WASHINGTON — Michele Flournoy would make a great secretary of defense. I worked for her for more than two years at the beginning of the Obama administration’s first term, and seeing her in action convinced me of it.
Am I biased? You bet. I’ve worked with and for many people over the years, and I’ve had colleagues I wouldn’t trust as secretary of the local dogcatchers’ association. But I’d trust Flournoy with any job. And, for the record, I don’t want another administration job. I already have a job that I like, and tenure is a beautiful thing. But as a citizen, I’d sure like to see Flournoy back at defense.
Here are 10 reasons she’d be a terrific choice for defense secretary:
1. She’s smart. Really, really smart. She reads — not just the page of bullet points on top of the decision package, but the memos and correspondence underneath. She stays on top of new books and papers on defense and security issues, emerging debates, new technologies and new theories. She’s always willing to consider counter-arguments. She’s got good judgment, too: She’s seen trends come and go, and she doesn’t just jump on the latest fad.
2. She’s good looking. By which I mean that she’s not a middle-aged white guy. She’d bring some needed gender diversity to the national security leaders boys’ club. And make no mistake: A woman who rises to the top in the unforgiving world of national security has to be twice as good as most of the men around her. She’s that good.
3. People like her. Flournoy’s the rare senior political appointee (of either sex) who’s not a prima donna. She doesn’t need to be on center stage all the time, and she treats everyone — from foreign leaders to top military brass to the most junior member of the support staff — with courtesy and respect. In more than two years working on her personal staff, I never saw her say an unkind word to anyone. She’s loved by her staff and respected even by those who disagree with her profoundly.
4. She picks good staff, and listens to them. She cares more about good judgment and good ideas than about good political connections or campaign credentials. During her time as under secretary for policy, she created a solid, loyal, and cohesive team of people who worked well together. And she trusts her staff enough to let them take the lead once they’ve convinced her they know what they’re doing. She asks tough questions, but if staff can convince her they’re doing the right thing, she’ll back them up without micromanaging.
5. She knows the building. She worked at the Pentagon during two administrations and went from a relatively junior position to being the department’s No. 3 civilian official. She knows the people and the culture — the good, the bad, and the ugly. She knows when to let the sluggish bureaucracy churn at its own pace, and when and how to light a fire under it. In a bureaucracy as complex as the Pentagon, it’s not enough to have good ideas — you have to know how to work the system so your good ideas will get implemented.
Flournoy’s also a skilled translator. She understands the military and its culture, but she also understands the different assumptions and political pressures that motivate White House officials. The civilian-military gap is often at its widest in Washington, and Flournoy has a unique ability to bridge it.
6. She has a vision of where the department needs to go. Unlike Secretary Leon Panetta, a generalist who was brought in as a transitional secretary to help the department through an election year and a tough budget season, Flournoy would come to the job as someone who has spent her whole career in defense policy. She has a deep understanding of how the security environment has changed over the past decades and the ways in which the United States will need to adapt.
7. She cares about the institutional heath of the Pentagon as a workplace. Many senior political appointees couldn’t care less about the morale or career paths of their subordinates — they care about themselves and about advancing the president’s agenda. Flournoy’s dedicated to advancing the president’s agenda, but she also cares about the people she works with, and invests time and energy into making sure her subordinates can have rewarding careers.
During her time as under secretary for policy, she hosted town-hall meetings, undertook anonymous surveys to find out what staff thought worked well and what they hated, and empowered teams of employees to develop and implement new training programs and streamline bureaucratic processes.
8. She cares about the humans who fight and die in wars. Flournoy knows far better than most that war is never something that can be taken lightly. She made sure she was notified every single time a service-member was killed, and I saw how deeply it affected her. She also worked hard to ensure that everything possible was done to prevent civilian casualties in Afghanistan. She’s married to a Navy veteran, and she won’t take the military for granted, but she won’t be intimidated by its hierarchies and traditions, either.
9. She’s got courage. Flournoy’s a loyal team player, and will do everything she can to advance the president’s agenda. But along the way, she will quietly but consistently speak her mind. I’ve seen her politely but firmly challenge the views of the president’s closest staff. She didn’t always win, but she always stood up for what she believed — and her thoughtfulness and integrity often won over skeptics.
10. She’s not lobbying for the job. Flournoy’s got plenty of great alternatives: She can walk into any think tank job, any defense industry job and most academic jobs. She’s already an enormous success, and odds are she’ll be defense secretary eventually. But right now, she has three kids at home and she knows just how tough it is to balance family life with an all-consuming job. If President Barack Obama wants her as secretary of defense, he may have to work to convince her to take the job this time around. That’s a good thing.
Want someone who will be a great secretary of defense? Find someone who’s not sure she really wants the job.
Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a fellow at the New America Foundation. She served as a counselor to the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2011. This column was provided by Foreign Policy.