This week, the Biden transition team announced nominees for various high ranking foreign policy and national security posts. Turning to well known alumni of the Obama administration, the transition tapped Tony Blinken, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Avril Haines and Jake Sullivan for Secretary of State, Ambassador to the United Nations, Director of National Intelligence and National Security Advisor respectively.
Surprisingly, the transition is yet to announce who will lead Biden’s defense department, despite widespread belief for the past few months that Michèle Flournoy would be the obvious choice. Flournoy, also an alumnus of the Obama administration, has also been close colleagues with Tony Blinken and Avril Haines at “strategic consultancy” firm, WestExec Advisors.
As reported in the Intercept, Flournoy co-founded the firm with Blinken as her generation’s version of “Scowcroft Group, Kissinger, RiceHadleyGates, Albright.” In other words, consulting firms founded by former top national security and foreign policy officials that leverage their government experience to provide both domestic and international businesses with the advice to navigate various economic and geopolitical risks. Although these advisory firms are not required to officially register as lobbying firms, the nature of their behind the scenes work is similar to lobbying. Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight has noted that the fact consultants at these advisory firms aren’t required to register as lobbyists is “one of the biggest gaps in ethics laws.”
WestExec has focused on bridging the gap between tech firms and government agencies, including the Department of Defense. The firm was involved in Google’s contract work on the Pentagon initiative known as Project Maven that led to an internal uprising at the Silicon Valley firm. According to the American Prospect, Israeli artificial intelligence company Windward, which tracks ships in real time, is another client. Schmidt Futures, billionaire Eric Schmidt’s venture capital-esque philanthropy, has also hired the advisory firm. Joined by 11 progressive organizations, the Revolving Door Project recently sent a letter to President-elect Joe Biden urging him not to appoint Schmidt to his administration. Despite requests from the Prospect and Mother Jones, WestExec has refused to share a list of clients with the press.
Flournoy’s military-industrial complex ties go beyond her connection with WestExec. The former undersecretary of defense for policy worked as a senior advisor for Boston Consulting Group and currently sits on the board of Booz Allen Hamilton, where she received $250,035 ($100,000 in fees and $150,035 in stock awards) for her role as a director. Since she joined the firm in 2018, Booz Allen Hamilton has signed 61 contracts with the Defense Department. Foreign Agents Registration Act filings show that Booz Allen Hamilton has received over $3 million from the Saudi Arabian government in exchange for consulting services. In a Foreign Policy for America meeting last year, Flournoy opposed an outright ban of arms sales to Saudi Arabia as a response to the War in Yemen, arguing instead for the inclusion of conditions on their use that defense contractors would not be able to lobby against.
While speaking to the House Armed Services Committee earlier this year, Flournoy argued that “The No. 1 military objective for the United States today should be to re-establish credible deterrence. Militarily, the resurgence of great power competition requires the United States to reimagine how we deter and, if necessary, fight and prevail in a future conflict with China. America’s military advantage is rapidly eroding in light of China’s modernization efforts.” This view that the U.S. military should de facto police the world through credible deterrence seems to inform her policy making agenda. She has argued for military budget increases to shore up U.S. national power and also for budget increases to go towards investments in weapons. Interestingly, Pine Island Capital Partners, where Flournoy holds the role of D.C. partner, owns Precinmac and Inveris Training Solutions. Those are two companies involved in the development and sale of weapons systems.
If Flournoy is chosen as defense secretary, she would be the first woman to head the Department of Defense. While some may define that as progress, many activists have rejected the idea of pro-war feminism. Flournoy’s past advocating for the war in Iraq and the use of the counterinsurgency doctrine in Afghanistan highlight her hawkish mindset. Progressive activists seek appointees with the mindset that the country needs to bring a real end to forever wars.
As we proposed in the Prospect, Biden’s administration can pursue a progressive national security agenda that prioritizes diplomacy over military action, opposes regime change interventions, reduces the Pentagon’s budget, and condemns governments that violate human rights. But to do so, Biden must also end the defense industry’s influence on the executive branch and turn to individuals without deep conflicts.