Michele Flournoy testifies before the House Armed Services Committee… (/ )
Michele Flournoy, the highest-ranking woman in Pentagon history, went to Beverly Hills High School with 1970s teen idol Shaun Cassidy and did her homework on the set of television’s “The Odd Couple,” where her father worked as a cinematographer.
Today she sits in her office in the Pentagon’s E Ring of top officials bathed in a green glow from the high-tech security equipment that creates a sound screen to prevent eavesdropping. It’s a requirement for the job: Flournoy is one of the most powerful people at the Pentagon, the woman in charge of thinking about how and why the United States fights wars.
On the surface, her personal trajectory is somewhat incongruous. She went from living in one of the most madcap subcultures in the country — 1970s Hollywood — to one of the most guarded — the Pentagon.
But she came by her passion for public service honestly. Her uncle once mentioned in passing that her father was some sort of World War II hero. “But my father never talked about it,” she said recently over a dinner of palak paneer at an Indian restaurant in downtown Bethesda. “And he died when I was just 14.”
Soon after, Flournoy’s interest in living abroad — she spent a summer during high school in Belgium — and her fascination with the nuclear arms race of the Reagan years took her far from the sitcom sets of Paramount Studios.
Today, she holds the title of undersecretary of defense for policy. Like her father, she avoids boasting about her accomplishments, although she’s navigating some of the most vexing foreign policy challenges in the history of the Pentagon. And she’s something of a mystery to outsiders.
Flournoy’s job as a behind-the-scenes policy player is growing more public since the departure of Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Incoming secretary Leon E. Panetta is seen as a Pentagon outsider and Flournoy as the voice of calm guiding the transition, those who work around her say.
At the Pentagon, her portfolio includes overseeing the deployment of U.S. special forces to help train the Ugandan military to fight rebel groups, responding to the unfolding turmoil in Yemen and Syria, implementing widespread defense budget cuts and, on top of it all, engineering the drawdown of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan.
She’s also the mother of three children younger than 14 and part of a new generation of high-ranking female leaders at the Pentagon, once such a male-dominated workplace that when she and a friend organized a lunch for senior Pentagon women in 1993, the group filled just one table.
“For weeks after it was this huge conspiracy about what we were talking about,” she said, recalling the period when she was a Defense Department official in the Clinton administration. “Fast forward to today, and you could fill an entire dining room with other key women leaders.”
More brains than bluster
Flournoy, 50, is affectionately known as The Other Michele, a reference to first lady Michelle Obama, by those who work with her. Younger women at the Pentagon say they look to her as their trailblazer. But she’s little-known outside the Pentagon and Washington’s foreign policy think-tank circles, despite the fact that many predict she will be the first female secretary of defense.
She’s tall and slender with a regal manner. She often wears pearls. Soft-spoken and understated, she is described by her co-workers as brainy rather than blustery. She talks slowly, frequently stopping to think. Her careful speaking style differs wildly from that of Douglas J. Feith, who held her job during the George W. Bush administration and came under fire for his role in building the administration’s case for the invasion of Iraq.
Her foreign policy philosophy came sharply into view when she was running the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a centrist think tank she established in 2007 along with co-founder Kurt Campbell. They co-wrote an influential policy paper called “The Inheritance and the Way Forward,” which urged “common-sense pragmatism” and realistic objectives when working in places such as Iraq rather than a more typically liberal interventionist approach.
She’s a centrist but a supporter of the Democratic Party. In the think-tank world, she’s known as a “liberal realist” who supports the principled use of force but is also wary of being blindly interventionist.
Flournoy’s to-do list this month includes formulating a “10-year plan that gets us out of the in-box to say where does the military need to go as an institution . . . even as it gets smaller because of budget cuts.”
Or, as she put it one morning in the spacious green-hued office that she calls her aquarium, “I feel like the policy job within the Pentagon is to help the secretary [of defense] keep looking over the horizon.”