Chuck Hagel’s resignation as secretary of defense paves the way for President Obama to select his fourth Pentagon chief. Will he make it a first?
While Europe now has a whole cadre of female defense ministers, the United States has never appointed a woman to helm the Pentagon, despite a growing corps of talented women in the security field. The president passed over Michèle Flournoy, the undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2012, when he tapped Hagel just under two years ago. A widely respected strategist, Flournoy’s name popped up almost as soon as the news of Hagel’s departure broke Monday morning as a leading candidate to replace him. And while there are no gimmes in today’s hyperpartisan Washington, she has fans in both parties.
Flournoy, however, is hardly the only woman out there qualified to be America’s first female secretary of defense. OZY takes a look at three other up-and-coming leaders who could one day become our defense policymaker in chief:
Deborah Lee James, Secretary of the Air Force
James was confirmed as the Air Force’s 23rd secretary in December 2013 — the second female secretary in the service’s history. James took over at a time when the Air Force was shaken by a mounting cheating scandal among the airmen responsible for operating the nation’s nuclear warheads and ongoing problems combating sexual assault. Given questions about the service’s treatment of women, there was growing speculation ahead of James’ nomination that the president would appoint a woman to the post to help restore the Air Force’s reputation. James has been busy addressing both issues in the past year. She’s called publicly for the Air Force to recruit and promote more women in its ranks, including posts that have been closed off to women. James said earlier this month she plans to make the final seven restricted Air Force jobs — which include things like combat rescue officer — gender-neutral in the next year and a half.
In James, the Air Force has someone at the helm with deep experience in both the public and private sectors, something that can come in handy when dealing with the multibillion-dollar defense industry. (Before her appointment, she was a senior executive at Science Applications International Corp., a $4 billion engineering firm and major defense contractor based in Northern Virginia, for more than a decade.) But she started her career in government — working on Capitol Hill for the House Armed Services Committee for a decade beginning in 1983, before moving to the Pentagon, where she served as assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs during President Clinton’s administration. That knowledge of two of Washington’s most opaque institutions and her ties to the defense industry could be an asset to any president looking for a future secretary of defense.
Christine Wormuth, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy
Between stints with the Defense Department, the White House and Congress, Wormuth has proved her chops as a security policy thinker in academic settings and think tanks, suggesting she could bring a more cerebral touch to the post, along with the sort of lengthy public service experience past presidents have looked for in their Pentagon chief. She may be only in her 40s, but Wormuth is already something of a grizzled Defense Department veteran. She nabbed her first job, in the Pentagon’s policy office, in 1996. And in June she was confirmed as President Obama’s nominee to be the third-highest-ranking civilian in the massive agency. The undersecretary for policy (Flournoy’s former post) has long been a key player in shaping the big-picture defense strategy and in making the tough calls on competing national security interests. Since her confirmation, she’s had a lead role in everything from Obama’s Syria policy and the U.S. military response to hostages held overseas to congressional relations.
Kelly Ayotte, Republican Senator, New Hampshire
So inseparable were McCain, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut last decade that the Capitol Hill press corps began referring to them as the “three amigos.” So when Lieberman retired in 2012, people wondered — only half in jest — if the remaining pair of national security hawks would be able to survive, much less thrive, when the politics seemed to be moving further and further away from their particular brand of interventionist foreign policy.
Then Ayotte picked up the baton as the third amiga. She joined McCain and Graham in leading the public criticism of then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice for her comments on the September 2011 attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, as well as in the budget-slashing effects of the sequester on U.S. military spending and, most recently, in pointing the finger at Obama for failing to deter Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. The former lawyer became New Hampshire’s first female attorney general in 2004 and rode the tea party political wave to victory in New Hampshire’s 2010 Senate race. Now she sits on the Senate’s Armed Services and Homeland Security committees and is outspoken about issues before both committees. So inseparable were Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut last decade that the Capitol Hill press corps began referring to them as the “three amigos.” So when Lieberman retired in 2012, people wondered — only half in jest — if the remaining pair of national security hawks would be able to survive, much less thrive, when the politics seemed to be moving further and further away from their particular brand of interventionist foreign policy.
With presidents turning to politicians more and more to fill the defense secretary post (current Secretary Chuck Hagel and former Secretaries Leon Panetta, Donald Rumsfeld and William Cohen all previously served in Congress), Ayotte is building the sort of legislative repertoire that could catch the eye of the next Republican president.
None of these women may end up being secretary of defense, but no president can argue this particular glass ceiling is due to a dearth of qualified candidates.
An earlier version of this story has been updated to reflect news developments.
Why you should care
The Defense Department remains one of Washington’s classic old-boys’ clubs. Putting a woman in charge of war policy would mix things up.