Madame Secretary: Michele Flournoy deserves a promotion at the Pentagon

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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 and seeing her in action convinced me of it.

Am I biased? Yes. 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 Michele Flournoy with any job in the nation. 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.

Here are 10 reasons Michele Flournoy would 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 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 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. Michele Flournoy is that good.

3. Ms. Flournoy is 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. 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 undersecretary 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 listens carefully and 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's worked at the Pentagon during two administrations and gone from a relatively junior position to being the department's No. 3 civilian official. She knows the people and the culture. 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 vast and 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. That's part of the reason political appointees with little time inside the department often fail to get much done.

Ms. Flournoy also understands the political pressures that motivate White House officials. The civilian-military gap is often at its widest in Washington, and Ms. 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 to help the department through an election year and a tough budget season, Ms. 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 in recent decades and how 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, generally in that order. Ms. Flournoy's the rare exception: She's dedicated to advancing the president's agenda, but she also cares about the people she works with, and she invests time and energy into making sure her subordinates can have rewarding careers.

As undersecretary 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 procedures.

8. She cares about the humans who fight and die in wars. Michele 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. Ms. Flournoy's a loyal team player 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. Ms. Flournoy 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 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 convince her to take the job this time around.

That's a good thing: The desperate make lousy public officials. Want someone who will be a great secretary of defense? Find someone who's not sure she really wants the job.


Rosa Brooks, a law professor at Georgetown University, served as a counselor to the U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009 to 2011. She wrote this for Foreign Policy.


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