Grading candidates for Biden’s foreign policy team: Michèle Flournoy

By Robert Wright and Connor Echols, Nov 30 2020

Background: Flournoy, a candidate for secretary of defense, was an undersecretary of defense in the Obama administration, where she played a big role in designing the Afghanistan “surge.” She is perhaps best known for co-founding and then running the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that is considered liberal-hawkish and gets an unusual amount of funding from defense contractors. Her involvement with the military-industrial complex also includes co-founding (with Secretary-of-State-designate Tony Blinken) the consulting firm WestExec Advisors and working for (along with Blinken) the investment fund Pine Island Partners—endeavors that have lately drawn critical scrutiny

For our grading criteria, click here.

Military restraint (D-)

Flournoy is generally considered a hawk and in 2012 was endorsed for secretary of defense by several leading neoconservatives who were trying to derail Chuck Hagel’s bid for that post. She embraced Bush’s doctrine of pre-emptive war in 2002 (though she walked this back in 2007, after the Iraq War had proven disastrous). In 2016, she co-authored a CNAS report that called for sending weapons to Ukraine, expanding America’s military activities in Syria and increasing its military deterrence efforts against Iran. 

Flournoy’s hawkish proposals are sometimes coupled with appeals for Pentagon spending of a kind that inevitably would help some of the many defense contractors that have subsidized her activities over the years. A CNAS report she co-authored this year warned that the current Pentagon budget “may well be insufficient to deter or defeat Chinese aggression in the future” and that “it is difficult to overstate the catastrophic consequences” of such a failure.  So the US military “must take a series of much bigger and bolder steps to keep its military-technological edge over great power competitors such as China.” 

For example, she wrote in Foreign Affairs this year, “if the U.S. military had 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, Chinese leaders might think twice before, say, launching a blockade or invasion of Taiwan.”   

Flournoy did recently nod to a piece by her protégé Kathleen Hicks on ways to reduce a defense budget that had ballooned under Trump. However, the proposed cuts, while non-trivial, wouldn’t bring spending down even to 2018 levels. Flournoy has also been critical of Trump’s pricey nuclear modernization efforts—though, at the same time, she advocates “big bets” on such futuristic and pricey technologies as “a command-and-control system that is powered by artificial intelligence.” 

At a 2019 meeting of the liberal group Foreign Policy for America, which Flournoy co-chaired, she was in the minority that opposed a comprehensive ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia so long as it sustained its military intervention in Yemen. She later told Jonathan Guyer of the American Prospect that she had wanted to preserve the option of providing “defensive” weapons systems.

Cognitive empathy (C-)

One reason understanding the perspectives of others—cognitive empathy—is important is that misunderstanding them can be dangerous. A classic case is assuming that an adversary’s assertive behaviors are offensive in nature when the adversary may consider them defensive. That 2016 CNAS report co-authored by Flournoy asserted as fact that Iran is pursuing a “determined effort to dominate the Middle East” without acknowledging even in passing that Iran’s activities in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon could be motivated by the perception of a threat from Israel and/or the US—a perception that, as a number of analysts have noted, would make sense given Iran’s circumstances and history. 

Casually assuming offensive intent on the part of an adversary can encourage an American response that counterproductively exacerbates the adversary’s sense of threat. Indeed, Flournoy illustrates that consequence; in the same report she advocated strengthening America’s military stance toward Iran and providing Israel with “defense and intelligence capabilities to ensure Israel’s qualitative edge in conventional arms.” 

In striking contrast to her views on Iran (and unlike some in the foreign policy establishment), Flournoy recognizes the core interests of North Korea and advocates an approach that takes the Kim regime’s attachment to a nuclear deterrent into account. She recently implied that it may not be possible to get North Korea to fully denuclearize, arguing that it’s “hard to see this leader and this regime completely accepting nuclear disarmament... because it is their survival card.” She sees dealing with Pyongyang as a question of risk management, with a big role played by US military deterrence.  

