Michèle Flournoy speaks in calm, measured tones about some of the world’s most terrifying crises, from coronavirus and nuclear weapons to Afghanistan and Iran. But that doesn’t mean her words carry any less weight or urgency.
Her level-headed yet deeply thought-out approach to the litany of national security threats facing the United States propelled her to the top echelons of the Pentagon. It’s also made her a popular moderate voice among both Democrats and Republicans and — if there’s any truth to current rumors — could make her America’s first female secretary of defense under a Biden administration.
Flournoy — who served as undersecretary of defense for policy under the Obama administration, making her the highest-ranking woman in Pentagon history — was also expected to become defense secretary had Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
Even though Donald Trump won, she was still offered a top-ranking position at the Pentagon by newly appointed Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — a position she turned down (although it wasn’t clear if Trump would’ve approved her appointment).
Asked whether she regrets not taking the job, Flournoy said she doesn’t.
“It makes me sad. I have a very deep sense of duty. I have the utmost respect for Jim Mattis and it was very hard not to jump in with both feet and help him. But what I was aware of was how much I differed from candidate Trump and then-President Trump on so many issues,” Flournoy told us in an interview at WestExec Advisors, the firm she co-founded with other prominent Obama national security alumni.
“And I think the moment that clinched it, that epitomized this for me, was Jim Mattis’ swearing-in ceremony … right there in the [Pentagon] Hall of Heroes. And to his surprise, the president announced and signed the first Muslim travel ban in that ceremony,” she said, referring to the controversial executive order that Trump rolled out in early 2017 restricting travel from Muslim-majority countries (a ban that has since gone through several iterations and multiple legal challenges).
“That was the moment when I said, ‘I can’t possibly be part of this,’” she told us. “And I regret it in the sense that I wish the circumstances were different…. But you just can’t be part of something that is at odds with your core values.”
Yet Flournoy is no idealist. She is clear-eyed about the tortuous give and take between values and interests.
On that note, she subtly laughed when we referred to a 2011 profile of her in The Washington Post that described her as a “liberal realist” who “supports the principled use of force but is wary of being blindly interventionist.”
In response, Flournoy said she’s simply “a pragmatist.”
“I believe our foreign policy should reflect first and foremost our interests but also our values, and sometimes those things come into tension and need to be resolved, and those create hard choices for leaders. But we have to start with a real-eyed assessment of actual facts on the ground,” she said, warning: “I don’t think we can be successful with this very tactical, transactional approach that the administration seems to be taking at the moment.”
As an example, she cited the U.S.-China trade dispute. While she agrees with the administration’s position that China’s unfair trading practices — including intellectual property theft and massive state subsidies — need to be addressed, she disagrees with the unilateral approach the White House is taking.
“It would be far more effective if we went to our Asian and European friends who have the same exact issues with China and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we work together and why don’t we leverage shared institutions like the WTO to make our case collectively and to put pressure on China?’”
Flournoy’s support of multilateralism largely echoes the Beltway consensus that the U.S. needs its allies and shouldn’t isolate itself with a Trumpian “America First” retrenchment.
In that way, Flournoy can either be seen as a reassuring return to normal foreign policymaking, or a creature of the Washington establishment that Trump voters see as out of touch and out of fresh ideas.
Flournoy — who’s married to W. Scott Gould, a former U.S. deputy secretary of veterans affairs — certainly boasts a resume that reads like a type-A, inside-the-Beltway success story.
In the mid-1990s, she served as principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction, earning multiple awards and recognitions. She then taught at the National Defense University and was a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies before co-founding the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a bipartisan think tank, in 2007. She served as CNAS’s president until 2009 and returned as CEO in 2014.
Flournoy — who holds a bachelor’s degree in social studies from Harvard University and a master’s in international relations from Oxford — also helped lead President Obama’s transition team at the Defense Department, where she would go on to serve in top-ranking positions such as principal adviser to the secretary of defense. She serves on various boards such as Booz Allen Hamilton and CARE and makes regular appearances on major news outlets such as NBC and BBC.
