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The Whispering Campaign Against the National Security Adviser

Saturday, June 13th, 2009

It is not very often that I link to the Huffington Post but Steve Clemons, who is the director of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, had a piece up that outlines a faction inside the White House that is very critical of National Security Adviser General James Jones and would like to see him replaced.

Initially, I was somewhat dismissive in my reaction, but after hearing directly from Steve, and then doing some reflection, I was overly hasty in my judgment. Mr. Clemons is on to something; there is an earnest effort at high levels within the Obama administration to get rid of General Jones. A profoundly bad idea, in my view. Here is Steve’s post in its’ entirety:

Can National Security Adviser James Jones Survive a Second Round of Attacks and “Longer Knives”?

I am here in London where I’m participating in an interesting forum sponsored by the Princeton Project on National Security and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Transatlantic Program, I’ve received not just one email — but three — from prominent insider journalists and policy hands that Jim Jones’ tenure as National Security Adviser is highly fragile.

One of these emails reports starkly:

“Knives getting longer”

That’s all my contact said. But other emails have intimated to me a serious tone-deafness by Jones about his role and responsibilities, his relationship with the president, and his relationship with younger, dedicated, hardworking and late-working staff. Jones recently said that National Security Council staff members that stayed longer than 7:30 pm must be disorganized in their work.

I speak to various NSC officials — often at 10:00 or 11:00 pm at night. They are hardworking, racing as fast as they can to manage the many, many, many major initiatives that Barack Obama has decided to simultaneously pursue.

James Jones is considered by his admirers to be a genius when thinking about management structures and decision-making processes. On the other hand, his critics see him as a plodding, slow-moving, out of touch retired general who was better prepared to think about the last era rather than the one we are moving into. His critics think that he’s just too unable to animate nimble, high flex policy decision making products for a White House on a manic dash to get a lot of top tier issues dealt with.

Friends at the National Security Council respect a great deal the way in which NSC Deputy Tom Donilon is managing his brief. Many see him picking up the load that Jones seems unable or unwilling to carry. Donilon is deeply engaged in the broad Middle East and Iran portfolio, the non-proliferation/WMD/arms control portfolio, the China economic and security portfolio, and he has — according to reports — supported and helped cultivate relationship building between State, DoD, the NSC, and other parts of the national security bureaucracy.

Some tell me that James Jones decided to try and remove himself from the “whack-a-mole” crisis reaction style of decision-making that could rob the Obama administration of the chance to define a new course in national security affairs. Tom Donilon, according to reports, wields far more the hand of power when it comes to day to day management and responding to crises that require presidential attention and response.

Jones, in contrast, has been obsessed with the structure of decisions — who is involved in those decisions, what the structure of decision-making should be, and what legal modifications to this process need to be made. He looks at that as the big nut that needs to be cracked — and that would improve, according to Jim Jones, the president’s effectiveness and chances of success at a macro level.

Jones’ self-determined task is not high profile, mostly structural, and has not won him many admirers for leadership — but what he is doing is necessary. If he departs his role, this challenge of dealing with the growing complexity of national security threats and the vital need to recalibrate the policy making and decision-making process will require the attention of someone serious.

So, whether Jones stays or goes — his portfolio will remain vital.

But what is clear is that Jones has enemies and that they are trying to undermine his place in the Obama orbit.

Their motives may not be earnest concern about the tempo or pace of Jones’ management style — but they very well could be his unwillingness to allow the liberal interventionists inside the Obama administration to have more than their fair share of power in the Obama decision-making process.

Jones has structured an all views on the table approach to decision making — quite evident when it comes to Middle East policy — and the hawkish/neocon-friendly/Likudist-hugging part of the Obama administration’s foreign policy operation may be engaged in a coup attempt against Jones.

I don’t know if he’ll survive this latest effort to oust him — but folks need to know that those “longer knives”, on the whole, do not have pure motives.

I am probably, from Steve’s vantage point, “hawkish/neocon-friendly” and a supporter of Israel, but I share his concern that those out to remove or undermine General Jones are not doing so out of good motives and that his replacement by a weaker figure,  one less experienced with the national security bureaucracies, is not to the advantage of the nation.

Ominously, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates felt is was nessecary to go on record to defend General Jones from his anonymous critics in a recent high profile interview with David Ignatius:

 WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates doesn’t give interviews all that often. So it was interesting that Gates reached out last week to talk about Gen. Jim Jones, the national security adviser, and how he is managing the foreign-policy process in the Obama administration

Gates is a fan of the retired Marine general. He said he has watched national security advisers up close since Henry Kissinger in the early 1970s and that Jones is “among the best” he has seen. “I think of Jim as the glue that holds this team together,” Gates said. Despite all the talk about big egos in the Obama group, he says that at the top level it is “not a team of rivals, but a team.”

This encomium wouldn’t be newsy, or even very interesting, if it weren’t for the whispering campaign about Jones that has been making the rounds in Washington for the past two months. The proverbial “anonymous sources” have been sniping at Jones, claiming that he’s out of the loop, unprepared, doesn’t stay late enough in the office and that he kicks his dog. (Actually I made the last part up.)

….What complicates the situation is that this administration, like some in the past, has an inner core that worked closely together during the campaign and formed a special bond with the president. Think of Rahm Emanuel, the chief of staff; David Axelrod, the senior adviser; and Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert, senior members of the NSC staff. I facetiously call them the “Politburo.”

….”Age difference and closeness (to Obama) are a reality, but I don’t sense antagonism or jealousy,” Gates said. “Jim and Hillary and I have joked with each other that we’re of a different generation than those in the White House. While they’re texting, we’re on the cell phone or even a land line.”

….Gates argues that Jones’ biggest success has been as the proverbial “honest broker.” He explains: “I can trust Jim to represent my views on an issue to the president. … He is a facilitator, not an obstacle, and that hasn’t always been true in that job.”

The last sentence by Gates is an understatement of some magnitude.  It is also very unusual that a Secretary of Defense would feel the need to make such a public case in support of a key member of the President’s national security team. Gates is a very old Washington hand, and he recognizes the pattern of political death by anonymous leak and is trying to short-circuit it before the whispering campaign against Jones gets legs.

The NSC process exists to ensure that the president gets the best possible advice, a wider variety of options than bureaucratic preferences might choose that he be limited to hearing and that there is accountability and follow-up after policy has been decided. This requires a strong NSC adviser and an orderly, inclusive, process. That does not suit those inclined to free-lance or sabotage the interagency process and a weak NSC usually brings a fair amount of chaos and infighting into American foreign policy.

I will conclude by echoing Steve Clemons: those seeking General Jones’ removal do not have pure motives.


Dr. James Joyner weighed in on this issue  when anti-Jones rumors first surfaced back in May

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