Respect for international law (D)

Flournoy’s support for various US military adventures suggests that she has little regard for a bedrock principle of international law: the sovereignty of other nations. To take just one example: America’s proxy intervention in Syria happened against the wishes of the Syrian government (and wasn’t authorized by the UN Security Council, which under international law would have trumped sovereignty). Flournoy not only supported this intervention but recommended backing it with air power. Meanwhile, she believes that Iran’s “advances” in Syria “should be regarded as a threat to stability that it is in the U.S. interest to counter and deter”—even though Iran’s involvement in Syria has the approval of the Syrian government and so complies with international law.  

When Flournoy’s views do align with international law, that seems to be a kind of coincidence. She opposes Israeli annexation of the West Bank but, in explaining why, doesn’t note that annexation would violate the UN Charter (much less that Israel’s settlements violate the fourth Geneva Convention). Instead, she worries that annexation would undermine bipartisan support for Israel and so endanger American military aid. “I would hate to see some in Congress decide they are going to hold hostage our security assistance to Israel as a way of protesting their policies in the West Bank,” she said during an Israel Policy Forum panel discussion this summer.

Support for international governance (C+)

Flournoy has had a keen interest in arms control since the start of her career. “Nuclear weapons were like the climate change of my day: if we don’t solve this, we won’t be around to solve anything else,” she said in an interview with Foreign Affairs. Though she shifted her focus to broader military strategy after entering government during Clinton’s first term, she has continued to advocate for agreements that limit the nuclear risk. And she has opposed abandoning nuclear agreements with Russia even when Moscow is marginally in violation of them. 

But Flournoy may not fully appreciate how technological advance creates a need for new arms control efforts. Her opposition to attempts by progressive groups to eliminate President Trump’s Space Force seems not to have been accompanied by any call for the international regulation of weapons in space.  

Flournoy does recognize that other international non-zero-sum problems—climate change and other environmental challenges, contagious disease—call for cooperative solutions. The question is whether the assertive military policies she favors would impede those solutions—either by creating chaos, as policies she’s championed have done in the Middle East, or by so chilling relations with some countries that they find cooperation with America politically difficult or otherwise unpalatable. 

Universal engagement (C-)

Flournoy has a mixed record on supporting diplomatic and economic engagement. On the plus side, she acknowledges the importance of working with China on global issues like climate change (even if her recommended military posture toward China might complicate such cooperation). She also avoids the trap of demanding that North Korea denuclearize before negotiations with it can begin.  

On the other hand, she sets a high bar for engagement with Iran. The 2016 CNAS report she co-authored insisted that the 2015 nuclear deal (which was then still in place) would not “lead to a changed relationship with the government of Iran”—so Tehran should not expect “some kind of détente or broader opening to the United States” unless it first scaled back its own military posture. And the scaling back demanded by Flournoy would include Iran’s refraining from doing things that sovereign nations have a right to do under international law, such as stationing troops in allied countries with their permission or modernizing its conventional weapons.   

Flournoy seems to accept one common impediment to economic engagement—America’s prolific use of economic sanctions. This year—after Trump had withdrawn from a nuclear deal Iran was complying with, reimposed sanctions lifted as part of the deal, and imposed additional “maximum pressure” sanctions—Flournoy said, “I don’t think we should be lifting sanctions on the regime, given their continued bad behavior.” She did add that, with the world in the throes of a pandemic (whose impact US sanctions have manifestly exacerbated in Iran), we should consider humanitarian waivers. Unfortunately, such waivers have a history of providing little actual humanitarian relief. 


(1) Flournoy’s participation in the military-industrial complex goes beyond the examples cited above (her fundraising for CNAS, her co-founding of WestExec Advisors, her work for Pine Island Partners). After leaving the Obama Administration she joined Boston Consulting Group, where she helped increase defense contracts from $1.6 million to $32 million. And she’s on the board of the consulting firm Booz Allen.

(2) Flournoy deserves some credit for her plan to make the American military more “green” by investing in sustainable energy technologies and transitioning toward hybrid or electric vehicles. But she says these investments wouldn’t come out of the budgets of other parts of the Pentagon, implying that her plan to reduce the emissions of the “world’s single largest consumer of petroleum” would increase overall defense spending for a while to come. Also: wouldn’t narrowing our strategic goals and reducing the size of our military be a good (and cheap!) way to decrease our military’s carbon emissions? 

Overall grade: D+

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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