last updated: November 25, 2014
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- Center for a New American Security: CEO and Co-founder
- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs: Senior Fellow
- Project for the New American Century: Letter signatory (2005)
- Progressive Policy Institute: Contributing writer (2003)
- Aspen Strategy Group: Member
- Council on Foreign Relations: Member
- Center for Strategic and International Studies: Former senior adviser
- National Defense University: Former research professor
- President’s Intelligence Advisory Board: Member (2014- )
- Defense Department: Former undersecretary of defense for policy (2009-2012); former deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction (Clinton administration)
- Boston Consulting Group: Senior adviser
- Harvard: BA
- Oxford: MA
Michele Flournoy is a former undersecretary of defense for policy in the Barack Obama administration who serves as the CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a “liberal-hawk” think tank that she cofounded with Kurt Campbell in 2007. CNAS is widely viewed as having had significant influence on the Obama administration’s defense policies, particularly with respect to counterinsurgency warfare.
In October 2014, Flournoy was named to the president’s twelve-member Intelligence Advisory Board (PIAB), which provides the president with independent advice on the effectiveness of the intelligence community in accomplishing its directives and planning for the future.
When it was announced in November 2014 that Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was stepping down, Flournoy was widely mentioned—along with fellow former Pentagon official Ashton Carter—as being on the short list to succeed Hagel. A writer for the libertiarian Reason.com quipped: “Rather than proposing a different course for the administration’s foreign policy, she appears to possibly be the person to entrench it for rest of Obama’s term.”
Flournoy’s experience includes working as a senior adviser for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, holding a professorship at the National Defense University, serving on the Defense Policy Board, and supporting a 2005 advocacy campaign spearheaded by the neoconservative Project for the New American Century that aimed to boost the size of the U.S. military.
After leaving the Pentagon in mid-2012, Flournoy joined the Boston Consulting Group as a senior adviser and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs as a Senior Fellow.
Although she is sometimes characterized as a “liberal realist” who seeks to reign in the United States’ global ambitions, Flournoy also believes that the U.S. military “is a force for good abroad” and has pushed to maintain American forces in places like Iraq. “I am one who believes that the United States, as the sole superpower in the world, still has an indispensable leadership role to play,” Flournoy said at the Council on Foreign Relations in 2013.
Flournoy has criticized the Obama administration’s withdrawal plan from Afghanistan, saying, ““If it was a timeline with a strong statement that said, ‘Hey, this is our plan, but no plan survives contact with reality and, of course, we are going to adjust based on conditions on the ground,’ then no problem, but what I am hearing out of the White House is that ‘hell or high water, this is what we are going to do.’”
Regarding the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” which was heralded in 2012, Flournoy commented that it “has been very important” in helping “to ensure that we can sustain open trade routes, freedom of action down through the Strait of Malacca, down through Southeast Asia, so reaching out more to Australia, to the Philippines, to Vietnam, to other ASEAN nations.”
Foreign policy hawks have frequently commented on Flournoy’s militarist tendencies. For instance, in a September 2009 commentary on U.S. policy in Afghanistan, Tom Donnelly of the American Enterprise Institute wrote, “Undersecretary of defense Michele Flournoy is the dictionary definition of a hawkish Democrat. While it’s true that there are increasing contradictions in the very term—we’re not really talking Harry Truman anymore—the strategic implications of a faltering commitment to Afghanistan would be obvious to her. So when she’s lowering expectations, I sit up and take notice.”
Flournoy has warned against a preemptive U.S. or Israeli strike on Iran, calling it “a tactical step that undermines the strategic goal” of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. However, Flournoy has also allowed that military action remains a possibility in the future, telling the Jerusalem Post in August 2012 that “Israel can rely on Obama to stop a nuclear Iran. … [T]he policy is not containment and I think he is serious about that.”
Regarding the U.S.-Israeli relationship, Flournoy told the Jerusalem Post that it was “like a marriage,” and that despite some differences over policy, America’s commitment to Israel’s security was “unshakable.” She added: “The quality of the relationship—both the amount of interaction and the quality—has increased substantially [during the Obama administration] in terms of comparing notes on the full range of strategic issues in the region, in terms of people understanding Israel’s concerns and security needs and what it means to ensure [Israel’s] qualitative military edge.”
In a December 2012 speech to the Atlantic Council, Flourney warned against cutbacks to counterinsurgency planning as the war in Afghanistan winds down. “We have to be careful not to fall into the Vietnam Syndrome where we believe we’ll never do that again,” she said.
Comparing her Atlantic Council speech to that of Chuck Hagel, one reporter wrote, “Flournoy spoke at an Atlantic Council forum a day after another possible choice for Pentagon boss, former Republican Senator and current Atlantic Council chairman Chuck Hagel, addressed the same group. The difference in approaches was illuminating. Hagel, a former member of the Senate committees on foreign relations and intelligence, emphasized a diplomatic approach to emerging global threats through ‘engagement.’ Flournoy, a former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, focused on the military.”
In September 2014, Flournoy argued in a Washington Post op-ed written with Eric Edelman, a board member of the neoconservative Foreign Policy Initiative and longtime advocate for militarist U.S. polices, that military spending should be increased to "sustain the rules-based international order that underpins U.S. security and prosperity." The two called for an immediate repeal of the Budget Control Act, which provided for the "sequestration" cuts much loathed by foreign policy hawks, and a "return, at a minimum, to funding levels proposed by then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his fiscal 2012 budget." Edelman and Flournoy further argued that "the U.S. military must be able to deter or stop aggression in multiple theaters, not just one, even when engaged in a large-scale war.”
