Voice

Flournoy for SecDef

Ten reasons the president should ditch Chuck for Michèle.

Michèle Flournoy would make a great secretary of defense. I worked for her for more than two years at the beginning of the Obama administration's first term, and seeing her in action convinced me of it.

Am I biased in her favor? You bet. I've worked with and for many people over the years, and I've had colleagues I wouldn't trust as secretary of the local dogcatchers' association. But I'd trust Flournoy with any job in the nation. And, for the record, I don't want another administration job. I already have a job that I like, and tenure is a beautiful thing. But as a citizen, I'd sure like to see Flournoy back at DoD.

Here are 10 reasons she'd be a terrific choice for defense secretary:

1. She's smart. Really, really smart. She reads -- not just the page of bullet points on top of the decision package, but the memos and correspondence underneath. She stays on top of new books and papers on defense and security issues, emerging debates, new technologies, and new theories. She’s always willing to consider counter-arguments. She's got good judgment, too: She's seen trends come and go, and she doesn't just jump on the latest fad (yes, there are fads in defense policy just as there are fads in junior high school).

2. She's good looking. By which I mean that she's not a middle-aged white guy. She'd bring some needed gender diversity to the national security leaders boys' club. And make no mistake: A woman who rises to the top in the unforgiving world of national security has to be twice as good as most of the men around her. Michèle Flournoy's that good.

3. Goddammit, people like her. Flournoy's the rare senior political appointee (of either sex) who's not a prima donna. She doesn't need to be on center stage all the time, and she treats everyone -- from foreign leaders to top military brass to the most junior member of the support staff -- with courtesy and respect. In more than two years working on her personal staff, I never saw her say an unkind word to anyone. She's loved by her staff and respected even by those who disagree with her profoundly.

4. She picks good staff, and listens to them. She cares more about good judgment and good ideas than about good political connections or campaign credentials. During her time as under secretary for policy, she created a solid, loyal, and cohesive team of people who worked well together. And she trusts her staff enough to let them take the lead once they've convinced her they know what they're doing. She listens carefully and asks tough questions, but if staff can convince her they're doing the right thing, she'll back them up without micromanaging.

5. She knows the building. She's worked at the Pentagon during two administrations and gone from a relatively junior position to being the department's number-three civilian official. She knows the people and the culture -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. She knows when to let the sluggish bureaucracy churn at its own pace, and when and how to light a fire under it. In a bureaucracy as vast and complex as the Pentagon, it's not enough to have good ideas -- you have to know how to work the system so your good ideas will get implemented. That's part of the reason political appointees with little time inside the department often fail to get much done. If Flournoy's appointed as SecDef, she won't need to waste a year or more just learning the ropes. She already knows them.

Flournoy’s also a skilled translator. She understands the military and its culture, but she also understands the different assumptions and political pressures that motivate White House officials. The civilian-military gap is often at its widest in Washington, and Flournoy has a unique ability to bridge it.

6. She has a vision of where the department needs to go. Unlike Secretary Panetta, a generalist who was brought in as a transitional secretary to help the department through an election year and a tough budget season, Flournoy would come to the job as someone who has spent her whole career in defense policy. She has a deep understanding of how the security environment has changed over the past decades and the ways in which the United States will need to adapt. We'll be facing high-end asymmetric threats at the same time we'll be dealing with the "low end" consequences of state weakness and instability. We'll need to invest in increasing our agility: We'll need to be able to respond to advanced anti-access and area denial technologies, and we'll need to help partner states counter terrorist insurgencies. We'll also need to respond to the challenges that will be produced by climate change and similar dispersed, inchoate phenomena, and this will require us to build the capacity of allies, partners, and the international system.

Flournoy also understands that change will need to occur during a period of extreme fiscal constraint. She knows where the department's lean and where there's fat. She knows what can safely be cut and where we need to invest. Under Flournoy, strategy would drive budget, not the other way around.

7. She cares about the institutional heath of the Pentagon as a workplace. To be brutally honest, many senior political appointees couldn't care less about the morale or career paths of their subordinates -- they care about themselves and about advancing the president's agenda, generally in that order. Flournoy's the rare exception: She's dedicated to advancing the president's agenda, but she also cares about the people she works with, and invests time and energy into making sure her subordinates can have rewarding careers.

During her time as under secretary for policy, she hosted town-hall meetings, undertook anonymous surveys to find out what staff thought worked well and what they hated, and empowered teams of employees to develop and implement new training programs and streamline bureaucratic processes. She encouraged offices to let people experiment with flexible schedules and innovative staff structures. She created new awards to recognize good writing and high-quality work by junior action officers. She didn't just pay lip service to making the Pentagon a better place to work -- she put her heart into it, and policy staff morale increased greatly in response.

8. She cares about the humans who fight and die in wars. Flournoy knows far better than most that war is never something that can be taken lightly. She made sure she was notified every single time a service-member was killed, and I saw how deeply it affected her. She also worked hard to ensure that everything possible was done to prevent civilian casualties in Afghanistan. She’s married to a Navy veteran, and she won’t take the military for granted, but she won’t be intimidated by its hierarchies and traditions, either: She knows that “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” isn’t rarely a good answer. As the spouse of a service member myself, those are exactly the qualities I’d like to see in someone whose decisions will have life or death consequences.

