mattis and Esper, Flournoy sees China as the most important long-term challenge for America’s predominance on the world stage. In July, she said the United States was losing its military technological advantage over key competitors like China, and reversing that trend should be the Pentagon’s top priority.

However, she also warned against abandoning the Middle East and instead advocates “more modest levels of continued presence” there. For example, she has supported a limited role in Afghanistan that focuses more on combating the terrorist threat and less on rebuilding the country.

“We want to reduce our engagement, but we want to do it in a way that is smart and preserves our interests in the process,” she said in March of Afghanistan, adding that she hopes “that we don’t just cut and run. “Trump has pushed for a full troop withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of the year, but so far the Pentagon has not been ordered to do so.

On North Korea, she said in an October online forum that while nuclear disarmament is to remain the ultimate goal, she finds it hard to see Kim Jong Un agree to give up all her nuclear weapons, which she said he considers those of his regime. survival card. “

On Iran, Flournoy argued for a revised approach to deterrence from the Islamic Republic by breaking the familiar pattern of sending more US forces to the Gulf in response to Iranian provocations, as the Trump administration did in May 2019 after what she called credible threats against the United States. interests in the region.

Flournoy is co-founder of Westexec Advisors, a consultancy firm that provides advice and geopolitical risk analysis to corporate clients. She works with a mix of former senior government officials – including Antony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State and currently senior foreign policy adviser to Biden – and military experts such as retired General Vincent Brooks, who has led US forces in Korea until 2019.

In 2007, Flournoy helped create a think tank, the Center for a New American Security.