Biden's rumored choice for secretary of defense may make history, but she won't do Biden any favors

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Daniel L. Davis, Defense Priorities
·5 min read
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Joe Biden Air Force troops soldiers
Joe Biden, then vice president, greets US Air Force personnel at an air base in Romania, May 20, 2014. AP Photo/Octav Ganea, Mediafax
  • President-elect Joe Biden is reportedly giving serious consideration to selecting Michèle Flournoy, a former Obama administration official, as secretary of defense.

  • Flournoy would be the first woman to hold that job, but she would bring with her old thinking about the world and the US's role in it, writes Defense Priorities fellow and retired US Army Col. Daniel L. Davis.

  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

According to numerous media reports, President-elect Joe Biden is giving serious consideration to selecting Michèle Flournoy, a former Obama administration official, as Secretary of Defense. Based on her track record, Flournoy would neither serve Biden nor the country well.

Regardless of who Biden eventually selects, his next Pentagon chief should be someone who recognizes the world we live in today is different than the one we inherited after the Cold War.

Flournoy may look impressive on paper. She was the third highest ranking official in the Department of Defense during President Barack Obama's first term, serving as under secretary of defense for policy and formerly the chief executive officer of the influential Center for a New American Security (CNAS).

But throughout her tenure in the Obama administration, Flournoy was often wrong on key matters of war and peace. In 2011, for example, she testified before the House Armed Services Committee that Obama's Afghan surge was working.

"Our strategy is working," Flournoy confidently stated, and that "over 140,000" US and NATO forces in Afghanistan were placing "relentless pressure on the insurgents and regaining more and more critical territory."

Michele Flournoy
Michele Flournoy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, June 2, 2014. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

I was an Army officer stationed on the ground in Afghanistan at the time and I knew that claim to be entirely false, as I revealed in a detailed report the following year.

Events in the nine years since her claims have exposed the reality that the Afghanistan strategy was never working, as the Taliban today owns or contests more territory than at any time since 2001, the Afghan government remains hopelessly corrupt, and the country produces upwards of 84% of the world's opium which effectively funds Taliban operations.

Flournoy is hardly alone in holding such conventional and mistaken views, however.

Many senior defense officials and personalities in America today gained the bulk of their understanding, knowledge, and experience in the midst of the Cold War and the aftermath of 9/11. While Washington is intensely divided on a range of domestic issues, there is remarkable unity when it comes to foreign policy - to our collective detriment.

Whether Bush's war of choice in Iraq and conversion of the Afghan war into a nation-building operation, Obama's decision to expand the war in Afghanistan and engage in extra-constitutional military forays into Libya, Syria, and Yemen, or Trump's expansion of military operations in Syria, Iraq, and numerous locations in Africa, the consistent theme of senior defense officials has been to rely on the use or threat of lethal military power against our presumed opponents and to minimize diplomacy.

The result has been the perpetuation of a series of forever wars around the world, the overuse of our armed forces, and a paranoid inflation of terror threats abroad. It is time to acknowledge the strategies of the past have failed and that new ways of thinking are needed for the future.

The president-elect will have to be careful, however, not to automatically jettison every action or policy enacted by Trump. For example, at various points in his Administration, Trump promised he would withdraw American troops from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Though he reduced the number of troops in each, Trump never ended any of the forever wars he inherited. America would be well-served if Biden made good on Trump's aspirations.

Biden should nominate a secretary of defense that recognizes this reality and will break from the fundamental failures of the past by adopting a strategy that can succeed. At its core, a strategy based on domestic and global realities that could result in real gains for America would include three key pillars.

Afghanistan
US troops in Afghanistan. AP

First, acknowledge that the series of forever wars have not only failed to improve our security but have demonstrably weakened it. America's unmatched combination of nuclear and conventional military power provides the foundation that will deter all possible opponents from launching unprovoked attacks against our country.

Second, prioritize where we spend our defense dollars based on vital national interests and set objectives that are attainable and cost-effective. Fighting unnecessary conflicts throughout the Middle East and North Africa that have no bearing - one way or the other - on US national security are a waste of treasure and an unacceptable sacrifice of our military personnel.

Third, elevate diplomacy as the primary instrument with which we engage the world, reserving the application of lethal military power only when it is absolutely necessary to prevent enemy attack (or respond to an unprovoked attack already underway).

It is crucial that Biden's incoming foreign policy team breaks with the failure of the past several decades. He should jettison what hasn't worked, reinforce what has, and have the courage and leadership necessary to launch out in new directions to the benefit of our country.

Daniel L. Davis is a retired US Army colonel who served multiple tours in Afghanistan. He is a fellow with Defense Priorities. Follow him @DanielLDavis1

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