President Obama’s short list of possible replacements for outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel includes Michele Flournoy as its front-runner, sources close to the administration said Monday, creating the possibility that the former undersecretary of defense for policy could become the first women to head the Pentagon.
Former senior Pentagon officials, including one who served under Mr. Obama, said Mrs. Flournoy tops a list that also includes current and former Hagel deputies Robert Work and Ashton Carter, as well as Rep. Adam Smith, Washington Democrat.
The name of Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat and a former officer with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, also briefly surfaced Monday before the senator’s staff quickly dismissed the speculation. One former official said the administration may also be considering retiring Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But one source who spoke anonymously with The Washington Times said officials close to Mr. Obama believe the 53-year-old Mrs. Flournoy will have the easiest time being confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate.
She has a close professional relationship with former Bush administration Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates but also previously worked closely with the Obama White House, serving at the Pentagon early in Mr. Obama’s first term.
“Michele is the best national security mind in Washington, D.C., today,” the source said. “She’s head and shoulders above everyone else.”
Perhaps more importantly, Mrs. Flournoy is said to have a positive working relationship with Obama aides Antony Blinken and Denis McDonough — two White House national security insiders that sources have said were deeply at odds with Mr. Hagel over the administration’s military strategy against the Islamic State movement in Iraq and Syria.
One source said Mr. Hagel regularly clashed with the White House over the decision not to target Syrian military forces in the current U.S.-led bombing campaign against the Islamic State and was regularly rebuffed by Mr. McDonough, Mr. Blinken and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on the issue.
More broadly, the source said, those three administration officials have advanced the “decision to pull America back and have us lead from the side, or from behind while pushing other nations forward, and it’s an approach that hasn’t worked.”
“Whether Mr. Hagel tried to make it work or not, it is impossible,” the source said, adding that Mrs. Flournoy has a different relationship with Mr. McDonough and Mr. Blinken and may be able to influence their thinking on such issues.
“They personally get along, and Michele has unique talent to disagree with people without creating enmity,” the source said. “A lot of people are said to have that talent, but she actually can do it.”
But David Sedney, who served under Mr. Obama from 2009-2013 as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia, said that whoever takes over as defense secretary “will be in a difficult position.”
“Chuck Hagel appears to be getting pushed out because of criticism the administration has faced over its national security policies and because of the overall weakness of those policies,” Mr. Sedney said.
“These issues that have bedeviled the administration are from decisions made inside the White House, not at the defense or state departments,” he said, adding that such problems will likely dominate defense secretary confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill and can be expected to continue going forward, regardless of who replaces Mr. Hagel.
Larry J. Korb, a senior fellow focused on the Pentagon at the Center for American Progress, said he believes Mr. Obama and his close circle of advisers would “like to be the first to nominate a woman secretary of defense.”
Mr. Korb, who served as an assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan, said the timing may be such that Mrs. Flournoy gets pushed aside in favor of someone willing to play place-holder at the Pentagon while Mr. Obama winds down his second term ahead of the 2016 elections.
Mr. Hagel said Monday that he’ll stay on until a new secretary is confirmed. But, according to Mr. Korb, the reality of the nominating process is such that whomever Mr. Obama nominates likely won’t face a confirmation hearing until early 2015, and, with a newly Republican-controlled Congress in place, the process will likely become more politically charged.
Mr. Korb noted how Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, had called on Republicans in recent days to block Mr. Obama’s nominees to any position in defiance to the president’s recent executive action on immigration.
As a result, according to Mr. Korb, it is possible the White House might not nominate Mrs. Flournoy on grounds that she may get blocked in the Senate and, if she is confirmed, may only serve for roughly a year as the nation heads into campaign season.
He added that such thinking may find the White House leaning more toward someone like Mr. Levin.
“He’s not running for the Senate again. He could hit the ground running if and when confirmed,” Mr. Korb said. “It would make a great deal of sense.”
Mrs. Flournoy is presently chief executive officer of the Center for New American Security, a think tank she cofounded in Washington. But her work history at the Defense Department goes back to the 1990s.
She was a political appointee at the Pentagon for then-President Clinton, serving as a principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and threat reduction and deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy.
After the 2008 presidential election, Mr. Obama tapped Mrs. Flournoy to help manage his administration’s transition at the Pentagon. She served under Mr. Gates, who stayed at his Defense Department post through the end of the Bush administration and into the first years of the Obama White House.
Mr. Obama subsequently nominated Mrs. Flournoy to serve as undersecretary of defense for policy, the third-ranking official at the Defense Department.
At the time, Mrs. Flournoy was the highest-ranking female Pentagon official in the Defense Department’s history. She left the Pentagon in February 2012, saying she wanted to return to private life and help advise Mr. Obama’s re-election bid that year.
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