WASHINGTON (AP) — Michele Flournoy, formerly the Pentagon's policy chief and among President Barack Obama's more hawkish advisers, could be in line to become the first woman to lead the U.S. military after Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's resignation.
Passed over by Obama for the job 20 months ago, Flournoy heads a short list of candidates to direct the war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and help Afghanistan fight the Taliban insurgency.
Other contenders include Ashton Carter, until last year the Pentagon's No. 2-ranked official, and Robert Work, Hagel's current deputy.
Sen. Jack Reed isn't interested in the job, a spokesman said Monday. Obama had mentioned Reed on Monday as he recounted a 2008 trip to Afghanistan with the Rhode Island Democrat and Hagel, then a Republican senator from Nebraska.
At the White House, Obama said Hagel would stay on until the Senate confirms a successor. No timeframe for the transition was given.
Flournoy, among the most senior female officials in Pentagon history, has a long history with Obama. After winning the 2008 election, President-elect Obama asked her to co-lead his transition team at the Defense Department. She then kept a relatively low profile as undersecretary of defense for policy, engaged in efforts to end the war in Iraq, reinvigorate the military campaign in Afghanistan and redesign U.S. defense strategy to deal with severe budget cuts.
Always loyal to the president publicly, Flournoy often played the role of principled objector in closed-doors meetings, differing on matters such as the size and scope of the Afghan surge with Vice President Joe Biden and Tom Donilon, Obama's former national security adviser. Her suggestions were often more muscular in approach than those Obama authorized.
When she left office in December 2011, Flournoy cited strains on her family life after three years in one of the most demanding national security jobs in Washington. She is married and has three children.
At the same time, Flournoy, who is now 53, said she hoped to return to government service one day. And when Defense Secretary Leon Panetta stepped down after Obama's re-election, she was among those mentioned for the post. Obama opted for Hagel, however. Flournoy would likely have a relatively easy confirmation in the new Republican-led Senate.
For the last three years, Flournoy has served as chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank she co-founded in 2007. Through a spokesman Monday, she declined a request for an interview.
A person close to Flournoy said she wants to be defense secretary, but has some concerns about the job. Obama and a small group of White House advisers have kept tight control over matters of national security, often frustrating more apolitical figures such as former Defense Secretary Bob Gates. The person wasn't authorized to speak publicly about Flournoy's thinking and demanded anonymity.
Also factoring into Flournoy's decision is the prospect of getting the top job if Hillary Rodham Clinton were to become president, according to the individual. Flournoy got her start in government in the 1990s as a Pentagon expert on strategy under President Bill Clinton.
Like Hagel, Panetta and Gates, Flournoy has railed against the military funding cuts known as "sequestration," urging significant new investments in the armed forces.
In Afghanistan, where she has been credited with helping strengthen the national army, Flournoy has urged a slower withdrawal strategy — a policy Obama appears now to be adopting with his recent authorization of a wider U.S. military role in the country next year.
Just months ago, with a security agreement in doubt, U.S. officials were floating the idea of pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan — as happened in Iraq in 2011.
Before she joined the Obama administration, Flournoy's think tank cautioned against a policy of "unconditional disengagement" from Iraq and called for a residual force of up to 60,000 U.S. troops to prevent a renewed civil war.
Associated Press writers Julie Pace, Robert Burns and Donna Cassata contributed to this report.