June 6, 2011 — Just when the Pentagon needs a steady hand to manage unprecedented turmoil abroad and severe financial strain at home, its top leadership is struggling through a difficult transition.
Lame-duck Defense Secretary Robert Gates is on his farewell tour in Afghanistan and Leon Panetta, an untried outsider, hopes to replace Gates later this month. The country's top two military personnel, the chairman and vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, are due to change hands this fall.
But crises and challenges aren't waiting until the new folks get comfortable in their seats. Critical decisions are pending on a troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, and U.S. officials need guidance on potential peace talks with the Taliban. Relations with Pakistan are deteriorating. China is rushing JF-17 jet fighters to its border with Pakistan to protect its air space against U.S. raids, a move that could threaten the highly successful U.S. drone war against Taliban and al Qaeda targets. Yemen is imploding; Israel feels newly pressed; NATO's war in Libya is escalating and so has Iran's meddling in political upheaval from Bahrain to Algeria. In East Asia, American power is under serious challenge by China's expanding military power, and North Korea recently scuttled secret peace talks with the South.
These problems will largely be in the hands of Michele Angelique Flournoy, a quiet but enormously influential woman who for several years has managed the Pentagon's most intractable problems -- and kept largely out of the limelight. The Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Flournoy has been the intellectual driver behind many of the Obama administration's national security policy decisions, from Libya to nuclear warfighting strategy to China, missile defense, the defense budget and Afghanistan.
She has also been tasked with producing all the Pentagon's long-range strategic plans. She oversees a staff of some 700, but Flournoy is personally responsible for every region of the world, supervising regional commanders' warfighting plans and overseeing counter-terrorism policy, special operations, homeland defense, arms control negotiations and dialog with China, to list a handful of her responsibilities.
And when Panetta appears Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee for his confirmation hearings, much of his testimony will have been prepared under Flournoy.
"It's an impossible frickin' job," said Eric Edelman, Flournoy's predecessor under President Bush. “Everything you're doing is literally of vital interest to the country."
And how well has Flournoy done?
“Unfortunately, I don't have the luxury of saying she has not done as well as I did," Edelman told the Huffington Post. "She is just outstanding."
Tall, gracious and soft-spoken, she has the reputation of being nice -- but determined. She comes across as extremely self-disciplined and on-message. And in internal administration debates about policy, she quietly gets her way. “She will cut your head off and you'll walk away with your head under your arm not quite sure what happened," said John Nagl, an unabashed admirer.
A retired Army officer, Nagl replaced Flournoy as president of the Center for a New American Security, an influential Washington think tank that Flournoy cofounded in 2007. Even more than other policy centers in Washington, CNAS serves to groom smart and ambitious young policy wonks for government service.
A graduate of Harvard and Oxford, Flournoy came to the Pentagon from academia. She taught at the National Defense University in Washington and won a job in Pentagon policy and strategy during the Clinton administration.
She is also mother of three children under the age of 13 and has been known to rush home at twilight to have dinner with the kids -- and then rush back to the Pentagon for late-night meetings and study. She has taken policy calls from Gates while standing on the sidelines of the kids' soccer game.
"I hope I'm a good mom while giving my all to this job and this administration," Flournoy said in an interview -- but she struggled to explain how she gets it all done.
"The temptation is to become a slave to your inbox, and there is a certain tyranny of the day-to-day when there are multiple crises going on," she said. "My job is to step back and be more strategic, to think about cross-cutting issues and managing the individual crises of the day within a broader framework."
Flournoy stressed a broader framework didn't mean devising an "oversimplified bumper sticker that says: 'This Is The Obama Doctrine.' " Rather, Flournoy said, she tries to define a set of principles and be pragmatic about how to apply them.
That framework will be critical during the upcoming months, when a deluge of critical decisions are coming at the Pentagon that all focus around one big question: How does the Pentagon manage the inevitable budget cuts in a way that leaves the United States with a smaller, more affordable, leaner military force appropriate to future national security challenges?
Flournoy is a strong Democratic partisan -- she supported Hillary Rodham Clinton in the 2008 presidential primaries -- and pushed hard within the administration for an end to "don't ask, don't tell" and for a measured military intervention in Libya. But by all accounts she has won the respect of the Pentagon brass -- a link that fellow outsider Panetta will need.
"To get us through this budget crisis, we don't need a new strategy -- we need prudence, visionary leadership and tough management," said Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army officer who has held a series of high-level positions within the Pentagon.
Panetta, currently the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, a former chairman of the House Budget Committee and former White House budget director under President Clinton, will be the Pentagon's public face in that effort if confirmed as expected. But it will be Flournoy running the show behind the scenes, and she is already on record for aggressive budget cuts. She favors a leaner and more agile military rather than a build-up of heavy forces to prepare a possible confrontation with China or Iran, a strategy that has been championed by, among others, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.). "We will need the agility of David, not the clumsiness of Goliath," Flournoy has insisted.
While in academia during the Bush presidency, Flournoy recognized the disconnect between Pentagon strategy driven by hard-nosed warfighting concerns and the military budget, which reflects more bureaucratic momentum and the imperatives of Congress and defense contractors. She founded and led the Quadrennial Defense Review working group, the first effort to close that gap before being named to President Obama’s transition team in 2008.
Along with Gates, she has argued that current defense spending is "unsustainable," noting that the Navy had planned to buy 32 next-generation destroyers but could only afford three and that the Air Force plan for 132 B-2 bombers crashed and burned when the cost of each plane rose to $2 billion. The Air Force ended up being able to afford only 20.
"We cannot continue to keep spending more and more to get less and less," she argued in a speech last year. She also raged against the Pentagon bureaucracy, which she said "seems to have been designed by the Byzantine Empire, which, as you recall, did not fare so well."