Beneath the appearances and accolades, however, this mother of three broke the mold in the male-dominated E Ring of the Pentagon, earning the respect of figures such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and tackling some of the thorniest national security challenges facing the U.S. — from counterterrorism threats to Russian aggression — many of which are just as relevant today as they were a decade ago.
As the Post noted in its 2011 profile: “At the Pentagon, her portfolio includes overseeing the deployment of U.S. special forces to help train the Ugandan military to fight rebel groups, responding to the unfolding turmoil in Yemen and Syria, implementing widespread defense budget cuts and, on top of it all, engineering the drawdown of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan.”
Flournoy said she wishes that President Trump would surround himself with people who have firsthand experience navigating crises — and aren’t unafraid to give advice based on that experience.
In fact, when we asked the proverbial “what keeps you up at night,” Flournoy didn’t list trade disputes, nuclear brinkmanship, civil wars or even coronavirus. Rather, she cited the growing number of Yes Men in the Oval Office.
“The thing that keeps me up at night is that I don’t think this president has allowed or empowered a support structure to make sure he makes good decisions. So he’s created a command climate that does not tolerate dissent, does not solicit different views, does not have a regular, disciplined process for developing options, examining them, thinking through costs, risks and unanticipated consequences,” she said.
“And so he comes to these very consequential decision points without the benefit of a team that’s going to speak up, warn him and going to help him think about things he hasn’t thought of.”
She added: “We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t come to a full crisis point with North Korea. We almost came to one with Iran and then things calmed down. But I worry that in a true going-to-war-or-not kind of moment, the way in which he’s conducted his decision-making will not serve him well and will not serve the country well, and we can stumble into something we never should have stumbled into if we’re not careful. That’s what I worry about.”
But there are lots of other things she worries about. We talked to her about some of them:
Below are selected excerpts from our interview that have been condensed for clarity and space.
The Washington Diplomat: Let’s start with the subject that’s on everyone’s minds — one that is all about health but also potentially has tremendous national security repercussions — which is of course coronavirus. Any thoughts on the administration’s handling so far of the pandemic?
Michèle Flournoy: What concerned me about the White House’s initial response was the president’s tendency to play down the severity of the COVID-19 crisis. As a result, the administration lost precious time to mobilize the federal government’s response at sufficient speed and scale. Consequently, the ultimate health and economic effects of this crisis are likely to be much more dire for Americans than they might have been had the White House moved more quickly.
In addition, at a moment like this, it is imperative to maintain public trust and that requires transparency and truthfulness. If people start thinking, ‘Oh, they’re spinning us. They’re not telling us how serious it is. They’re trying to downplay it because the president’s concerned how it reflects on his administration going into an election’ — if you start sowing doubts like that, you can lose the ability to have the public with you as you take the difficult steps to try to contain and mitigate the impacts.
Given the continuing absence of widely available testing, I think most experts believe that the number of cases in the U.S. have been underestimated or underreported so far. And the spike is still coming. I was glad to see the administration finally embrace social distancing and other measures to try to flatten the curve of cases.
That said, I think the level of economic disruption and impact is going to be far greater than what people imagine. We’re already seeing it in the stock market, travel industry, major manufacturing, restaurants and hospitality, retail and small businesses and other sectors, along with huge disruptions to international supply chains.
So, along with the public health response, the administration and the Congress need to step up and put in place a substantial economic stimulus and mitigation package focused on shoring up the most vulnerable Americans and industries.
TWD: You recently spoke at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Afghanistan. The White House just struck a deal with the Taliban, which agreed not to allow Afghan soil to be used as a launching pad for terrorist attacks. In return, the administration announced it would bring down the number of troops in Afghanistan from 12,000 to 8,600 over the coming months, with a goal of removing all troops in 14 months if the Taliban upholds its commitments.
Meanwhile, the Afghan government, which had been excluded from the talks in Doha, is now supposed to engage in negotiations with the Taliban, but already the Taliban has resumed its attacks because a ceasefire was never a part of the U.S.-brokered deal, and President Ashraf Ghani has disagreed with the agreement’s timeline for a prisoner swap.
So what are your thoughts on the agreement and what do you think the U.S. should do moving forward to ensure that intra-Afghan talks take place?