9. She's got courage. Flournoy's a loyal team player, and at the end of the day she will do everything she can to advance the president's agenda. But along the way, she will quietly but consistently speak her mind. I've seen her politely but firmly challenge the views of the president's closest staff. She didn't always win, but she always stood up for what she believed -- and her thoughtfulness and integrity often won over skeptics.

10. She's not lobbying for the job. Flournoy's got plenty of great alternatives: She can walk into any think tank job, any defense industry job, and most academic jobs as it is. She's already an enormous success, and odds are she'll be SecDef eventually. But right now, she has three kids at home and she knows just how tough it is to balance family life with an all-consuming job. If President Obama wants her as secretary of defense, he may have to work to convince her to take the job this time around. That's a good thing: The desperate make lousy public officials.

Want someone who will be a great secretary of defense? Find someone who's not sure she really wants the job.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

National Security

Elephant Man

Four reasons why Obama should not send Hagel to the Pentagon.

On foreign policy, former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel is one of the good guys: knowledgeable, thoughtful, responsible, and non-ideological. He's shown a consistent willingness to question his party's verities. He courageously challenged the Bush administration's Iraq war policies, he opposed the nomination of ultra neo-con John Bolton as ambassador to the United Nations, he's opposed trigger-happiness over Iran, and he's even been willing to question the most sacred cow of all: blind U.S. support of Israel, come what may.

He's also the wrong choice for defense secretary.

Here's why.

1. He's a Republican

Nominating Hagel for SecDef sends the world a simple message: even Democrats don't really think Democrats are capable of running the Defense Department. Three of the last four secretaries of defense have been Republicans -- and two of the three were appointed by Democrats. If President Obama nominates Chuck Hagel, Republicans will be four for five.

Some argue that by appointing his second Republican secretary of defense, President Obama will be making a gracious bipartisan gesture, one that will buy him respect and -- perhaps -- greater cooperation from Republicans in Congress. But that's wishful thinking. The current crop of Republicans on the Hill are already reasonably cooperative on defense issues, and they've made it amply clear that they're not interested in cooperating with the Obama administration on non-defense matters. Nominating Chuck Hagel as SecDef won't change that.

All nominating Hagel will do is needlessly undermine Democratic efforts to eliminate the so-called "national security deficit." Since Vietnam, the Republican Party has been viewed by voters as the most-trusted party on defense issues. Democrats have fought hard to change that, and in the last few years, they've finally seen some success: as Matt Bennett and Jeremy Rosner recently noted, voters this November said they trusted Obama and Romney equally on national security, and gave Obama a 12 point edge on "international affairs."

But nominating Hagel risks ceding much of the ground Democrats fought so hard to gain. A Hagel nomination will suggest to voters that when it comes to defense, even President Obama has a sneaking suspicion that Republicans are better than Democrats. Is that really a smart message for the president to send?

2. He's a conservative Republican

Lest we forget, Chuck Hagel's general reasonableness on foreign policy doesn't mean he's a closet Democrat. He's not. He's anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, and anti-gun control. His record on immigration issues is not bad, but he's iffy on civil rights issues and criminal justice issues, opposed to affirmative action, generally hostile to Democratic party positions on taxes, and his record on environmental issues is dismal. And no one should assume his record on domestic issues is irrelevant to his potential performance as defense secretary. Will a man who supported a ban on abortions performed on military bases be a good steward for military women and female dependents? Will a man who has voted against anti-discrimination measures designed to protect gays and lesbians be able to support gay and lesbian service members?

3. There are plenty of qualified Democrats

Is the Democratic bench really so shallow that Obama needs to nominate a conservative Republican as secretary of defense? That's an easy one: no. There are lots of well-qualified Democrats who'd just love to be SecDef.

To name a few, there's Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, a former Army Ranger who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. There's Washington state Congressman Adam Smith, the ranking Democratic member of the House Armed Services Committee. There's Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There's Ash Carter, who's currently serving as deputy secretary of defense.

And that's just the middle-aged white guys.

4. How about a woman, Mr. President?

Seriously, in the year 2012, when an African American man has become president, and women and African Americans have served as secretary of state and as national security advisor, President Obama can't think of anyone except a white, male Republican who's qualified to be secretary of defense? Susan Rice, once considered a strong candidate for secretary of state, has been thrown overboard already. With a man -- perhaps Kerry -- expected to be nominated to head the State Department, wouldn't it be nice for President Obama to nominate the nation's first female secretary of defense?

And what do you know -- there's even a popular, exceptionally qualified woman already out there: Michèle Flournoy. Full disclosure: I worked for Flournoy from 2009-2011. But I think that makes me more, not less, qualified to sing her praises. I didn't know her well when I started working for her in April 2009, but by the time I left more than two years later, I had come to respect her enormously.

They say "no man is a hero to his valet," but Flournoy was a heroine for virtually everyone on her staff, which ought to count for something. She's calm, honest, and knows the Defense Department inside out, which would let her get off to a running start. She's served in the defense departments of two administrations, and spent her time outside government in defense-related think tanks. She's married to a retired Navy officer, and has a first-hand understanding of how military life affects families and servicemembers. She's earned the respect of the military's old boy network, and the devotion of the young women and men committed to making the Defense Department a better institution for everyone.

And, Mr. President? She's even a Democrat.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images