Nothing outwardly indicated that January 15, 2009, was an important day for the stalemated war in Afghanistan. It would be another five days before Barack Obama took the presidential oath of office and months before he’d turn his attention in earnest to the war.
Inside the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a panel of senators figured they’d get a jump on things and spend the day knocking out a round-robin nomination hearing for a clutch of incoming Pentagon officials. Afghanistan was less a subject of discussion than was the rambunctious child in the audience, who couldn’t sit still while his mother, seated at the witness table, waited to answer the senators’ questions.
The eight-year-old, his hair a bit long, squirmed under his suit as if he’d been in church too long. His father, a reservist Navy captain attending the hearing in uniform, placed a hand on his son’s shoulder to remind him to calm down. The boy’s older brother appeared more at ease and looked up silently as their mother fielded the occasional query. No one on the committee was bothered: Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, flashed a grandfatherly smile at the nominee’s adorable children.
It was, after all, before the bloom had fallen off the rose for President Obama, before the midterm wipeout, before the economic stagnation, before his administration’s internal battles over the Afghanistan war. No senator was in the mood to question the witnesses too aggressively. Even John McCain, the recently defeated presidential candidate and ranking committee Republican, pledged to work with the Pentagon nominees present.
Then Jim Webb—the Vietnam veteran, former Navy secretary, and Virginia senator—asked a straightforward but hardly simple question about Afghanistan: “Can you please articulate your view of this strategy in military terms and what the endpoint is, where we will see that our mission is complete?”
The relevant nominee to respond was Michèle Flournoy, designated to become the Pentagon’s policy chief, the third-ranking official in the Defense Department.
Flournoy has been a fixture in the Democratic defense-policy firmament for two decades, steadily amassing prestige and respect for her expertise as a strategist. A veteran of the Clinton Pentagon, she studied unconventional conflicts—and the military bureaucracy’s failures at handling them—at Washington’s most respected think tanks before cofounding her own. Her answer to Webb’s complicated question was somewhere between a shrug and a punt.