MF: I think the first thing is to recognize that it’s very difficult to see how this war ends without some kind of political settlement. It’s been made clear now to both sides … that neither side can win on the battlefield.
We think of this as a 20-year war. For Afghans, it’s been a 40-year war. There’s exhaustion on both sides.
So this has to get to a political settlement at some point. I think the U.S.-Taliban agreement is highly conditional, meaning there are a number of things that have to happen for the U.S. withdrawal to take place. The first is … getting to a negotiating table where not only the Afghan government, but the Afghan opposition and Afghan civil society, particularly women and youth, are represented across the table from the Taliban. That diverse representational delegation is essential to actually negotiate a peace and then have it stick.
And I think President Ghani — who just had this very divisive election — needs to step back and think about what is his role in history. And [Abdullah Abdullah, Ghani’s opponent who is contesting the presidency] has to think this, too. The election aside, what’s really at stake here is whether they’re going to take their country on the path to peace and be remembered, both of them, as the fathers of ending the war in Afghanistan and protecting the gains that have been made, or are they going to get to a situation of dysfunction that could descend back into civil war.
TWD: Do you think there’s a possibility that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo may have to intervene, as John Kerry had to do last time there was an election dispute between Ghani and Abdullah?
MF: I certainly hope that there’s a multipronged diplomatic effort right now to reach Ghani and Abdullah to try to get them to see that this is far greater than the election outcome.
But even if they come to that realization and decide to work together on this, which I think is a big if, it’s a very rocky road, as we’re seeing with the prisoner exchange.
It’s not going to be done in a matter of weeks. It’s going to take time, but that’s how complex peace negotiations work. It’s still the best path forward.
My worry quite frankly — given the president’s statements, his campaign pledges, his behavior in Syria — is that he’ll get frustrated and impatient and could pull the plug and say, ‘Forget it, we’re just pulling out.’ If he does that, I think we will doom the Afghan government to collapse and the country to a return to civil war, and I think that would be foreign policy malpractice.
TWD: President Trump’s national security strategy identifies the re-emergence of great power competition with China and Russia as our biggest threat. Do you agree with this shift in thinking?
MF: I think the shift actually began in the Obama administration with what you call the pivot or the new balance to Asia, and it was premised on an understanding that if you look at both the defining challenges and opportunities of the next 50 years, Asia will be the most important region for American prosperity and American security.
Having been focused for so long on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency in the greater Middle East, we have to free up some thinking and bandwidth to focus on Asia because it’s so impactful on our interests and well-being.
So that is a correct hypothesis for both administrations. I think the debate is over how do we compete effectively with China and how do we get them to cooperate where we need them. In my view, there is certainly a military element that’s about deterring Chinese aggression and coercion and protecting our allies and our interests.
But the primary way for us to compete effectively with China, in my view, is to invest in the drivers of our competitiveness and performance here at home — so science and technology, research and development, 21st-century infrastructure, access to higher education, particularly STEM education, and a smart immigration policy that attracts the best and brightest from around the world and then convinces them to stay here and become Americans. These are the policies that will help us compete with China and make sure we maintain our technological edge.
I like to remind people that if you look at Silicon Valley and the founders, more than 50% of them are either immigrants or first-generation Americans. We need that talent that comes here for education to stay here and invest in our innovation ecosystem, rather than going home to China or India or wherever.
[A]nd we have to recognize that on issues of climate change, nonproliferation, pandemics, we need cooperation from China, so we can’t paint them into the corner as an enemy.
TWD: You mentioned immigration as a domestic priority. Looking internationally, with the administration so focused on China and Russia — coupled with its efforts to pull U.S. troops out of Syria and, possibly, Africa — are there areas you’re concerned might fall through the cracks?
MF: I’m worried we are giving away our position and influence. We’re about to celebrate the 75th anniversary of World War II. In the wake of that conflict, we constructed this rules-based order … and that has served the United States so well for 75 years, and our allies and the free democracies of the Western world.
Now you have countries like China and Russia that are challenging that order, and without U.S. leadership to help defend it where it needs to be defended and adapted to new circumstances, there’s a huge vacuum that’s being created. So you have suddenly Vladimir Putin back in the Middle East, holding the cards on Syria; you have China gaining influence in Africa, in Latin America — historically areas of U.S. influence.
