Gen. Jones and the Anonymous Long Knives

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By Sally Quinn
Monday, May 18, 2009

The knives are out. The tom-toms are beating. And by Washington standards it's soon. Usually the trashing of the national security adviser takes longer.

In recent days articles have appeared in The Post and the New York Times questioning the abilities of retired four-star Gen. Jim Jones, the former commandant of the Marine Corps and former NATO commander. Of all the power games in Washington, this one probably has the highest stakes. This is dangerous to the players and to the country.

The national security adviser is the person who sees the president most often and has his ear. Each adviser has his or her own style. Jones is reserved, confident and low-key; this does not sit well with his detractors. Traditionally the job of the national security adviser is to synthesize information between the secretary of state and the secretary of defense. This person is meant to listen to all voices and then present them to the president along with his own advice. Success or failure depends on the adviser's relationship with the president. Period. National security adviser is the most coveted job in foreign policy, even more so than secretary of state, under the thinking that while the secretary is traveling the globe, being America's ambassador to the world and eating a lot of bad food at boring banquets, the adviser is in Washington making and overseeing policy.

There is always pushback, sometimes from State, sometimes from the Pentagon. In the Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice could not control Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld or his mentor, Vice President Dick Cheney, who tried to marginalize Colin Powell at State. In her case the knives were out from both sides. The knives are always anonymous.

Today, the sniping is reportedly coming mostly from State Department officials and some staffers at the White House. Jones, not surprisingly, has a good relationship with the Pentagon. So who's out to get him? Reporters across town are being called and spun. Jones is out of it, they are told, doesn't show up; doesn't speak up at meetings; works only a 12 1/2 -hour day; doesn't stand next to the president in photographs; doesn't like to give interviews. Funny, but those all sound like things the national security adviser should be doing. Reporters are protecting their sources, but Hillary Clinton is apparently not behind the stories. She likes her job, those who have been spun say, and gets along well with Jones.

Meanwhile, the stakes are higher than ever: Iraq is not resolved. Iran could go nuclear at any moment. Pakistan, already a nuclear state, is chaotic. Afghanistan is hanging on by a thread. The Arab-Israeli peace talks have stalled. And that's not to mention North Korea and other hot spots. If ever there was a time to work as a team, this is it. If the leaders of those hot spots think that the Americans are internally divided and do not respect each other or that President Obama is too weak to control the sniping around him, it could be harmful to our foreign policy.

To be sure, Jones operates differently than many of those around him. His is a military staff style. Jones didn't seek this job and doesn't need it. He has no agenda except to serve the president. He is not interested in personal power. To some in Washington this is difficult to understand. After all, here is a man secure enough that he doesn't need to drape himself around the president in photos, to dominate meetings with his views, to assert himself publicly. He has already proved himself. He could be out making a fortune and taking his family on boat rides.

Obama has said many times that he wants to hear all voices. He famously assembled a team of rivals. And if those who are sniping think Jim Jones is not doing a good job, they should go directly to the president, not leak and spin to the press. That's their duty. Obama is not afraid to cut his losses. He did that with Jim Johnson, one of the vice presidential vetters, when questions arose about his role in the Fannie Mae scandal. Tom Daschle and Bill Richardson were dropped from Cabinet appointments. Which is why Obama should put an end to this sniping. Either Jones is doing a good job or he is not. If he is not, the president should make a change. If the president continues to have confidence in Jones, those who are attacking him should beware. They are messing with the wrong dude. Those ribbons on his uniform were not awarded for nothing.

The writer is a moderator, with Jon Meacham, of On Faith, an online conversation on religion.

For more Post opinions on Jones, read David Ignatius's National Security Facilitator.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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