The so-called “progressive” wing of the Democratic party has begun to flex its muscles even before President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office on January 20. The progressives clearly are infuriated that Biden has ruled out Cabinet positions for two of their own, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. So, they are lashing out at two leading candidates for as-yet-unannounced, but critically important, national security positions: Michele Flournoy for Secretary of Defense and Michael Morell to head the CIA.
No one questions Flournoy’s credentials to lead the Department of Defense. Indeed, when she reportedly declined to take the job after Leon Panetta’s departure, a leading Republican senator told me that had she been nominated, she would have been confirmed with unanimous consent. UC, as it is called, was already a rarity in that highly partisan time and is a virtual impossibility today.
Flournoy’s critics on the far-Left object that she sits on the board of a defense contractor and that her firm advises others in the defense industry. They overlook the fact that it is her very expertise and analytical insights that make her so attractive to her clients. Given the chaos that the Department has endured over the past few months, and will likely suffer until January 20, there would be no better person to provide steady, calming leadership than Flournoy. Indeed, her expertise is matched by a personality that is widely admired throughout the national security community. Put simply, people like her. She is a team player and a good listener, yet she can be tough as nails when she needs to be.
There are, of course, other worthy candidates for the defense job. But they should be chosen on their merits, not because an angry Democratic Left, having nursed its wounds as a moderate won the nomination and now the presidency, is thirsting for power even before the new Administration takes office.
Morell’s situation is somewhat analogous to Flournoy’s. Ron Wyden (D-Or), in particular, has objected to Morell’s record while he was CIA deputy director and acting director during the Obama Administration. Wyden argues that Morell covered up reports that Agency officials tortured terrorist suspects. Wyden has called him a “torture apologist.” Wyden does not rank as high in the progressive standings as Warren or Sanders. But he ranks high enough, with a 95 percent rating from the progressive Americans for Democratic Action. Getting Morell’s scalp would certainly be another victory or progressives.
Morell, like Flournoy, is an accomplished professional. Like Flournoy, he has earned the respect of his colleagues in the intelligence community. Like Flournoy, he would reinforce the stability Biden himself will bring to the government after the disastrous Trump years. And like Flournoy, he is an exceedingly decent, well-liked human being. Whatever the allegations of what he might or might not have done during the Obama years, it is important to understand the context in which he was operating; given the necessarily secretive nature of his professional environment, that context is unlikely to be fully revealed, or for that matter, understood. As with the choice of a Secretary of Defense, there are of course, other potentially capable men and women who could lead the CIA. Nevertheless, he too should not be passed over simply to assuage progressive democrats.
All of the foregoing may have been overtaken by events by the time these observations appear. Nevertheless, regardless of who is named to lead the Defense Department and the CIA, both Flournoy and Morell deserve better treatment from all sectors of the Democratic Party than they have thus far received. There will be time enough for progressives to make their case to, and apply pressure on, the new Administration. They should not undermine Biden’s ability to choose the individuals he feels could best assist him over the coming years.
Dov S. Zakheim served as the undersecretary of defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001—2004 and as the deputy undersecretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985—1987. He also served as the DoD’s civilian coordinator for Afghan reconstruction from 2002—2004. He is vice chairman of the Center for the National Interest.