Michèle Flournoy Departs

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AP Photo/Andy Wong

Flournoy in Beijing last week

If Michèle Flournoy were a man, no one outside of nerdy defense circles would have noted her announcement Monday that she will be leaving the Pentagon’s No. 3 post – the under secretary of defense for policy – come February. And no one – not even the dweebiest of defense dweebs – would care that she has three kids, ages 9, 12 and 14, and that for the past three years she has held one of the Pentagon’s most bruising, demanding jobs.

But she has held the job for nearly three years, and she does have three young children. “You go home at night and it’s `Sorry honey, I missed the Christmas pageant because I was in China, negotiating with the Chinese’ – she’s the defense point person on one of the most important relationships the United States has, and it’s incredibly important and fulfilling, but it doesn’t make up for missing the Christmas pageant,” says retired Army officer John Nagl. He succeeded Flournoy in helping run the Center for a New American Security, an independent national-security think tank in the capital, that Flournoy founded in 2007.

Flournoy told the Associated Press – in an apparently coordinated session that was followed quickly by a statement of praise from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta – that she is seeking to spend more time with her family. “Right now I need to recalibrate a little bit and invest a little bit more in the family account for a while,” she told the AP. “We’ve been going flat out for more than three years.”

Panetta praised her. “From guiding our strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq, to helping set the department’s priorities and global posture through the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review as well as the strategy review that has been underway this year,” he said, “Michèle has made a strong and lasting positive imprint on this department and on our nation’s security.”

While a need for more family time has long been heard in Washington as a white lie meaning the boss feels it as time for an underling to move on, associates said that is not the case here. Both Flournoy and her husband, Scott Gould, the No.2 official at the Department of Veterans Affairs, have been putting in long hours as their children grow up. “They’ve been joking for awhile,” Nagl says, “about who was going to leave government first.”

“It’s a tough juggling act,” says Elspeth “Cam” Ritchie, who retired as the Army’s top psychiatrist in 2010, “for a woman who often is the center of the family and who doesn’t have control of her very busy job.”

Flournoy, 50, served as the Pentagon’s top policy adviser to former defense chief Robert Gates, and for the last six months to Panetta. Her role involves standing like a traffic cop at the intersection of defense policy and politics, crafting guidance for the defense chief on everything from budgets to relations with China. She said she plans to work for Obama’s re-election once she leaves her Pentagon post.

A moderate on defense matters, she remains at the top of the Democrats’ list of women who have a solid chance of becoming the nation’s first female defense secretary. “Whenever a woman takes a job not held by women before, people wonder if it can be done,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright told Washingtonian magazine in a Flournoy profile earlier this year. “And then when it is, people are surprised it was ever an issue.”