How do we respond? What’s our answer to One Belt One Road? What’s our answer to Putin’s use of fake news and propaganda throughout Europe?
We’re just sort of missing in action in a way that’s very damaging to the U.S. We don’t want to be the world’s policeman, but using our soft power is something we should be doing far more than we seem to be doing now.
TWD: President Trump famously pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear deal that his predecessor negotiated with Iran and launched a maximum pressure campaign to bring Iran back to the bargaining table. Instead, in recent months we’ve seen a sharp uptick in hostilities capped by the U.S. killing of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani. Do you think we’ve stepped back from the brink of full-scale conflict and, more generally, what would you say have been the repercussions of the withdrawal and subsequent pressure campaign?
MF: The repercussions of the withdrawal from the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] is it took us from a situation where we had put 10 to 15 years on the clock between now and when Iran would be in a position to produce enough fissile material to get a bomb. Now, as we see in the latest IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] reports, they are starting to take steps to ramp up their enrichment. They’ve installed new, better centrifuges. They are inching toward a sort of breakout capability again.
The thing I worry about in that scenario is actually Israel. Israel has been consistent that there’s a certain point at which it cannot tolerate Iran being too close to a bomb and if the U.S. doesn’t act, Israel will. And so I worry that … we won’t give some clear off-ramp for how Iran goes from the victim of maximum pressure, unconstrained in a nuclear domain, to actually a negotiating constraint that will stick. We have to show them that path and I don’t think the administration had been clear about what exactly Iran has to do to get on that path.
I don’t think the provocation cycle is over. I think it was interrupted with the retaliatory attack launched against our bases in Iraq, but I think [Iran] will respond in a time and place of their choosing. That’s what they’ve always done. They wait until their proxies are positioned to take a shot, and that’s what they’ll do in the future. And I think like North Korea, they will use provocations to try to get the administration to pay attention and to come back to the negotiating table.
TWD: On that note, Iran has consistently been in the news this year, but something that has faded from the headlines is North Korea, even though it has by some estimates 20 to 60 nuclear weapons and has successfully tested an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). Do you think it’s still possible to engage Kim Jong-un in negotiations or does the U.S. need to take a tougher approach?
MF: The two go hand in hand. I do think you want to have an open negotiating channel below the level of the two leaders. It’s great to have photo-ops, but that’s not going to get you a nuclear deal. You’ve got to have experts negotiating in good faith.
The North Koreans are tough. You’ve had multiple administrations conclude partial deals, try to conclude deals, try to not have them constantly being walked back or violated. This is a tough situation.
At the same time, we need to be taking the steps to make sure that we, first of all, defend ourselves. I think the DoD is investing in the missile defenses to protect ourselves should North Korea actually get an ICBM, [as well as] the measures we need to try to disrupt their program.
And so I think you need a whole suite of tools. You need, most importantly, to get Chinese cooperation. The only country with real leverage over North Korea is China, and again, taking this purely bilateral approach without getting China involved and trying to pressure North Korea to come to the table is just not very effective.
And the country most at risk from North Korean provocations and aggression is South Korea, our close ally, and we need to be hand and glove with them — again, as opposed to having them be a bystander.
TWD: You had mentioned that one of your biggest worries is the lack of feedback the president receives. Looking outside the current administration, what are some of the long-term threats that deserve more attention?
MF: Number one is climate change as a national security issue. This administration is whistling past the graveyard. The Department of Defense understands climate change is a national security issue. They’ve written reports that have subsequently been censored on the issue. So that’s number one.
The risk of miscalculation with China. I don’t think China wants a war with us. I don’t think we want a war with them. But the lack of strategic, consistent dialogue to avoid unintended incidents, when our military forces brush up against each other — the risk of miscalculation is higher than it should be.
TWD: You mentioned that climate change has been a huge focus of the Defense Department but that it has been swept under the rug by this administration. So on the issue of civil-military relations, initially when President Trump came to office, he appointed senior military officers in roles that are typically reserved for civilians. Most recently, the president reversed the demotion of a Navy SEAL accused of serious war crimes despite the objections of military leadership. Obviously as commander-in-chief, the president has the power to make these decisions, but what are your concerns moving forward on the longer-term implications of blurring the lines between military and civilian roles?
