Biden’s Defense Secretary

My latest for Defense One.


My latest for Defense One, “Biden Has Many Good Choices at SecDef,” expands on my thinking on the controversy brewing over Michèle Flournoy possibly not getting the nod.

The combination of the weakness of the progressive critiques and the outpouring of support from people I trust and admire has persuaded me that Flournoy would indeed make an outstanding choice.

Still, she is not the only qualified choice. Were Biden to choose someone else, it would not be an egregious outcome. Contrary to suggestions that a man with her credentials would be a shoo-in, of the thirteen people who have held the post of Undersecretary of Defense for Policy (eleven of them white men), none have thus far been elevated to SecDef. Indeed, with the exception of Paul Wolfowitz, who went on to become Deputy Secretary and later President of the World Bank, it proved to be the highest post any would hold. 

I didn’t realize that myself until I dug into it. But, like the State Department analog it was modeled after, the prestigious number three job isn’t a pathway to the top even though some legendary figures have held it.

By contrast,

[Former DHS Secretary Jeh] Johnson does not have Flournoy’s defense policy credentials, but his profile is actually more typical of past SecDef picks. He has already led a major cabinet department, and one with an armed service (the Coast Guard) to boot. And as General Counsel of the Air Force under Bill Clinton and General Counsel of the Defense Department under Barack Obama, he has actually served longer in Senate-confirmed Pentagon posts than Flournoy.


Finally, while I have not seen his name floated and find it hard to believe that Biden will choose a white man after letting the debate coalesce around two women and two Black men, let’s not forget Bob Work, who served as the Deputy Secretary in the last three years of the Obama administration and spent the four years before that as Davidson’s predecessor as Under Secretary of the Navy. Unlike the Policy post, Deputy has long been a feeder to the top job: Robert Lovett, Thomas Gates Jr., Frank Carlucci, William Perry, and Ash Carter all made that transition (and Cyrus Vance went on to be Secretary of State and John Deutsch to be Director of Central Intelligence). Again, I would be shocked if he got the nod. But he certainly has to be on any “best qualified” list.

I also rehash my preference that General Lloyd Austin not get the job and offer a lukewarm assessment of Senator Tammy Duckworth, both rumored to be top candidates and note that all of them would be important “firsts” in the same way that Flournoy would.

My close,

Given the encomia of so many national security professionals I respect, I’m rooting for Flournoy. Not only is she superbly qualified but her ability to inspire such loyalty not only bodes well for the command climate of the Department but also to the character and talent of the team she would bring in with her. But the incoming President has every right to pick his team. If he’s more simpatico with Johnson or Duckworth, we should respect that choice.

More at the link.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Scott says:

    I’m with you in that another retired general is not the answer, no matter how qualified. Given the numbers of qualified individuals, this shouldn’t be a hard nomination.

    The only objections seems to be coming from those who don’t like beltway insiders, consultants, think tankers, deep staters, etc., who know things and know what they’re doing.

    That would be refreshing.

  2. Andy says:

    To be fair, progressive opposition to Flournoy isn’t merely or even mostly about her corporate connections, but about her policy views.

  3. Michael Reynolds says:

    I’m not sure why we’re listening to the progressives. You’ll note that the membership of ‘the squad’ was not increased during this election. In fact they are almost certainly a contributing factor to the loss of Florida. I think they’re the future of the Democratic Party but this is now, not the future, and right now they’re as weak as newborn kittens. Joe Manchin all by himself has ten times the practical power of all the progressives combined.

  4. EddieInCA says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Michael Reynolds says:
    Monday, November 30, 2020 at 12:27

    I’m not sure why we’re listening to the progressives.

    Fortunately, Biden doesn’t seem to be listening to them.

  5. Andy says:

    It’s not for me to say who Biden should listen to. My focus is that I would like to see a closer examination of the policy views and preferences of potential nominees because that’s what really matters given that everyone on the short-list is capable of leading and managing the department. Unfortunately, discussion of policy has largely been absent.

  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Michael Reynolds: In fact they are almost certainly a contributing factor to the loss of Florida.

    Bullshit. The Florida DEM party is a critical mass of stupidity (or so Florida folks tell me) and has far more to do with the SNAFU down there than any liberal REP in Minnesota.

  7. Scott F. says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    I think they’re the future of the Democratic Party but this is now, not the future, and right now they’re as weak as newborn kittens.

    The thing is: if you don’t care for the weak kittens, then they aren’t around when you need the cat.

    Sure, the progressives haven’t delivered the reliable voting bloc that allows them to call the shots, but if you don’t integrate them directly into active roles and don’t allow them to influence (if not define) policy, then they won’t be ready to run things whenever that future of the Democratic Party should occur.

    Also too, the Democratic Progressive Caucus is a whole lot more people than The Squad.

    Finally, I understand that Manchin has practical power, but even as a pragmatic liberal, I’ll be profoundly disappointed if the Biden administration listens to him more and he ends up shaping policy more the Progressive Caucus. If the progressives are the not yet future, then DINOs like Manchin are the already past.

  8. Michael Reynolds says:

    More than one thing can be true. Yes, the Florida Democrats are pitiful. Yes, the socialist message cost us votes in Miami-Dade.

    @Scott F.:
    I’m very much in favor of including the progressives. The question is whether they will behave, or whether they’ll insist on playing the scolds. They deserve a cabinet post or two, they don’t deserve a veto.

  9. EddieInCA says:

    What people like Bernie and AOC don’t get is how toxic the “socialist” label is to those of us who are from Latin American countries who were led by “socialist” policies, most often by dictators. Many young white people hear “socialism” and they think Sweden (wrong), Denmark (wrong), Norway ( wrong). Young and old Latinos from South America and the Caribbean hear “socialist”, and they think Cuba (Castro), Dominican Republic (Trujillo), Venezuela (Hugo Chavez).

    That framing will cost you votes from all non-Mexican Latinos.

    Hell yes, that messaging cost the Dems South Florida. Biden under performed Clinton across the state, but mostly in South Florida.

    The country hasn’t gotten to where the progressive caucus is currently. They’ll get there eventually, but not in the near future.

  10. DrDaveT says:


    The country hasn’t gotten to where the progressive caucus is currently. They’ll get there eventually, but not in the near future.

    I think you’re right about the labels, and wrong about the substance. The country is already progressive in what it wants; it just desperately doesn’t want to call what it wants “socialism”. And what it wants is nothing like Cuba, or Venezuela, or the DR. Which is fine, because what the most progressive Democratic representatives want is nothing like those things either.

    The Dems need a way to get people to understand that nothing they are proposing is any more “socialist” than public schools or roads you can drive on without paying anything to anyone.

  11. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Scott F.:
    BTW, Rick Wilson agrees with a concern I’ve had for some time: Manchin may switch parties. McConnell would offer him his choice of committees and perks. It’s not a question of choosing or not choosing to listen to Manchin, he has power. You can’t ignore power.