Warhawks at a Diner
Reality is settling in now that Michèle Flournoy is going to be put forward for Secretary of Defense by Biden once he’s sworn in. That should rectify any lingering hopes that a Biden administration is going to practice the restraint Biden himself showed consistently while VP. It also jives with a longer-term political narrative in Washington Flournoy plays ably and fits into. Staffing and personnel fights are policy fights, and they’re always personal.
Flournoy stepped down from her Obama Administration role as Undersecretary of Defense for Policy before his re-election bid and, in 2014, took herself out of consideration for the role of Secretary of Defense to replace Chuck Hagel. She couldn’t have been happy about it. Her specialization, at least at the time, was counter-insurgency and she advocated for the surge in Afghanistan that would ultimately fail to deliver on its promises as well as intervention in Libya, which then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pounced on to try and corner the White House into committing after France had declared a no-fly zone. Needless to say that worked. Funny enough, Flournoy was a strong supporter of Clinton’s on the trail in 2008 and was widely expected to be her pick for Secretary of Defense had she won in 2016.
Obama’s team iced her out when they realized that their own National Security Council and everyone staffed by the Clintons’ wing of the party in key positions was much likelier to put them into a corner. Even when they let Susan Rice inside as the National Security Adviser, it’s worth remembering that her mentor was Madeleine Albright and her background shaped by a commitment to humanitarian multilateral military intervention, a favorite for Clinton foreign policy staples. It’s easy to see continuity with Obama as somehow a net good for US foreign policy because of its results, but that gives the president and his closest confidants (including Biden) too little credit compared to their frequently more hawkish advisers. Flournoy is one among many who, rightly or wrongly, probably felt jilted and cut out.
Flournoy is supremely qualified for the role, has a good reputation and grasp of bureaucracy, and will definitely be confirmed even by a republican-controlled senate. But it’s quite possible she’ll be the second most powerful political figure in Washington if she is, and that deserves scrutiny as to what “continuity” and “reversion to the mean” might take place with Biden in office. It’s hard to imagine vice-president elect Kamal Harris having a strong foreign policy portfolio, but if she does, she’s effectively a blank slate. Staunchly Pro-Israel like Biden, says we should cut defense spending but refuses to commit to any figure or nominal idea as to what we should cut, likes American leadership, and otherwise vibes with Biden’s approach. Harris knows the game — you never commit to any real position and only take votes the base and skeptics like when you know they can’t pass.
Flournoy, by contrast, is a policy wonk, an academic who came into the defense world without a military career but earned her keep as an in-the-weeds planner and someone with a keen eye for the long-game. It’s important to remember that she helped found the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) and also launched WestExec Advisors with Biden’s foreign policy whisperer Anthony Blinken in 2017 so both could peddle their access and make a killing doing it. It’s the game Albright got into when she had the chance and a long line of Washington’s firmament before her, including Alexander “I’m in control here” Haig who profited handsomely lobbying for the then president of Turkmenistan Saparmurat Niyazov once upon a time. All of these figures have conflicts of interest galore. More on that later.
Her own testimony to Congress last October on competition with China is a useful reference point for any talk of trimming down US defense spending:
“In the near term, I believe the Department must make re-establishing credible deterrence our central objective . . . We need to think creatively about how we might stop a rival great power from starting down the road to war. For example, what capabilities would U.S. naval and air forces need to credibly threaten to sink 300 military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships within 72 hours? Such a capability would certainly pose a fundamental dilemma for any great power contemplating aggression, forcing them to consider whether they want to put all the ships in their fleet at risk.”
She effectively hints that we have to restore credible deterrence against China and be able to destroy its fleet in harbor with a decapitation strike. It’s a nice way of saying “any mention of reining in costs and spending prior to this has no relation to actual policy.” The trouble is that once you decide we have to be able to establish ‘credible deterrence’ — here it sounds more like a rehashing of full spectrum dominance and other platitudes about massive comparative US military advantages — you suddenly have a lot more toys lying around to use if the money materializes. The more the budget funds military options, the more that advocates at the Pentagon control resources to be deployed, whether that be diplomatically or militarily, and the more they skew policy perceptions and prescriptions. This quote alone screams that the US is heading towards a $1 trillion defense budget without including veterans’ benefits, massive for its implications for US macro as well as foreign policy. The bigger the hammer a policy community wields, the more every problem looks like a nail.