MF: It’s dangerous. I think it’s very important in a democracy to ensure civilian leadership and command and control over the military, and I would challenge you to find an officer in uniform who doesn’t agree with that.
This is a military where every time an officer is promoted, they pledge their faith to the Constitution. They understand the importance of the military as an institution remaining apolitical and serving the Constitution and no one leader, no one political party.
So I think they find it disturbing when the military is used politically, whether it’s having recently retired four-star officers speak at national political conventions; whether it’s putting military officers in uniform in political positions; whether it’s having the White House reach into the military justice system and reverse the efforts of the chain of command to hold its own accountable.
I have yet to find a single person in the SEAL community or in the Navy or in the military more broadly who agreed with the president intervening on behalf of someone who their own military justice system had convicted for war crimes.
So I think there’s a lot of concern and you couple that with the number of vacancies underneath the secretary of defense and the roles to which the military gets pulled in to fill because of the lack of a deep bench on the civilian side — it’s a real problem and it will need to be addressed and corrected by a future administration.
TWD: When you were undersecretary of defense for policy, you were the highest-ranking woman in the Pentagon. What has it been like moving up the ranks in such a male-dominated field?
MF: I will say it gets easier over time. When I first came to the Pentagon in the Clinton administration, I was in my early 30s, female, civilian, Democratic, political appointee — that’s a lot of strikes against you in that culture.
The one saving grace was I was also a Navy wife, so I got some forgiveness for that.
But it’s very tough when you’re a junior person coming into that environment, but I think over time, as you gain expertise and experience and build relationships … I did not find it to be an issue when I was undersecretary. And part of that was I had bosses, first [Robert] Gates and then [Leon] Panetta, who were incredibly empowering of my position.
But more progress needs to be made. First and foremost because you don’t want to leave half the talent pool off the table. In a democracy, you want a national security cadre that looks like America. And all the business literature is very clear that when you put more diversity in the C-suite, in the boardroom, the actual bottom-line performance of companies — they do better. The same is true in government.
TWD: You’ve talked about groups such as Women in International Security. What do you think are some strategies to bring more women into top national security roles?
MF: There’s a new organization called LCWINS — the Leadership Council for Women in National Security — and the first thing they did was they went to all the candidates, including President Trump, and said, ‘Will you pledge to aim for full gender inclusion and diversity in appointing the future national security team at all levels?’
Almost all of the Democratic Party campaigns signed up and I think they’re still waiting to hear from the administration.
The second thing they’re doing is — remember Mitt Romney’s binders of women — they’re actually building slates. They’re looking at all the top jobs, from the senior level down to the mid-career manager level, and they are identifying unquestionably qualified women who could serve in those positions and should be on any slate going forward.
And so they’re trying to do that hard spadework that they can hand off to a transition team and say, ‘Here you go. This will make it a little bit easier to make sure you’re actually hiring in a way that is fully cognizant of the talent that’s out there.’
TWD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
MF: On an optimistic note, when I go up to the Hill, when I talk to Americans, there’s a fundamental appreciation that we need a full toolbox of instruments — not just the best military in the world, which I fully support, but we also need a robust diplomatic corps. We need smart development programs that help lift people out of poverty, create economies that become our trading partners and contribute to global prosperity and stability.
TWD: On that final note, any thoughts on the president’s proposed fiscal 2021 budget? Pentagon spending would be relatively flat at $704 billion but it again proposes deep cuts to the State Department and USAID.
MF: Thankfully you’ve had a bipartisan firewall in Congress to stop some of those draconian cuts. Again, I think it’s fundamentally unbalanced and shortsighted. We’re living it right now — part of the draconian cuts in this administration have been to our public health infrastructure. The only way we deal with bio-threats and pandemics is through our public health infrastructure. That’s the surveillance system, it’s the early warning system and it’s the early response system.
And we have starved the CDC, we have starved NIH, we have starved a number of biodefense programs and we may now be about to pay the price for that.
Anna Gawel (@diplomatnews) is the managing editor of The Washington Diplomat.