By David Ignatius
Thursday, April 30, 2009
One of the puzzles of the Obama administration's first few months was how the National Security Council would work under Gen. James Jones. He had the tricky challenge of managing an all-star "team of rivals" and working with a young president who was just 6 when Jones went off to Vietnam in 1967 as a Marine Corps second lieutenant.
So far, the foreign policy process has generally been smooth, and one reason is that Jones has played a lower-profile role than some of his predecessors as national security adviser. That collegial style has helped avoid fireworks, but some analysts have wondered about Jones's own strategic views. Jones explained his outlook in an interview this week at the White House.
Jones's guiding philosophy, like Obama's, seems to be pragmatism. He wants to create what he calls a "21st-century NSC" that encompasses all the elements of national power and the diverse threats to American interests -- from energy to cyber-security to terrorism. In coordinating the big egos on the foreign policy team, he wants a collaborative process in which the national security adviser is a facilitator rather than an operator in his own right.
"I want to make sure the right people are at the table and that they're able to say what they want -- so that nobody walks away angry that their views weren't heard," Jones explains. "So far at the principals level it has been very collegial. Collegiality allows me not to have to be so much in the forefront."
Jones is an activist on the Palestinian issue, which he lists as a top priority for the new administration. He wants the United States to offer a guiding hand in peace negotiations -- submitting its own ideas to help break any logjams between the Israelis and Palestinians. "The United States is at its best when it's directly involved," Jones says. He cites U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Balkans. "We didn't tell the parties to go off and work this out. If we want to get momentum, we have to be involved directly."
This stance may antagonize the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as may the prospect of U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran. Ideally, the administration would like to explore a new security architecture for the Persian Gulf that recognizes Tehran's rising power but also sets limits. But officials caution that such broad talks won't happen quickly, given the mixed signals from Iran.
For now, the administration opposes any Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Asked if that view had been conveyed to the Israeli government, a senior official answered: "We have communicated with all regional actors that now is not the time for any kind of hostilities."
The hardest problem in the NSC in-box may be Pakistan. Several officials liken the deteriorating situation there to Iran in 1978, when a weak shah faced a rising Islamic insurgency. The lesson of history, some top officials have told Obama, is that the Pakistani military must take decisive steps against the Taliban insurgents now, before it's too late.
Jones is convinced that the NSC process must evolve to deal with these problems -- and with others that aren't yet visible. He wants a bigger, better-funded staff that can work better across agency boundaries, and he's building a new strategic planning cell that can "look beyond the horizon to see what's coming at us." In describing his plans for the NSC, he talks like a Marine -- stressing "agility, flexibility and proactivity."
Jones says that from reading books about past NSC advisers, it's clear that "presidents get the NSC they want." He believes that his collaborative approach is a good match for Obama's own style: "This is what suits the president's comfort level, so he can go around the table and speak to every member of the NSC."
This kind of NSC collaboration always sounds good in principle. The question is what to do when sharp disagreements arise about policy. Then the low-key style may not work, and the self-effacing retired general may have to summon his inner Henry Kissinger.
What comes across with Jones is a solid, experienced manager with a Marine's blunt approach to problems. Asked if he supported Obama's decision to release the torture memos, for example, Jones answered simply: "I did because I think it's the right thing to do. In my military experience, I came to believe that bad news doesn't improve with age. Better to put out bad news as you know it."