Biden’s likely secretary of defense Michèle Flournoy and Israel - Analysis

In a 2018 interview with the Post, Flournoy slammed Trump for abandoning Syria to Bashar Assad’s regime and Iran.

FORMER DEFENSE undersecretary for policy Michèle Flournoy, CEO of the Center for a New American Security. (photo credit: YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)
FORMER DEFENSE undersecretary for policy Michèle Flournoy, CEO of the Center for a New American Security.
(photo credit: YURI GRIPAS/REUTERS)
Of all of the cabinet posts US President-elect Joe Biden will soon fill, the chair that most clearly has a single name on it is Michèle Flournoy for secretary of defense.
So respected is Flournoy that she not only was presumed to be Hillary Clinton’s secretary of defense in waiting in 2016, she also was offered the No. 2 position by US President Donald Trump’s first secretary of defense, Jim Mattis.
She declined the offer, but now she will likely assume the top post at the Pentagon, making her the first woman in that position.
Flournoy, who rose to No. 3 at the Pentagon in US president Barack Obama’s administration, gave an extensive interview to The Jerusalem Post in 2018, displaying a combination of professorial-level nuance with headline-making abilities.
Piecing together her recent public statements along with that interview and her views as one of the major influencers of a Biden administration are far clearer than Biden himself.
One place where she may please Israel is regarding Syria.
In the interview with the Post, she slammed Trump for abandoning Syria to Bashar Assad’s regime and Iran.
The Trump administration had strong language against Iran, she said, “but haven’t really engaged on the ground in Syria in terms of showing up at negotiations as a major player or changing any of their activities on the ground to counter Iranian influence or to counter Shi’ite militias.”
Echoing Israeli concerns at the time, Flournoy asked, “Who is looking out for Israeli interests in negotiations about a resolution in Syria? Someone needs to think about what will be on Israel’s borders in the end... Shi’ite militias with [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] connections? Another Hezbollah? This would be unacceptable. So what will it look like?”
She also said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent shuttle diplomacy to Moscow exposes how Russia, not the US, is “driving negotiations.”
“The US needs to show up and become a force to be reckoned with at negotiations, because we are a global power and Israel’s core ally, and we have a stake in how this comes out and should be applying pressure both to Russia and Iran in how things are settled,” she said.
The former Pentagon official did not keep her comments limited to more active diplomacy. Rather, she said, “more diplomacy, yes,” but also “maybe there is some limited use of force to back up our concerns regarding the situation there with Israel and about what it really defines as unacceptable on its border.”
ISRAEL WILL be less excited about her views on the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which she will likely support rejoining.
However, among Biden’s future advisers, she will be one of the leaders of the camp demanding real concessions from Iran and trying to plug some of the deal’s holes.
She previously told the Post that after all of the criticism of the deal, it “did succeed in putting time on the clock [in terms of] pushing back against Iran’s nuclear program, in terms of taking more time from today [for Iran] to get to an actual nuclear weapon.
“The only thing that would be worse than a malign Iran across the region would be a nuclear-armed malign Iran across the region. For the decade of the deal, that is not going to happen,” she emphasized.
But she showed recognition of the deal’s holes, asking rhetorically, “How do we go beyond the constraints of the deal, so its constraints do not expire after 15 years and also extend into other areas of concern like ballistic missiles?”
The implication was that Flournoy was dead serious about making sure there will be no nuclear Iran at any point, deal or no deal.
She was also critical of the Trump administration when it did not respond militarily to Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil fields in September 2019.
The US could have at least hit Iran with powerful cyberattacks or struck Iranian assets outside of the mainland to send a deterrent message, Flournoy said.
Interestingly, she was not hugely supportive of the US assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani in January, emphasizing the risks of the Iranian response.
In contrast, most defense officials with hindsight believe killing Soleimani deterred Iran exactly as Flournoy had previously recommended with some lower-key military responses.
Flournoy correctly predicted that Trump would abandon the deal entirely at a time when many thought he might only leave aspects of the deal.
Further, she correctly predicted that leaving the deal unilaterally would lead to a loss of diplomatic support from the EU, Russia and China.
She probably did not foresee how cash-strapped the Trump “maximum pressure” campaign would leave Hezbollah and some of Iran’s other proxies.
Flournoy’s main policy focus will be competition with China.
In a July op-ed for NBC News, Flournoy said: “To prevent conflict, the United States must maintain the military capability to deter China by demonstrating the ability to deny the success of... aggression or impose costs so high that Beijing steps back from the brink.”
“Maintaining and ultimately extending its military-technological edge over great-power competitors like China must become the Pentagon’s highest investment priority – or it could lose that edge within the decade,” she wrote.
In another interview framing what technological capabilities the US might need to develop to deter China, she asked, “What capabilities would US forces need to credibly threaten to sink 300 military vessels, submarines and merchant ships within 72 hours?”
Regarding North Korea, Flournoy is a moderate, supporting managing a nuclear North Korea as opposed to trying to get it to give up its nuclear weapons.
She likely will have less of a direct role in addressing Israeli-Palestinian issues. But she could have a major role in decisions about what weapons can be sold to moderate Arab countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, to help encourage normalization with Israel.
Another possibility for secretary of defense is Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran who was on Biden’s shortlist for vice president. Jack Reed, a West Point graduate and top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, has also been discussed. But both of these candidates are not expected to be able to compete with Flournoy.