WASHINGTON ― When President-elect Joe Biden announced the core of his national security team on Monday, there was one glaring omission: his choice for defense secretary.
That absence is leading to questions about whether Michèle Flournoy, a politically moderate Pentagon veteran whose confirmation would give the Defense Department its first woman leader, remains the odds-on favorite for the role.
The doubts came as Flournoy has been under pressure from the left over her defense industry ties and relatively hawkish views. Flournoy joined Booz Allen Hamilton’s board and co-founded defense consulting firm WestExec Advisors in 2018, and, in 2007, co-founded the Center for a New American Security think tank, which relies on support from defense firms.
On Monday, Biden announced Antony Blinken, his longtime adviser and Flournoy’s partner at WestExec, as his nominee for secretary of state. Biden also selected Jake Sullivan for national security adviser; Alejandro Mayorkas for homeland security secretary; Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Avril Haines for director of national intelligence. Haines also has ties to WestExec.
Politico reported Monday that while Flournoy is still a strong contender, Biden is not entirely sold on her, though it’s unclear how big of a role the resistance from the left is playing. Jeh Johnson, President Barack Obama’s second secretary of homeland security, is another top candidate ― and he would be the first Black defense secretary, but he could also concern progressives as a member of Lockheed Martin’s board.
Fox News reported Monday that Flournoy will be the pick, but the timing of the move is not clear. The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment.
There is a push to support Flournoy’s candidacy amid the uncertainty.
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 after news of some Biden picks leaked without a defense secretary on Monday, 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.
“Michèle was a tremendous ally to No Exceptions in our fight to open all combat roles in the U.S. Armed Forces to women. Now, it’s our turn to support her,” said the email, which was described as “time sensitive.” The group hoped to release their letter Tuesday or Wednesday, a spokeswoman said.
Flournoy’s Pentagon experience is not in doubt, as she has served multiple times in the Defense Department, starting in the 1990s and most recently as the undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2012.
Still, progressives wary of Flournoy’s business dealings want Biden to show a break from President Donald Trump, who selected two defense secretaries from industry: former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan and former Raytheon executive Mark Esper.
Left-leaning Reps. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and Barbara Lee, D-Calif., wrote a letter this month asking Biden not to nominate a defense secretary who has ties to defense contractors, which was seen as a veiled shot at Flournoy. Meanwhile, progressive groups are broadly calling for greater transparency into the potential conflicts of interest of executive branch appointees.
“After the rampant corruption and conflicts of interest we’ve seen in the Trump administration, it would behoove the Biden administration to really demonstrate they are charting a different course and they are adding some protections to restore faith and trust in these institutions,” said Stephen Miles, executive director of Win Without War, a progressive foreign policy organization.
Another concern for progressives is that Flournoy, as reported by Foreign Policy, clashed with Biden over U.S. force levels in Afghanistan when he was vice president and she was Pentagon policy chief during the Obama administration ― and in the past, she pushed to keep more U.S. forces in Iraq. (Biden is seeking a swift pullout from Afghanistan with a residual counter-terrorism force.)
In a tweet on Sunday, Rep. Ro Khanna, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and House Armed Services Committee, raised questions about Flournoy publicly and by name.
“Flournoy supported the war in Iraq & Libya, criticized Obama on Syria, and helped craft the surge in Afghanistan. I want to support the President’s picks,” said Khanna, D-Calif., referring to Biden. “But will Flournoy now commit to a full withdrawal from Afghanistan & a ban on arms sales to the Saudis to end the Yemen war?”
Progressives and grassroots advocates spurred congressional actions around ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen ― an end Biden supports and is included in the 2020 Democratic platform ― and they want to ensure his administration keeps human rights concerns at the center of a new, less-militarized U.S. foreign policy.
“I think progressives effectively pulled together with the Biden campaign to get a number of important foreign policy priorities into the Democratic Party platform,” said Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders. “Now progressives are going to want to hear from any nominee how they’re going to be following through on those commitments.”
Flournoy has taken the concerns of progressive foreign policy groups seriously enough that she convened a call with them, and she offered assurances she opposed the sale of offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia that could be used in Yemen, according to Politico.
Because Flournoy, Blinken and other Biden team figures have maintained or at least opened communications with progressive groups, some of their representatives say their intent isn’t to block Flournoy or other nominees, but to put progressive issues and foreign policy concerns on the table.
“You don’t have to protest outside the White House when you can go into the White House and make the case for your position,” Miles said. “That doesn’t mean you never protest outside the White House, but when there’s a time and a place for it.”
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served 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.