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The GOP Likes Michèle Flournoy for the Wrong Reasons, But She's the Right Choice

Michèle Flournoy has had her hands full with Republicans this year. As one of a few foreign-policy luminaries on Team Obama, she spent much of 2012 refuting GOP attacks on the president's defense record. When Romney called Obama weak on Iran, for instance, Flournoy appeared on CNN to forcefully rebut the charge. When, on PBS, neocon Peter Feaver mischaracterized Obama's relations with Iraq, Flournoy was there to chide him. And after Romney gave his much-touted, mostly platitudinal speech on foreign policy in October, Flournoy helped draft the campaign's harsh critique: “His position on Libya has no credibility since he’s been both for and against our Libya policy.” Flournoy, through an endless train of op-eds, TV appearances, memos, proxy debates at think tanks, and conference calls with the press, would prove indispensable to arguing the emptiness of Republican attacks on Obama’s foreign policy.

It’s a bleak bit of irony, then, that someone who was so crucial to exposing the GOP's foreign-policy folly during the election is now key to Republican efforts to derail and humiliate Obama's preferred choice for secretary of defense. In the past few days, Flournoy—the Pentagon’s former under secretary of defense for policy, and the head of Obama’s transition team for the Department of Defense—has become the name that conservatives have floated as an alternative to Obama’s rumored pick to replace Leon Panetta: Former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, whom Republicans have never forgiven for his role as one of the Iraq war's greatest critics and his occasional endorsements of Democrats. Flournoy's apparent supporters now include the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol (who essentially argued that she wouldn't be as objectionable as Hagel), former George W. Bush administration Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, and Romney foreign policy adviser Dan Senor, who tweeted on Thursday, "Isn't it strange that the President dropped Rice but is dug in over #Hagel? Especially when he can nominate the highly qualified #Flournoy?"

Through her work at the Center for a New American Security, a bipartisan think tank she co-founded in 2007, Flournoy more or less defined the contours of how the U.S. would withdraw its troops from Iraq. CNAS itself became a pipeline for the young and talented individuals who now populate the lower ranks of the Department of Defense. Colin Kahl, who has worked for or with Flournoy in nearly all of her endeavors for the past several years—at CNAS, at the Pentagon, and on Obama’s reelection campaign—described her to me as “one of leading national security defense professionals, period, full stop.” Profile after profile of Flournoy brims with glowing appraisals of her career from colleagues. Even P.J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesperson who has emerged as a top Hagel defender, had this to say of Flournoy to Politico: “I’m convinced she will be secretary of Defense someday, whether that’s in this administration or sometime in the future. A president would be wise to pick her.” She would be the first female to serve in that role, to boot.

But had Flournoy’s name been leaked as the potential secretary of defense nominee instead of Hagel’s, there's no shortage of material the GOP could have drawn upon to slime her instead, and it’s hard to imagine why they wouldn’t have. There were her ardent defenses of Obama’s foreign policy during the campaign, and her unmasked distaste for Republicans' politicization of the Benghazi attacks. Flournoy, says Kahl, spearheaded the strategic implementation plan for Obama’s $400 billion in cuts to defense spending, which conservative think tanks and leaders—including the outfit where Senor, who has trouble spelling Flournoy’s last name correctly, and Kristol, who has trouble spelling her first name correctly, are board membershave roundly opposed. The fact that CNAS, which she founded with Kurt Campbell, a fellow Clintonista, has become a feeder for the Obama Defense apparatus would not serve her well, either. Even Kahl, a huge admirer of his former colleague’s, has no delusions about the nature of Republican praise for her. “It’s more to criticize Hagel than to prop up anyone else that they’re saying her name,” he said. “Suggesting other names is mainly an indirect way to criticize Hagel,” he said. “The real cynic in me says they’re trying to rhetorically punch Hagel in the face and then raise up somebody else. But since both Hagel and Flournoy strongly back the president's foreign policy, there’s no indication that the neoconservatives really want either one of them.” (To wit, Kristol writes that he would “would expect to differ” with Flournoy “on many issues.”)

Strategic though conservatives' support of Flournoy may be, they're right: She's a better choice than Hagel. In addition to her abovementioned talents, she possesses a commitment to elevating the talented women who work beneath her, says Kahl. That’s an undertaking that the male-dominated Pentagon could desperately use, particularly as it implements a new policy to address the military’s pervasive sexual-abuse problem and whether women should serve in combat. Hagel, meanwhile, is a climate-change denier, which does not recommend him to head one of the largest consumers of energy on the planet. As a senator, Hagel blocked sanctions against Iran at every turn; these now make up a huge piece of the administration’s policy towards that country. And on Friday, Hagel apologized for calling one of Bill Clinton's nominees for ambassador, James C. Hormel, an “openly aggressively gay” in 1998.

Flournoy's Republican supporters do not necessarily see these qualities in her. They want to tweak Hagel for what he's done, and to frustrate Obama’s nomination process for a second time in a month. But who says the right choice always has to be for the right reasons?

Correction: This piece initially misstated Paul Wolfowitz's position in the George W. Bush administration, where he was Deputy Secretary of Defense. It also wrongly attributed to Wolfowitz a tweet that, as the embedded link makes clear, appeared in Senor's Twitter stream.

Follow me on Twitter @mtredden