War Stories

The Enforcer

Obama’s most important national-security pick isn’t Hillary—it’s Gen. Jim Jones.

Robert Gates, James Jones, and Hillary Clinton

To those who worry that Hillary Clinton will turn Foggy Bottom into a fiefdom devoted to her own agenda and ambition, I have two reassuring words: James Jones.

Everything that President-elect Barack Obama has said and done these past few weeks indicates that this is going to be an administration run from the White House. His selection of Jones as national-security adviser signals that this will very much be the case in foreign and military policy.

A retired four-star general with 40 years of service in the Marines, Jones was a company commander in Vietnam; commander of an expeditionary unit protecting the Kurds of northern Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War; chief of staff of the joint task force supplying aid to Bosnia-Herzegovina; and—his last position before retiring last year—SACEUR, the supreme allied commander, Europe.

While stationed stateside, he had been, at various times, the Marine Corps’ liaison to the U.S. Senate; deputy chief of staff for plans, policies, and operations at Marine headquarters; military assistant to Secretary of Defense William Cohen (President Bill Clinton’s third and final Pentagon chief); and the Marine Corps commandant.

In other words, he knows the ins, outs, back alleys, and dark closets of the national-security realm.

His former colleagues use the same words to describe him: very smart, very organized, methodical, deliberate. It may be telling that Obama has been seeking advice lately from two other generals who served as national-security advisers: Colin Powell and Brent Scowcroft. Anthony Zinni, a retired Marine general who’s known Jones for 30 years and followed a similar career path, told me in an e-mail that he sees Jones as “a Scowcroft type of NSA,” elaborating, “He works hard to build consensus and has a lot of patience. He doesn’t like to seek confrontation but won’t shrink from a fight. … He doesn’t seek the limelight but will be the hand behind keeping things on track and focused.”

“On track and focused” is precisely where George W. Bush failed to keep things, especially in his first six years (that is, until Robert Gates replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon). As a result, policies drifted, information was suppressed, dissenting views were circumvented, and, sometimes, decisions made by the National Security Council were simply ignored or surreptitiously overruled. (For one crucial instance, click here; for others, read some of these books.)

Rumsfeld in particular was able to get away with this high-handedness—at one point, to prevent a decision from being made, he simply didn’t show up for three consecutive NSC meetings—in part because Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s first-term national-security adviser, was a weak manager; Rumsfeld, a veteran infighter, ran circles around her; and Bush, a lackadaisical president in this respect, declined to rein him in.

This sort of manipulation and chaos, it’s safe to bet, won’t be countenanced by Gen. Jones.

While introducing his national-security team at Monday morning’s press conference, Obama said that he likes to be surrounded by “strong personalities and strong opinions.” Jones is certain to be one of them; he’s not merely a staff officer; he has his own set of strong views. While still on active duty, for instance, he turned down two prestigious job offers from President George W. Bush—as head of U.S. Central Command when Gen. John Abizaid’s term was up and as deputy secretary of state when Robert Zoellick moved to the World Bank—mainly because he disagreed with Bush’s policies on Iraq. However, his main mission under Obama—and he must have known this when he agreed to take the job—will be to make sure that, once the debating is done, all those strong personalities will carry out the president’s decision.

It is unlikely, by the way, that Hillary Clinton has inclinations to the contrary—and not just because she appreciates Gen. Jones’ bureaucratic prowess. Even accepting the critique that she is looking out above all for her own political future and legacy, she has almost certainly read enough history to know that the most renowned secretaries of state are those who lock step with their presidents—and that those who angle in dissent turn out badly.

George Marshall came up with the Marshall Plan, and Dean Acheson did much to carve the NATO alliance and the post-World War II security system, but they succeeded in doing these things because their plans fleshed out and extended President Harry Truman’s general inclinations. Cyrus Vance disagreed with President Jimmy Carter, resigned in protest, and disappeared from public view. Colin Powell might have made a great secretary of state under some other president, but he had to be ousted from George W. Bush’s administration because his differences over policy had grown too substantial and public; he couldn’t be an effective emissary because foreign leaders couldn’t be sure whether he was speaking for himself or for the president (and if they thought he was speaking just for himself, they would have dismissed his words as irrelevant, no matter how much they liked him or disliked Bush).

It is hard to imagine that Sen. Clinton isn’t fully aware of these dynamics. I have no inside track on her thinking or on the alleged machinations of her inner circle, but it seems clear that, given the rules of seniority, she would have had to wait a long time to gain a leadership position in the Senate; and unless Obama turns out to be a bust as president, she couldn’t have another run at the White House for at least eight years, by which time she’d be almost 70. She may simply have calculated that her best prospects and greatest adventures lie in joining Team Obama as a senior subordinate but a subordinate all the same.

And if I’m wrong about this, or if she gradually takes on more manipulative motives, her stiffest obstacle will be, if not Obama himself, then certainly Gen. James Jones.