The Least-Coveted Job In Washington

Michéle Flournoy, the leading candidate to replace Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, has bowed out:

Flournoy, the co-founder and CEO of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a think tank that has served as a farm league for future Obama administration officials, would have been the first female secretary of defense had she risen to the position. The news of her decision to withdraw was first reported by Foreign Policy. But in a letter Tuesday to members of the CNAS board of directors, Flournoy said she would remain in her post at the think tank and asked Obama to take her out of consideration to be the next secretary of defense. Flournoy told the board members that family health considerations helped drive her decision and the fact that two of her children are leaving for college in the next two years.

“Last night I spoke with President Obama and removed myself from consideration due to family concerns,” reads the letter, first obtained by FP. “After much agonizing, we decided that now was not the right time for me to reenter government.”

Senator Jack Reed, another contender, has also said he has no interest in a new job. Austin Wright and Michael Hirsh aren’t surprised that nobody seems to want to run the Pentagon these days:

To understand why Flournoy and others are dropping out of the running for secretary of defense, just think about the job description: You’ll be working for a president who once declared that he was elected to end wars but who now finds himself stuck, reluctantly, in a new one in Iraq and a prolonged one in Afghanistan — and who badly wants to finish up both in two years, though that’s probably impossible. He’s also a president who won’t listen much to you, since he apparently has little intention of altering the White House’s tight grip on the national security apparatus, which was the bane not only of Hagel but his two Pentagon predecessors, Leon Panetta and Bob Gates.

Flournoy “doesn’t want to be a doormat, and I think they want a doormat,” said one former Defense Department official who worked there during Flournoy’s tenure. “I do not think they’re looking for someone more aggressive and independent.”

John Fund is on the same page:

It’s well known after Secretary Hagel’s clashes with White House staff that anyone who takes the Pentagon job will be butting heads with Susan Rice, the National Security Council adviser who exercises an iron grip on key aspects of foreign policy. Not to mention Valerie Jarrett, the influential presidential counselor who seems to have both hands in every pie at the White House. “Why should anyone put up with those headaches and not even have full command of your department?” asks one leading Democratic defense analyst I spoke with. He said the White House’s need to micromanage the national-security apparatus is notorious in Washington.

Morrissey recommends that Obama pick a technocrat with as little political baggage as possible, along the lines of former deputy defense secretary Ashton Carter:

The technocrat model may be the answer for the lame-duck period of the Obama presidency in other areas, too. Technocrats make difficult targets, even in a hostile environment. Senate Republicans are not likely to block confirmations on national-security positions, but after Obama’s unilateral declaration on immigration, they will target other appointments from Obama in response to his bypassing of Congress.

Even without that, Republicans would be scrapping for a fight over overtly political nominees, and unfortunately for Obama, there will be a number of openings as his current appointees look for greener pastures than a Democratic administration pitted against a Congress controlled by the GOP. A reliance on experts rather than activists will give Obama the opening to make the changes he needs after his second midterm shellacking, and perhaps restore some confidence in the competency of his administration.

With Reed and Flournoy both out of contention, Carter is now the presumptive front-runner.