On Defense, a Team, Not Rivals

By David Ignatius
Sunday, June 7, 2009

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 that 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 is out of the loop and unprepared, doesn't stay late enough in the office and kicks his dog. (Actually, I made up the last part.)

Gates is well aware of the whispers (that's why he proposed the interview), but he dismissed them as "typical Washington. . . . If nobody's fighting, nobody's having fun." He says that the rumors are coming from "lower levels," not from any of the principals. And while the gossip is "not very helpful," he insists that it won't disrupt the real work.

You could argue that if Gates is countering the rumors, there must be a real problem. But I suspect that Gates is right, that it's a Washington parlor game. It does connect, however, with a question that's worth a serious look: How does the National Security Council operate in this administration? Obama has an ambitious foreign policy agenda -- he proposed in his speech Thursday in Cairo to heal the wounds of a generation. How does he make these big decisions? And how does Jones oversee the process?

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."

The Politburo members are younger than the foreign policy principals -- Jones, Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And they have a rapport with Obama that's reminiscent of the Georgians around Jimmy Carter. This is part of Jones's challenge -- managing a process where others will have special input. He needs to be an enabler for other advisers, rather than the president's confidant in chief. Jones has chosen that low-key approach, but it carries the risk that people will say he isn't plugged in.

"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 cellphone or even a land line."

Obama's choice of Jones reflected a desire for what one White House official describes as "regular order" after the secrecy and stove-piping of the Bush administration. "You want someone strong you can trust to run it, who will make sure everyone gets his voice heard," the official explains.

Gates argues that Jones's 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 biggest puzzle was how Obama would work with Clinton. But so far, that process has been surprisingly smooth. The two typically have a private weekly meeting, usually on Thursdays. Clinton has been a model deputy, maintaining a heavy travel schedule and avoiding anything that would undercut the president. "All that stuff people warned about, the 'team of rivals,' that hasn't happened," says the White House official.

Clinton challenges Obama in meetings, insiders say. She pressed early for more troops in Afghanistan, for example. One official speaks of "creative tension" and "informed debate" in NSC meetings. That kind of freewheeling interaction is what Obama wanted. And with Jones as the self-effacing debate moderator, that's what he has gotten.

The writer is co-host of PostGlobal, an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is davidignatius@washpost.com.

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