Then U.S. Under Secretary of Defence Michelle Flournoy looks on during a meeting at the Bayi Building in Beijing on Dec. 7, 2011.
Photo by Andy Wong/AFP/Getty

Why the vacancy at the Pentagon matters

By all appearances, Michèle Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense, was the frontrunner to succeed Chuck Hagel at the Pentagon. She was a finalist for the post last year; some Republican senators had already suggested she’d be an acceptable nominee; and far-right websites were already complaining about her. It seemed as if the job was hers if she wanted it.
 
But as it turns out, she didn’t want it.
 
Foreign Policy reported yesterday afternoon that Flournoy has withdrawn from consideration.
Flournoy, the co-founder and CEO of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank that has served as a farm league for future Obama administration officials, would have been the first female secretary of defense had she risen to the position.
 
But in a letter Tuesday to members of the CNAS board of directors, Flournoy said she would remain in her post at the think tank and asked Obama to take her out of consideration to be the next secretary of defense. Flournoy told the board members that family considerations helped drive her decision.
The reporting was later confirmed by other major news organizations, including msnbc.
 
Attention now shifts to other possible contenders, but before we get to that, it’s worth pausing to appreciate why the Pentagon post may not be an in-demand job right now.
 
Don’t get me wrong, serving as the Secretary of Defense is incredibly important, especially during a war, but it’s the broader circumstances that make this a difficult time for almost anyone to take the job.
 
Look at this from Flournoy’s perspective:
 
The U.S. military is facing extremely difficult challenges in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, all at the same time. President Obama, regardless of his ambitions, is in the final quarter of his tenure, leading to the realization that whoever gets this job will have to step down at the end of next year anyway. Republicans, meanwhile, have taken over Congress, and the next Defense Secretary, if confirmed, will have to suffer through a series of regular hearings in which John McCain upbraids him or her for hours on end.
 
“Where do I sign up?” is not a phrase that immediately comes to mind.
 
Nevertheless, the scuttlebutt continues as to who may succeed Hagel, with Ashton Carter, a former deputy defense secretary, generating quite a bit of attention. There’s also renewed interest in Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, a former Pentagon chief counsel, though his confirmation process would probably be quite hostile – he helped shape President Obama’s new immigration policy, about which Republicans are apoplectic.
 
As for the larger context, Rachel noted on the show last night that the consideration of a new Pentagon chief should, at least in theory, be part of a conversation about the merits of U.S. military intervention abroad, and the efficacy of our ongoing efforts in the Middle East.
 
Whether or not that conversation takes place remains to be seen.
 
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Why the vacancy at the Pentagon matters