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In Frenetic White House, A Low-Key 'Outsider'

By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 7, 2009

President Obama's national security adviser, James L. Jones, looks for rare opportunities to ride his bike from his McLean home to work at the White House. On occasion, he has pedaled back across the Potomac River for lunch. He tries to end his workday at 7 p.m.

In recent weeks, Jones has been portrayed in foreign policy articles and blogs as too measured and low-key to keep pace with the hard chargers working late hours in the West Wing. Some senior White House officials questioned early on whether Jones, 65, a retired four-star Marine general who barely knew Obama before the election, would succeed among younger staffers whose relationships with the president were forged during the long and arduous campaign.

"He's not very visible," said I.M. Destler, co-author of a recent book on national security advisers. "I'm a skeptic on whether Jones has the sort of flexibility and ability" required by Obama, Destler said.

White House officials who cited early misgivings, more stylistic than substantive, insisted they have now disappeared. But Jones acknowledges that the road has not always been smooth, and he appears more comfortable than some of his administration colleagues in saying they still have some distance to travel.

It is "absolutely" fair to say that it has taken some time for him and his colleagues to get used to each other, Jones said in an interview Tuesday. "From this West Wing, in particular, because this is Obama Nation, right? True? This is where the Obama election campaign came, landed, en masse."

Jones, reserved and ramrod straight, with a steady, blue-eyed stare, is the unquestioned odd man out at the White House in both background and personality. Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, is known as hyperactive and hyperbolic. On the National Security Council (NSC), chief of staff Mark Lippert and strategic communications director Denis McDonough are intense, stay-late-at-the-office foreign policy experts whose ties to Obama are long and deep. Deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon has an extensive history with the Democratic Party and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"I'm not only an outsider, but

I'm a 20-years-older-than-anybody-around outsider," Jones said. "I'm a former general. And it took me a while to get the president to call me by my first name. Now, I'm 'Hey, you,' " he said with a laugh.

"But there is a generational thing here. There is a process thing here. I'm used to staffs, and I'm used to a certain order. I'm used to people having certain roles. And so there's a very natural adjustment period."

"My calculus was that it would take six months," Jones said. "We're about halfway there, and I think every week gets a little better."

Despite early predictions that Obama's "team of rivals" would clash, Jones by all accounts has facilitated smooth relations among high-profile Cabinet members.

In the White House, Jones said he has had to adjust to the relatively free flow of advice that Obama encourages. "When I first went into the Oval Office, I didn't expect six other people from the NSC to go with me," he said. Now, he said, "I think the president and I are very comfortable with the fact that I don't have to be the shadow. I don't have to be there all the time. I really have great people. I want them to be trusted."

Jones has a distinguished résumé: Marine Corps commandant, supreme allied commander in Europe and, after his military retirement, a Bush administration envoy on Israeli-Palestinian security issues.

He has appeared at Obama's side during trips overseas -- and was instrumental, according to European officials, in resolving a potential blow-up during last month's NATO summit over appointment of the new secretary general.

He regularly chairs meetings of the national security "principals," which include the secretaries of state and defense. Yesterday, he conducted an unusual on-camera briefing for reporters after Obama's meetings with Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Although the administration is barely more than 100 days old, Jones has launched an ambitious restructuring of the White House national security apparatus so it can focus on modern issues such as energy and climate change. He has emphasized the "bottom up" approach to decision-making that both he and Obama favor, Jones said, in which issues are first discussed in working groups, then brought to the "deputies committee" of representatives from Cabinet departments.

"If you want things to go beyond your tenure," Jones said, "you'd better get a lot of buy-in into the big things."

Jones said he feels no hesitation in differing with Cabinet members and offering both solicited and unsolicited advice, with others and privately, to the president.

As Obama was mulling his first major foreign policy decision in February -- whether to increase U.S. military deployments to Afghanistan this year -- Jones said he intervened with questions about the information supplied by the Pentagon.

The numbers were "out of whack," Jones recalled. Beyond the requested 17,000-strong combat force, the military had included additional "enablers" that it said were required for logistical and other support functions. "I understand these ratios and what they ought to look like, and when they seemed a little high, I pushed back on it," he said. The numbers were reduced.

When Obama was under pressure to review the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gay service members, Jones said he went "to see him personally on it" and advised him not to add another controversy to his already-full plate. The president, Jones said, took his advice.

Jones "is not over-excited over sudden crises and problems; he has a sort of steady strategic perspective," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as Jimmy Carter's national security adviser. But Brzezinski questioned whether anyone at the White House can "get the president to exploit what is unique about the presidency, which is the ability to take grand initiatives."

Jones said he is "not used to being in the center of these things. . . . But if I'm not living up to other people's views of what the national security adviser should look like he's doing . . . like my hair is on fire all the time," so be it. "I did that in my life, a couple of generations ago, I was a gung ho major, and a gung-ho lieutenant colonel, and I sacrificed my family life for my career."

If he can reform the NSC's structure and process, he said, "then everybody can go home and have dinner with their families. Because they'll have enough depth and robustness so that we can tee up issues -- not constantly in a crisis mode."

Staff writers Scott Wilson and Glenn Kessler contributed to this report.

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