The harshest and most telling critique of Gen. James Jones’ tenure as national security adviser is that his absence will barely be noticed. President Obama announced today that Jones is resigning and that his deputy, Tom Donilon, will replace him. But Donilon has been de facto national security adviser for many months now, while Jones has been, to a startling degree, a West Wing wallflower.
When Obama named Jones to the slot nearly two years ago, expectations were otherwise. Jones, a 40-year veteran, had served as the Marine Corps’ commandant, chief of NATO, military assistant to a secretary of defense (William Cohen in the Clinton administration), commander of expeditionary forces in northern Iraq and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and, in his earliest days, a company commander in Vietnam.
In short, it seemed that Jones could be Obama’s shrewd liaison to the Pentagon: a retired general who had credibility with the military on a variety of levels, who knew where the levers were and how to maneuver them. (I confess that I wrote a column at the time, concluding just that.)
Though not a great strategic thinker, Jones was widely regarded, by many of his friends and associates, as a skilled bureaucratic operator and an iron-hand organizer. If interagency squabbles were to erupt, as they do in most administrations (and, recall, many were speculating at the time that Hillary Clinton might try to pursue her own political ambitions as secretary of state), Jones seemed the right man to impose order.
Things turned out very differently. First, interagency disputes were (and, compared with most administrations, still are) relatively minor. There was little need to impose order from on high, and to the extent differences arose (mainly on personnel matters), the president and his political staff were able to handle them. Second, Obama struck up an unexpectedly close relationship with Robert Gates, who stayed on as secretary of defense and served as the key liaison with the military chiefs and the congressional armed services committees.
Finally, the national security adviser is an amorphous position. It’s as powerful as the president wants it to be, and if the adviser wants his role to be larger, he has to carve out his own path to influence and power. Jones never found that path, or even his own footing, in the Obama White House. Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff, urged him to pick Tom Donilon as deputy national security adviser. Donilon was not only an experienced foreign-policy aide but also an inside player on Obama’s campaign team. Obama continued to meet with Donilon directly, as did Emanuel, bypassing Jones.
Bob Woodward, in his book Obama’s Wars, quotes Jones at some length about his bitterness toward this inner circle’s denizens, calling them the “Politburo,” the “Mafia,” and the “campaign set.”
But to the extent Jones was undermined, the fault was his own. Four-star generals, even retired ones, grow accustomed to assuming their authority when they enter a room. Aides and junior officers stand up; everyone around them salutes. Jones figured that the White House would be no different. He let down his guard, worked short hours, and found himself outflanked and marginalized.
The power equation was apparent even at today’s Rose Garden ceremony, where Obama thanked Jones for his service to the country and welcomed Donilon onboard. While properly gracious and respectful toward Jones, Obama described him as “a steady voice in Situation Room sessions,” while he hailed Donilon as “one of my closest advisers” and “a probing intellect” with “a remarkable work ethic.”
The only surprise about Jones’ resignation is that it didn’t take place several months ago.
Donilon will experience one big change in his routine, now that he’s stepping up to the big job, in title as well as de facto. Previously, he ran the National Security Council’s deputies’ meetings—the sessions attended by the deputy secretaries of the various departments (state, defense, CIA, and so forth). These are the meetings at which an administration sets its agenda, makes decisions on most security issues, and lays out the options from which their bosses will choose on the few remaining major matters. Now Donilon will run the principals’ meetings—where the cabinet officers (the secretaries of state and defense, the director of central intelligence, and so forth) discuss and make those major decisions—often with the president participating.
There has been some speculation about tension in this new mix. Gates got along well with Jones, whereas Woodward’s book quotes Gates saying that Donilon would be a “disaster” as national security adviser. However, high-ranking officials across the administration say, on background, that Woodward’s book is out-of-date on this point. They acknowledge there was great tension between Gates and Donilon during last fall’s deliberations on U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. But they say the two men have since patched things up and now have a good working relationship.
On policy matters, there was little space between Jones and Donilon. Both were skeptical of the military’s request for more troops in Afghanistan; both warned Obama of the risks in escalation. Donilon may have been more forceful in his skepticism. He was once an aide to Vice President Joe Biden, who in the White House review sessions argued strenuously against sending more troops and adopting a counterinsurgency strategy. According to Woodward’s book, Donilon also participated in several side meetings, during those months, with Biden and other critics of the plan, including Denis McDonough, another Obama-campaign veteran who is likely to replace Donilon as deputy national security adviser.
As for future policy, many officials agree that, in the end, every high-level player—including Biden, Donilon, and the other skeptics—signed onto Obama’s decision about the war, and not just pro forma. At the same time, if the war’s trends continue to go south, if pressures build for a speedier withdrawal or another shift in strategy, Donilon may now be in a better position to push for such a change. But this shift shouldn’t be exaggerated. The real decision-maker is Obama, and Donilon is likely to push whatever Obama wants him to push. And that would have been true, and significant, even if Jones hadn’t resigned.