Perfect Fit

Will Michele Flournoy Become the First Female Defense Secretary?

As speculation swirls about Defense Secretary Panetta’s likely exit, Michele Flournoy ranks high on the short list. Eleanor Clift on the woman who could be just right for the job.

It was just a year ago that Michele Flournoy stepped down as under secretary of Defense for policy, the third-highest civilian job at the Pentagon. As the first woman to hold such a senior position in the testosterone-laden military community, Flournoy’s decision to leave for family reasons raised some eyebrows. But she spent the time well, reclaiming her home life after three demanding years in the administration, and serving as a surrogate on foreign policy and national security issues for the Obama campaign. Now, as the president contemplates his second-term team, Flournoy is on the short list to succeed Leon Panetta as secretary of Defense.

Her qualifications are impeccable. There are the requisite degrees from Harvard and Oxford, a stint at the Kennedy School and the Army War College. During the Clinton administration she worked at the Pentagon, tasked with developing and overseeing strategy and threat reduction. In 2007, she cofounded the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank whose stated mission is to “develop strong, pragmatic, and principled national security and defense policies that promote and protect American interests and values.”

Flournoy’s cofounder at CNAS and close personal friend, Kurt Campbell, says, “She is a very serious person, incredibly buttoned down, very careful in all that she does, not at all headstrong.” He’s known her since they were students together at Oxford, and he’s watched her develop what he calls “a comfort level with the military” that combined with her intellect and leadership skills have made her “a mainstay in the Democratic Party in terms of how to think strategically about complex issues.”

Campbell points out that twice in a row, Democratic presidents (Clinton and Obama) turned to Republicans to run the Defense Department (Bill Cohen and Bob Gates). This pattern took shape in part due to a desire to win over Republican support; it “also reflected some anxiety about the strength of our own bench,” he says.

That concern may be a thing of the past. Former State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley says Flournoy is “steeped in the challenges that we confront.” She served first under Defense Secretary Gates, and then under Panetta, “and has spent a great deal of time thinking how to deploy our military instruments economically and effectively.” With the war in Afghanistan winding down, and Obama shifting attention to Asia, the next Defense secretary will face existential questions about the future direction of defense resources. “She’s extremely well positioned to help the department answer those questions,” says Crowley (who is a contributor to The Daily Beast). “She’s absolutely a big-picture person.”

Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, echoes Crowley in praising Flournoy’s knowledge and grasp of the issues, especially on Obama’s Asia rebalancing. “We’re going to need people on the next Obama team who have thought long and hard on China, and she can do that.”

Flournoy’s gender comes up only as an interesting side note. O’Hanlon notes that the Big Three Cabinet Departments—Defense, State and Treasury—each has a strong female contender for the position: Susan Rice at State, Flournoy at Defense, and Lael Brainard, under secretary for international affairs at Treasury, who is a dark horse to succeed Timothy Geithner. “He probably wouldn’t name all three,” O’Hanlon muses, adding that it seems unlikely that Obama would say no to all three—especially when the president wants a second-term cabinet with enough estrogen to rival his first term.

With Rice on Capitol Hill trying to defuse opposition to her possible nomination, and the media captivated by Flournoy as perhaps the first woman secretary of defense, what does that bode for the stalwart Senator John Kerry? Once a favorite to replace Clinton at State, he is a contender for Defense Secretary as a capstone to his long legislative career. His past as a Vietnam War combat veteran and then protester is just the kind of compelling symbolism that Obama likes, and that lingers in the history books.

If Flournoy doesn’t get the nod this time, she is young enough at 51 to wait in the wings. “At some point going forward, a woman will be asked to head the department and when you ask who will be that historic figure, Michele is definitely part of the equation,” says Crowley.

When Flournoy left the Pentagon early this year, she told the Associated Press that she needed to “rebalance” her life as a wife and mother of three children who at the time were 9, 12 and 14. She called her job as undersecretary of Defense for policy “probably the highlight of my professional life,” but said that it is by nature an all-consuming job “and it does take a toll on the family.” She said she needed to “recalibrate a little bit and invest a little bit more in the family account for a while.” Flournoy’s husband, W. Scott Gould, deputy Secretary of Veterans Affairs, has a demanding job overseeing medical services for veterans in the aftermath of two wars.

Flournoy didn’t make a big deal out of it, but she dialed back enough this last year to clear her head and maybe a closet or two, but her children are still at an age where they need her time and attention. Campbell, who is now assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, and his wife, Lael Brainard, are godparents to Flournoy and Gould’s children, and vice-versa. The two couples understand the strains, the challenges, and the joys of raising a family while holding down dual careers. “It’s a real concern to her,” says Campbell, “but she believes deeply in public service and if the call comes she will serve.” Sometimes it’s hard and adjustments get made, but in the end, he says these three women—Flournoy, Brainard and Rice—are modern-day role models. “Young women look up to them and say, ‘I want to have a high-flying career, a happy family, and children.” And that holds true whether Flournoy gets the top job this time around, or at some point in the not-too-distant future.