Michèle Flournoy would undermine Biden’s best plans for defense
If Biden does choose Flournoy, she is unlikely to steer U.S. foreign policy in the radically new direction it needs. Indeed, if her record is any indication, she’ll undermine Biden’s ability to keep his promise to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East” while encouraging his antagonism toward China.
That is not to say Flournoy isn’t conventionally qualified for the role, for she undoubtedly is. She’s well-regarded in the defense community, with a reputation as a competent administrator and she served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy in the Clinton administration and undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama years.
Though her resume is strong, Flournoy’s foreign policy history shows little evidence of prudence or restraint. Her leadership is likely to prolong U.S. military interventions overdue for conclusion and move us closer to potentially catastrophic conflict with China. A Flournoy-run Pentagon would expand its already-bloated budget and court needless strife. Some commentators, including the Atlantic Council’s Emma Ashford, anticipate a Flournoy-led Pentagon as likely to conform to interventionist policies.
During the Obama years, when Biden opposed the surge in Afghanistan, Flournoy championed it and did so from an expansive view of U.S. capability to manage the greater Middle East. Biden’s and Flournoy’s “instincts are different” on Afghanistan, David Kilcullen, counterinsurgency expert who advised the Obama administration, told Foreign Policy.
Though Flournoy’s assessment of plausible U.S. options in Afghanistan may have evolved since then, there’s reason to suspect her basic mindset is unreformed. As recently as last year, when The Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers — a trove of documents revealing massive, knowing deception of the American public about the war in Afghanistan — Flournoy flatly denied their revelations, insisting it was simply a case of “people who believed that progress was being made and they may have been wrong.”
Flournoy also took the hawkish position on every other major Mideast conflict of the Obama era, often in opposition to Biden. An early booster of preventive attack in general and on Iraq in particular, she was still pushing an aggressive policy in Iraq (more aggressive than Biden favored) during the Obama administration. She did so with an eye to Syria, where she has supported a far larger U.S. military intervention for the purpose of regime change. Washington should help overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime, Flournoy has written, by changing the “military balance” so it can no longer “convince Assad he can remain in power.” She likewise played a key role in convincing then-President Obama to intervene in Libya in 2011, a decision which Biden opposed.
Flournoy left the Obama team before it started supporting the Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen in 2015, a policy Biden has pledged to end in 2021. But she has since joined the board of military contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, which sells the Saudi regime weapons and trains the Saudi navy that keeps Yemen under a starvation-inducing blockade. In an interview earlier this year, she advocated further weapons sales to the brutal theocrats in Riyadh, including armed drones. This aligns her with President Trump, not her soon-to-be boss. She has also opposed lifting the Trump administration’s harsh “maximum pressure” sanctions on Iran and North Korea. This is advice which, should Biden follow it, would undermine his plans to return the United States to the Iran nuclear deal and break the stalemate in U.S.-Korea relations.
Biden and Flournoy may — dangerously — find themselves in greater agreement on China, as Flournoy is known as a China hawk and Biden has recently positioned himself in that space, too. In a Foreign Affairs article this past June, Flournoy argued for significant U.S. military build-up in Asia, including “deploy[ing] more senior officials and additional military forces to the region, to underscore [Washington’s] enduring presence, strengthen its relationships, and counterbalance China’s influence.” The U.S. military should constantly conduct military exercises on China’s doorstep, she wrote, and Washington should have “the capability to credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours.”
Though she cast all this as a means of preventing war, Flournoy’s plan amounts to its temptation by putting the world’s largest and second-largest militaries in close and competitive quarters. Her notion of deterrence is better branded global dominance and incessant military meddling, perhaps topped with a U.S.-China arms race.
At the level of grand strategy, Flournoy’s selection would mean redoubling the failed interventionism of the post-9/11 era in the Middle East and retaining the Trump-era escalation of great power conflict with China. It is the worst of the last three presidencies combined, and Biden should look elsewhere for Defense.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities, contributing editor at The Week, and columnist at Christianity Today. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, NBC, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and Defense One, among other outlets.