Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized which national security leaders had signed the No Exceptions letter.
WASHINGTON — With President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for defense secretary still in flux, a new surge of support for Michèle Flournoy has emerged. Key House Armed Services Committee Democrats, a former defense secretary and a host of other supporters were publicly stumping for her Wednesday to become the first woman to run the Pentagon.
For months, Biden was widely expected to select Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy and founder of the Center for a New American Security think tank. But Biden announced the core of his national security team Monday without naming his nominee for defense secretary.
In a joint statement Wednesday, House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel Chair Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Subcommittee on Intelligence and Emerging Threats and Capabilities Chair Jim Langevin, D-R.I., highlighted Flournoy’s experience, and said, “breaking this glass ceiling is long overdue.”
“As senior members of Congress, we sincerely appreciate that Ms. Flournoy is held in the highest regard as a preeminent defense policy expert who has worked tirelessly to develop effective bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems,” they said.
“She is trusted and empowered by those she works with and those who work for her. Following the tumultuous past four years, Ms. Flournoy’s steady leadership, future vision, and firm grasp of strategy, personnel policy, and the next generation of defense technologies is exactly what we need.”
The new round of support for Flournoy came amid reports that Biden was not entirely sold on Flournoy, though she was still a strong contender. Jeh Johnson, President Barack Obama’s second secretary of homeland security, is another top candidate ― and he would be the first Black defense secretary.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., and a close Biden ally, expressed disappointment Wednesday that African Americans — a voting bloc crucial to Biden’s presidential victory — have not featured more prominently among the early picks to fill out senior administration posts next year.
“From all I hear, Black people have been given fair consideration. But there is only one Black woman so far,” Clyburn said in an interview with Juan Williams, a columnist for The Hill. Clyburn was referring to Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Flournoy has faced headwinds from the left, as Biden came under pressure over Flournoy’s defense industry ties and relatively hawkish views. Flournoy joined Booz Allen Hamilton’s board and co-founded defense consulting firm WestExec Advisors in 2018.
On Sunday, Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., sent a tweet questioning whether Flournoy would “commit to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan & a ban on arms sales to the Saudis to end the Yemen war?” Then on Wednesday, Khanna, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and House Armed Services Committee, sent another tweet that read, “The people that work in an industry shouldn’t then be nominated to regulate that industry. We need to set the standard of not perpetuating the revolving door.”
Despite the criticism, other progressive advocates credit Biden’s team for engaging with them on foreign policy and said their goal has not been to derail any Biden nominee, but to keep progressive issues and foreign policy concerns on the table.
Two left-leaning HASC members, Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz., and Seth Moulton, D-Mass., came to Flournoy’s defense on Wednesday, as Gallego nodded to Flournoy’s experience and history-making potential and highlighted her work “for years to raise the alarm on a variety of new threats like climate change and pandemic disease.”
“Lastly, it’s hard not to notice that some of the objections raised against [Flournoy] could equally apply to other high-level national security appointments over the years. She should be subject to the highest ethical standards and a transparent vetting process,” Gallego, vice-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in a Twitter thread.
Moulton, the co-leader of HASC’s bipartisan Future of Defense Task Force, also offered support for Flournoy as experienced and forward looking.
“Michèle Flournoy has a deep understanding of the existing DOD bureaucracy and the future of our defense. That’s a rare combination. I would love to see her nominated for Secretary of Defense,” he said in a tweet.
Support beyond Congress
A push for public support of Flournoy’s candidacy flooded defense circles Wednesday, when a number of notable women in national security circles began posting testimonials online in support of Flournoy’s experience and leadership. Adding their voices to the debate Wednesday night were 29 nuclear experts, including most notably William Perry, who served as defense secretary from 1994 to 1997 under President Bill Clinton.
“We have known and worked with Michèle Flournoy, in some cases for decades,” the authors wrioe. “She has a deep understanding of nuclear weapons policy and budgets, and is highly qualified to lead the Department of Defense on the complex and critical issues of nuclear weapons procurement, deterrence policy, and nuclear risk and arms reduction.”
“She is best poised to ensure the Department of Defense does not, through momentum and inertia, over-invest in unnecessary or dangerous legacy systems — including nuclear weapons systems — ill-suited to addressing the pressing dangers of today and tomorrow,” they conclude. “We believe Michèle Flournoy is the best candidate for the job.”
Among the other signatories of the letter are former Obama-era officials Rose Gottemoeller, former undersecretary of state for arms control and international security; Andrew Weber, former assistant secretary of defense for nuclear, chemical & biological defense programs; Jon Wolfsthal, who served as special assistant to Obama and as senior director for arms control and nonproliferation at the National Security Council; and Laura S.H. Holgate, a former NSC official who was ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Already, a group of 11 military and veteran support organizations endorsed Flournoy over the weekend, praising her “undisputed expertise” and calling for a swift confirmation, should she be nominated.
And the No Exceptions initiative, which pushed to open all combat positions to women, activated its email network to urgently gather signatures for an open letter to support Flournoy as a historic choice.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.