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Obama's NSC Will Get New Power

James L. Jones said in an interview that he will be the primary conduit of national security advice to President Obama.
James L. Jones said in an interview that he will be the primary conduit of national security advice to President Obama. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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Most modern chief executives have issued an early directive outlining a structure for making national security decisions. Although the 1947 National Security Act created the NSC and listed its membership -- including the president, the vice president, and the secretaries of state and defense -- each president has redefined it to fit his own needs and style. In recent administrations, the CIA director, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and at times the Treasury secretary have regularly attended principals meetings. At the same time, the role and power of the president's national security adviser, and the size of his staff, have grown larger or smaller depending on the president's wishes.

But initial presidential intentions have often been waylaid by personalities and events. George W. Bush criticized Bill Clinton's NSC style as rambling and indecisive. Over the next eight years, however -- as first-term Bush adviser Condoleezza Rice was outmaneuvered by Vice President Richard B. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and as Bush's second term became mired in an unpopular war and a failing economy -- decision-making quickly became more reactive than strategic, and deliberations were opaque to all but a small inner circle.

The Obama administration -- with powerful figures such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates -- appears crowded at the top of the national security pyramid and heavy with military officials, including Jones himself and retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair as director of national intelligence. Special envoys to trouble spots -- former diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and former senator George J. Mitchell to the Middle East -- have been given broad presidential authority.

Although Jones said he strongly supports increased resources for the State Department, which is increasingly dwarfed by the size and expanding missions of the Defense Department, he has long been an outspoken proponent of a "pro-active military" in noncombat regions. He has advocated military collaboration with the oil and gas industry and with nongovernmental organizations abroad.

But Jones said he sees an administration filled with colleagues rather than competitors. Since Jan. 20, "I've had more meetings with the secretary of state and the secretary of defense than I've had in my entire lifetime," said Jones, who served as Marine Corps commandant, NATO military chief and, under Bush, a special Middle East envoy.

During a midafternoon interview last Thursday, Jones said he had already spoken face to face with Gates and had four telephone conversations with him that day. He has set up a standing Wednesday morning meeting with Gates and Clinton together in his office.

"I believe in collegiality . . . in sounding out people and getting them to participate," Jones said. "I notice the president is very good at that." But he made clear he plans to apply military-like discipline to the NSC. "The most important thing is that you are in fact the coordinator and you're the guy around which the meetings occur. When we chair a principals meeting, I'm the chairman." One of the first of many internal Bush administration clashes occurred when Cheney proposed that he, rather than Rice, chair NSC meetings.

In his initial conversations with Obama before taking the job, Jones confirmed, he insisted on being "in charge" and having open and final access to the president on all national security matters. "We engaged in about an hour-long discussion about what I was already thinking about the NSC; it happened, I think, to mesh pretty well with what his instincts were. He was clear about the role of the national security adviser," Jones said of Obama.

The NSC will take on all national security matters that are strategic in nature and "of such importance that the president of the United States would care" about them, he said. Action groups from various departments and agencies will be formed around specific issues for as long as it takes to resolve them. "Some of these things will be very short-term. When the problem goes away, the group goes away." Others will be ongoing. "An Afghan strategic review, that's going to take a while," Jones said. "The policy that is generated from that review, and the implementation, is going to take a while."

Some principals will be regulars at the NSC "just by force of issues," he said, and "you can't just designate the whole government as being there." But everyone should be kept aware of "what's going on" and given an opportunity to say, 'Wait a minute, I've got something to say here.' "


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