How Michèle Flournoy's Pentagon dreams collapsed: Progressives fought back

Hawks mad: Two weeks ago, "Defense Secretary Flournoy" looked like a done deal. Then the left pushed back hard

By Norman Solomon
December 8, 2020 7:58PM (UTC)
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Michèle Flournoy and Lloyd Austin (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Just a few weeks ago, super-hawk Michèle Flournoy was being touted as a virtual shoo-in to become Joe Biden's nominee for secretary of defense. But some progressives insisted on organizing to raise key questions, such as: Should we accept the revolving door that keeps spinning between the Pentagon and the weapons industry? Does an aggressive U.S. military really enhance "national security" and lead to peace? 

By challenging Flournoy while posing those questions — and answering them in the negative — activism succeeded in changing "Defense Secretary Flournoy" from a fait accompli to a lost fantasy of the military-industrial complex. 

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She is "a favorite among many in the Democratic foreign-policy establishment," Foreign Policy magazine reported on Monday night, hours after news broke that Biden's nomination will go to retired Gen. Lloyd Austin instead of Flournoy. But "in recent weeks the Biden transition team has faced pushback from the left wing of the party. Progressive groups signaled opposition to Flournoy over her role in U.S. military interventions in Libya and the Middle East in prior government positions, as well as her ties to the defense industry once she left government." 

Of course Gen. Austin is a high-ranking part of the war machine. Yet, as Foreign Policy noted: "When Biden pushed to draw down troops from Iraq while vice president, Flournoy, then Pentagon policy chief, and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen opposed the idea. Austin did not." 

Video of Sen. John McCain grilling Austin several years ago shows the general willing to stand firm against the zeal to escalate killing in Syria, a clear contrast to positions that Flournoy had staked out.

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Flournoy has a long record of arguing for military intervention and escalation, from Syria and Libya to Afghanistan and beyond. She has opposed a ban on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. In recent years, her advocacy has included pushing military envelopes in potentially explosive hotspots like the South China Sea. Flournoy is vehemently in favor of long-term U.S. military encroachment on China. 

Historian Andrew Bacevich, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy and former Army colonel, warns that "Flournoy's proposed military buildup will prove unaffordable, unless, of course, federal deficits in the multitrillion-dollar range become routine. But the real problem lies not with the fact that Flournoy's buildup will cost a lot, but that it is strategically defective." Bacevich adds: "Strip away the references to deterrence and Flournoy is proposing that the United States goad the People's Republic into a protracted high-tech arms race."

With a record like that, you might think that Flournoy would have received little support from the leaders of organizations like the Ploughshares Fund, the Arms Control Association, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and the Council for a Livable World. But as I wrote more than a week ago, movers and shakers at those well-heeled groups eagerly praised Flournoy to the skies — publicly urging Biden to give her the Defense Department helm.

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Many said they knew Flournoy well and liked her. Some lauded her interest in restarting nuclear-arms negotiations with Russia (a standard foreign-policy position). Many praised her work in high-ranking Pentagon posts under Presidents Clinton and Obama. Privately, some could be heard saying how great it would be to have "access" to the person running the Pentagon.

More traditional allies of militaristic policymakers chimed in, often vilifying the left as it became clear in late November that progressive pushback was slowing Flournoy's momentum for the Defense Department's top job. Notorious war enthusiast Max Boot was a case in point. 

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Boot was evidently provoked by a Washington Post news story that appeared on Nov. 30 under the headline "Liberal Groups Urge Biden Not to Name Flournoy as Secretary of Defense." The article quoted from a statement issued that day by five progressive organizations — RootsAction.org (where I'm national director), CodePink, Our Revolution, Progressive Democrats of America and World Beyond War. We conveyed that a Flournoy nomination would lead to a fierce grassroots battle over Senate confirmation. (The newspaper quoted me saying: "RootsAction.org has a 1.2 million active list of supporters in the U.S., and we're geared up for an all-out push for a 'no' vote, if it comes to that.") 

Reporting on the joint statement, Common Dreams aptly summarized it in a headline: "Rejecting Michèle Flournoy, Progressives Demand Biden Pick Pentagon Chief 'Untethered' From Military-Industrial Complex." 

Such talk and such organizing are anathema to the likes of Boot, who fired back with a Washington Post column within hours. While advocating for Flournoy, he invoked an "old Roman adage," Si vis pacem, para bellum — "If you want peace, prepare for war." He neglected to mention that Latin is a dead language and the Roman Empire collapsed.

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War preparations that increase the likelihood of war may excite laptop warriors. But the militarism they promote is madness nonetheless.


Norman Solomon

Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction.org and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death” and "Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America's Warfare State."

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