Notably, in 2005 Flournoy supported an advocacy campaign aimed at increasing the size of the U.S. military that was spearheaded by the now-defunct neoconservative activist group the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). PNAC was notorious for its efforts in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to promote a U.S. invasion of Iraq “even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack.”
In the 2005 open letter to several leading congressional figures—which Flournoy signed along with a host of other national security hawks—the group claimed that the George W. Bush administration was failing to support large enough U.S. ground forces to successfully fight the “war on terror.” The letter channeled core neoconservative beliefs that the United States is a unique arbiter for good and evil in the world and that the U.S. military must remain in the Middle East indefinitely.
“There is abundant evidence that the demands of the ongoing missions in the greater Middle East, along with our continuing defense and alliance commitments elsewhere in the world, are close to exhausting current U.S. ground forces. … Yet after almost two years in Iraq and almost three years in Afghanistan, it should be evident that our engagement in the greater Middle East is truly, in Condoleezza Rice's term, a ‘generational commitment.’ The only way to fulfill the military aspect of this commitment is by increasing the size of the force available to our civilian leadership,” the letter stated.
Conservative Favorite for Secretary of Defense in 2012
In 2012, as the Obama administration was deciding on a new Pentagon chief, rightwing groups attempted to promote a Flournoy candidacy. The rightwing Times of Israel reported in December 2012 that talk of Flournoy’s nomination had been “welcomed by conservative and pro-Israel groups,” in part because of Flournoy’s familiarity with Israeli security issues like the Iron Dome missile shield, regional arms sales, “and the importance of Israel’s military edge over its neighbors.”
Numerous neoconservative actors also promoted Flournoy’s candidacy because of their opposition to leading nominee—and Obama’s eventual choice for the position—Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator known for his bipartisanship as well as his criticism of one-sided U.S. support for Israel.
In December 2012, the New Republic reported that, “Flournoy—the Pentagon’s former undersecretary of defense for policy, and the head of Obama’s transition team for the Department of Defense—has become the name that conservatives have floated as an alternative to Obama’s rumored pick to replace Leon Panetta: Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, whom Republicans have never forgiven for his role as one of the Iraq war's greatest critics and his occasional endorsements of Democrats. Flournoy's apparent supporters now include the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol (who essentially argued that she wouldn't be as objectionable as Hagel), former George W. Bush administration Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and [Mitt Romney] foreign policy adviser Dan Senor.”
Undersecretary of Defense
According to her CNAS biography, during Flournoy’s tenure as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration, “She was the principal adviser to the Secretary of Defense in the formulation of national security and defense policy, oversight of military plans and operations, and in National Security Council deliberations. She led the development of DoD’s new Strategic Guidance and represented the Department in dozens of foreign engagements, in the media and before Congress.”
Before joining the Obama Pentagon, Flournoy directed CNAS, which had by then gained a reputation as having been instrumental in shaping the Obama administration’s views on counterinsurgnecy (COIN) warfare. When she left CNAS to join the administration, Flournoy (who was replaced by John Nagl as CNAS president) brought several colleagues with her. As Daniel Luban reported for Right Web in 2009, “CNAS’s impressive roster of alums in the Obama administration is a testament to the influence of the organization’s technocratic approach in Democratic foreign policy circles.”
Luban wrote, “At the Pentagon alone, Flournoy brought no fewer than seven CNAS colleagues with her: James Miller, principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy; Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary for the Middle East; Price Floyd, principal deputy assistant secretary for public affairs; Shawn Brimley, special advisor on strategy; Vikram Singh, special advisor on Afghanistan and Pakistan; Eric Pierce, deputy chief for legislative affairs; [and] Alice Hunt, special assistant. … Within the new bipartisan consensus favoring the escalating application of COIN doctrine to Afghanistan—a consensus stretching from CNAS to FPI, Nagl to Kristol—only a few isolated voices of dissent have emerged.”
In 2008, Flournoy co-authored Shaping the Iraq Inheritance, a CNAS report which, according to CNAS, “places America’s interests in Iraq within a regional and global context, and suggests that the United States must simultaneously attempt to avoid a failed state in Iraq while not strategically over-committing to Iraq. The report then outlines a policy of conditional engagement—a strategy that initiates a phased, negotiated redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq while conditioning residual support to the Iraqi government on continued political progress.”
In a review of the book, Brian Katulis of the Center for American Progress wrote that it had an “identity crisis,” posing as “an exit strategy but ultimately advocat[ing] a course of action that looks a lot like what the Bush administration and its conservative supporters have endorsed in Iraq.” Discussing “conditional engagement,” Katulis argued that it is a strategy that “fails to clearly define … when the Iraq mission would be accomplished, and when U.S. troops could depart. … The report stakes out a position that places the strategy in the same space as the current Bush administration policy … a ‘conditions based’ drawdown of troops where the conditions are never really defined beyond vague terms like ‘accommodation’ and ‘sustainable security.’”
In October 2003, Flournoy was a contributing writer to a security policy blueprint titled “Progressive Internationalism: A Democratic National Security Strategy,” which was published by the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), for many years a key outlet for militarist foreign policy thinking connected to the Democratic Party. Other contributing authors included Ronald D. Asmus from the German Marshall Fund; Kurt Campbell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Larry Diamond from the Hoover Institution ; Philip Gordon from the Brookings Institution; former Sen. Bob Kerrey of New School University; Michael McFaul from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Kenneth M. Pollack of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy; and Jeremy Rosner from Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research, Inc.
Employing language closely mirroring that of the Project for the New American Century, “Progressive Internationalism” hailed the “tough-minded internationalism” of past Democratic presidents such as Truman. Like PNAC, which in its founding statement warned of grave “present dangers” confronting America, the PPI security strategy declared: “Like the Cold War, the struggle we face today is likely to last not years but decades.”