Clinton's Potential Defense Chief Could Trouble Dovish Democrats

Michèle Flournoy is well-liked by both sides of the mainstream National Security community, but even her defenders expect her hawkish policies to scare members of her own party.

WASHINGTON — Dovish circles in Hillary Clinton’s own party are worried that her likely pick for Defense Secretary will shift an already aggressive Clinton further towards hawkishness.

Michèle Flournoy, widely seen as the favorite for Clinton’s Defense Secretary pick, is well-respected on both sides of the political aisle and within the Pentagon, and was heralded for a very successful term as Undersecretary for Defense Policy from 2009 to 2012. But her aggressive policy points — including a no-fly zone in Syria and more aggressive military action against the Syrian regime — have alarmed some groups in Washington.

“Flournoy calls for a very dangerous ​escalation in the already over-militarized US policy in Syria,” said Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. The causes championed by Flournoy, Bennis said, pit the US directly against the Russians in a proxy conflict in Syria. “Really reckless ideas, in my book.”

Through the Center for New American Security, where Flournoy is CEO, she declined to officially comment. The Center directed BuzzFeed to some of Flournoy's public policy positions. The Clinton campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

This isn’t the first time Flournoy’s name has rumbled around Washington as a potential pick to lead the Pentagon. She was considered a favorite to replace the outgoing Chuck Hagel in 2014 — at the time, she said she withdrew her name from the running due to family concerns. She’s widely respected by mainstream democrats and republicans alike throughout the national security establishment, who say she’s a sharp thinker and a likable colleague who maneauvered .

“Part of the reason people respect her and like her is, she’s smart and likable, but she did a very good job managing one of the most unmanageable parts of the Pentagon,” said Mike Green, who helps lead the Asia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In the national security community...all of those communities of experts generally find that Michèle Flournoy is spot on when she talks about the problem and what we should do about it.”

Clinton's own gradual shift towards hawkishness is something that's alarmed the anti-war fringes of her party for years, but those concerns have taken on new urgency as she inches a closer to the Oval Office.

"There is a general anxiety about what may lay ahead," said Tom Andrews, a former member of Congress who leads the Win Without War coalition in Washington, DC. "We’ve seen Sec. Clinton taking one side of questions regarding the use of military power, and they have not been the side that many in the peace community have been on. There’s general anxiety about militarization and an increase in militarization regarding who is Secretary of Defense."

The toughest sell a hawkish Clinton might have to make on the even more hawkish Flournoy is to the far-left edges of her own party.

“There’s no doubt about the fact that, if you look at [Flournoy’s] writing, she’s even to the right of Secretary Clinton,” said one former Pentagon official, requesting anonymity to discuss a personnel issue. “[She’s respected] more among conservatives than liberals...I don’t think Bernie Sanders would like her as much as John McCain would.”

Whether that would be enough to sink Flournoy, if she is indeed nominated, is wildly unlikely. The question, Green said, is whether the leaders of the left’s fringes — like Sanders or Elizabeth Warren — would be able to stop such a highly-regarded, mainstream National Security nomination. Or, if they’d even be interested in trying given that most their focus is on domestic and economic policies.

“They might try, but it seems to me that if Warren or Sanders try to extend their veto power, they’ll lose all their influence,” Green said. “I don’t think it’s very likely. If they did it, they’d be dissipating their efforts across so many policy areas.”

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