Biden Has Many Good Choices at SecDef

Defense One

November 29, 2020

When President-Elect Joe Biden announced his foreign policy team last week, one post was conspicuously absent: Defense Secretary. It had almost universally been assumed that Michèle Flournoy would be the pick, but reports began to surface that progressive activists were opposing her for a variety of reasons; that Black leaders, most notably House Majority Whip James Clyburn, were pushing for one of their own in light of their role in securing the nomination and election for Biden; and that the president-elect himself was looking for someone with whom he had a more comfortable working relationship.

Almost immediately, an outpouring of support for Flournoy arose on Twitter and the op-ed pages from those who had worked for her. At least a dozen women offered heartfelt testimony about her tireless mentoring and sheer decency as a leader—and many men rushed in to note that she mentored them, too. Numerous open letters and statements from current and former officials were pushed out to urge her appointment.

The combination of the weakness of the progressive critiques and the outpouring of support from people I trust and admire has persuaded me that Flournoy would indeed make an outstanding choice.

Still, she is not the only qualified choice. Were Biden to choose someone else, it would not be an egregious outcome. Contrary to suggestions that a man with her credentials would be a shoo-in, of the thirteen people who have held the post of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy (eleven of them white men), none have thus far been elevated to SecDef. Indeed, with the exception of Paul Wolfowitz, who went on to become Deputy Secretary and later President of the World Bank, it proved to be the highest post any would hold. 

Yes, as Janine Davidson has ably argued, the first woman to run the Pentagon would be a “very big deal,” sending a powerful message. And with the wounds from Hillary Clinton’s shocking loss in 2016 still unhealed, the disappointment of another well-qualified woman not getting a job she’s ready for would be palpable.

But the candidates whose names have been circulating as alternatives the last few days would also be “firsts.” Either former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson or former CENTCOM chief Lloyd Austin would be the first Black SecDef. And Tammy Duckworth would be the first woman, first Asian-American, and first combat-wounded double amputee at the helm.

Johnson does not have Flournoy’s defense policy credentials, but his profile is actually more typical of past SecDef picks. He has already led a major cabinet department, and one with an armed service (the Coast Guard) to boot. And as General Counsel of the Air Force under Bill Clinton and General Counsel of the Defense Department under Barack Obama, he has actually served longer in Senate-confirmed Pentagon posts than Flournoy. 

Like most who study civil-military relations, I would strongly prefer that Biden not nominate another recently-retired general to head the Pentagon so close to President Trump’s violating the norm that the job come “from civilian life” when he picked Jim Mattis. Still, Austin’s 41-year career as a combat leader is impressive.

Further, as important a message as the first woman SecDef would send, the first Black person in the role is arguably more overdue. Black men and women have been dying for their country since Crispus Attucks became the first casualty of the American Revolution. Having Johnson or Austin leading the Pentagon would be a pretty big deal, too.

Duckworth’s name has been circulating for months. Frankly, her preparation for the job pales in comparison to Flournoy’s or Johnson’s. Still, she has eight years of experience on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. She ran Illinois’ Department of Veterans Affairs for three years and spent two years as an assistant Veterans Affairs secretary in the Obama administration. She also has a master’s from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. A retired National Guard lieutenant colonel, she of course lost her legs when her helicopter was shot down over Iraq. She would command instant respect from the brass and the troops in a way few could.

And, while Duckworth would not have been among my top choices for Defense (VA seems a more obvious fit) it is noteworthy that she was on Biden’s shortlist for Vice President. It may simply be that he has a rapport with Duckworth that he lacks with Flournoy.

Finally, while I have not seen his name floated and find it hard to believe that Biden will choose a white man after letting the debate coalesce around two women and two Black men, let’s not forget Bob Work, who served as the Deputy Secretary in the last three years of the Obama administration and spent the four years before that as Davidson’s predecessor as Under Secretary of the Navy. Unlike the Policy post, Deputy has long been a feeder to the top job: Robert Lovett, Thomas Gates Jr., Frank Carlucci, William Perry, and Ash Carter all made that transition (and Cyrus Vance went on to be Secretary of State and John Deutsch to be Director of Central Intelligence). Again, I would be shocked if he got the nod. But he certainly has to be on any “best qualified” list.

Given the encomia of so many national security professionals I respect, I’m rooting for Flournoy. Not only is she superbly qualified but her ability to inspire such loyalty not only bodes well for the command climate of the Department but also to the character and talent of the team she would bring in with her. But the incoming President has every right to pick his team. If he’s more simpatico with Johnson or Duckworth, we should respect that choice.