It turns out Flournoy is also not immune to the pressures and opportunities that being an elite in Washington provide. I don’t turn to the Intercept that regularly, but it received leaked emails in 2017 showing that Flournoy was involved with UAE rep extraordinaire Otaiba commissioning reports to further the UAE’s agenda in Washington (a time honored tradition in the gray zone that is the think tank and policy advocacy world). She’s already hinted that it’d be a mistake to come into office with an attempt to repudiate Trump’s foreign policy as entirely wrong, and has a strong background supporting unconditional military aid and ties with Israel, like Biden, which effectively endorses a great deal of Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East. When you start piecing the breadcrumbs together, it becomes clear her nomination signals a continuation of the status quo and a further push on military spending. Even if Biden disagrees on policy grounds, his own top foreign policy advisor from his campaign went into business with his prospective SecDef who holds these views and sought to monetize their access and relationships. That’s not a sin, but it merits some consideration when you wonder just how much anyone means what they say in public venues trying to survive a nomination hearing without much incident.
Jim Mattis, the former SecDef who left Trumps cabinet after clashing over Syria policy, offered Flournoy the role of deputy secretary. She turned it down because of her impression that the administration would reject expertise and her counsel, another way of saying she’d be made complicit in policies that look bad publicly but now, coming into office, she’s saying weren’t all bad. It’s unfair to entirely dismiss someone’s conscience in this scenario, but given that Flournoy has blasted Trump for allowing Assad and Iranian proxies to entrench themselves in Syria — notably she says the Iran deal was a short-term success but doesn’t seem to see a larger diplomatic breakthrough on the horizon had we stayed in it — it’s also hard to imagine that she’s not partially aligned with Mattis. Remember that Mattis was forced out of CENTCOM because of his obsessive focus on Iran. Close reading suggests Flournoy thought the deal was fine as a stopgap, but the US should have escalated in Syria and sent a message about Iran’s influence across the region. I could be wrong. Just hard to see otherwise. From that testimony earlier:
“Fifth, the United States will need to adapt and enhance our overseas posture and shore up ally and partner capability to deter and operate in more contested, lethal environments. The United States should expect that Russia and China will seek to disrupt our ability to project power to re-enforce forward forces from the outset of a conflict and in all domains – air, sea, undersea, space, cyber. Therefore, we need to make our forces, forward bases, logistics networks, and C4ISR networks more survivable, resilient, and geographically dispersed.”
Action everywhere is still on the menu. Biden’s not fooling anyone who’s actually looking. If we nominate a secretary of defense invested in reimagining how we can deploy forces anywhere we like, not just anywhere we need, alongside her former business partner who agrees that the Obama Administration failed in Syria and a bevy of foreign policy talent cut from the Clinton cloth, focused on values-based foreign policy as a useful fig leaf to justify increased defense budgets, military actions, and other policy approaches easily spun as ‘reclaiming’ American leadership and next thing you know, it’s all down to Biden having a cooler head and prevailing.
Michèle Flournoy is skilled, smart, competent, connected, respected, and a great fit for the role. That’s precisely what you have to worry about when it comes to presidents with a knack for putting their foot in their mouth and a worldview shaped by the Silent Generation. The dissonance between wings of the Democratic Party are going to be intense, as will the renewed scramble by think tanks to place their own in positions of power so as to guide policy. CSIS won out with Kath Hicks heading the transition team:
A lot of contractors are sleeping well these days. If you want to get ahead of the direction of US policy, check homestarts, luxury auto sales, and wage figures in Fairfax, Loudon, and Prince William counties in Virginia. They more they boom, the more goes boom abroad. Biden’s going to be cutting them a hefty check based on his team so far. It’s an ugly fight to come, and one that Trump will undoubtedly be watching as he lines up a potential 2024 run.
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