Progressives divided over Biden’s expected pick for Pentagon chief

Michele Flournoy's stated openness to curtailing offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates may have reduced opposition from progressive Democrats

al-monitor President-elect Joe Biden (C) introduces key foreign policy and national security nominees and appointments at the Queen Theater, Wilmington, Delaware, Nov. 24, 2020. Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images.

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us foreign policy, defense industry, defense secretary, national security, yemeni civil war, transition, joe biden

Nov 25, 2020

President-elect Joe Biden’s long-expected pick for defense secretary, Michele Flournoy, was markedly absent from a list of announced national security appointees Monday and did not partake in a press conference put on by the transition team on Tuesday.

Two former senior officials in contact with the Biden transition team confirmed to Al-Monitor that the pick is still under consideration. So far, reasons for the apparent delay are not entirely clear, though reports circulated that pressure from the Democratic Party’s left flank may have played a role.

Flournoy, who was previously undersecretary of defense for policy during the Obama administration and who has sat on the board of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton, has drawn open disapproval in recent weeks from some progressive organizations and members of Congress who see her as too close to the defense industry and too hawkish on US military actions in the Middle East.

Like Antony Blinken, who was announced this week as Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Flournoy supported the Obama administration’s participation in the NATO intervention against Libya’s government in 2011. The move, which Biden has said he opposed, is widely seen as responsible for fragmenting the country’s decadelong civil war. She also advocated a firmer stance on Syria than the Obama administration ultimately chose.

“There’s a concern that as defense secretary, she could play a consistent role in pulling the administration towards a more aggressive approach than Biden would otherwise be inclined to support,” said Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, a progressive group that is now preparing a petition letter to the Biden team to demand Flournoy answer questions about past policies.

Along with Blinken, Flournoy co-founded WestExec Advisors, a consulting firm that has reportedly advised at least one top defense company.

Reps. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) urged Biden in a letter earlier this month to choose a defense secretary without past connections to defense contractors. The transition team released guidelines for vetting transition personnel on Tuesday, but the proscriptions fell short of that mark.

While some see Flournoy’s record as an opportunity for left-leaning Democrats in Congress to test their leverage on the incoming Biden administration, opposition from Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and others remains notably absent. (Sanders is said to remain behind a push he led with Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) to cut defense spending by 10%, a position the Biden team has not committed to.)

Members of some progressive organizations are holding out hope that the latest bipartisan legislation aimed at ending US involvement in the war in Yemen, introduced in the House last week, could be signed into law by the incoming Democratic president.

And Flournoy has been receptive to activists’ objections to US arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, amid the latter countries’ devastating intervention in Yemen’s civil war.

During a conference call to engage progressive groups in October, Flournoy expressed support for the Biden campaign’s stated position of ending Washington's support for its Gulf partners' role Yemen’s civil war, according to two people familiar with the call, which was first reported by Politico.

For this reason and others, some progressive lawmakers and activists, including members of Washington-based Win Without War, appear to be holding out for bigger fights with the Biden team.

“I think people on the left have concerns about Michele Flournoy,” including whether she would recuse herself from working with prior WestExec clients, said one advocate with a progressive group that has chosen not to oppose Flournoy’s potential role as defense secretary. “That’s very different from saying that this is firmly unqualifying behavior.”

“Let’s be honest, it’s not like progressives are trying to move Flournoy out to have Jeh Johnson, board member of Lockheed Martin, in that job instead,” a Democratic Congressional aide familiar with the discussions told Al-Monitor.

One former senior US official in communication with the transition team said that more mundane factors, like internal jockeying for appointments, may have also contributed to the delay in naming Flournoy.

One concern that has arisen is the possibility that Biden could appoint both Flournoy and her husband, W. Scott Gould, to the same Cabinet. Gould has been considered for secretary of veterans affairs, the former official said.

Reached by Al-Monitor via email for comment, a Biden transition official played down the delay, noting that the team has “so far outpaced the last two administrations in terms of announcing key Cabinet officials.”

Tuesday’s announcement was “a signal that America is back and our diplomacy revitalized, and that’s why you saw the Secretary of State, U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Climate Envoy, and National Security Advisor, among others, announced,” the official wrote.

“Of course, it’s not the full national security and foreign policy team, and several additional pivotal appointees and nominees will be named going forward."

Among those yet to be announced is Biden’s pick for CIA director. Former CIA deputy director Mike Morell and Obama-era national security advisor Tom Donilon are two of the latest names to be discussed, according to a second former official in touch with the transition team.

On Tuesday Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) of the Senate intelligence committee spoke out strongly against Morell’s potential appointment, making more controversial rumored candidates, like Mike Vickers – who played a lead role the CIA's arming of the Afghan mujahideen – less likely.

Morell, a former CIA deputy director, has defended the Bush administration's use of torture and drone strikes.

“Progressives want a good working relationship with the Biden administration, but there are certain appointees that are really going to make it an unpleasant relationship,” the Congressional aide told Al-Monitor. 

“And they’re going to let them know which ones those are," the aide said. "Morell is a non-starter."

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