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Security job goes to insider

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Donilon (Chip Somodevilla)

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2010

President Obama's promotion of Thomas E. Donilon on Friday to the post of national security adviser is an acknowledgment that the administration is entering a phase in which domestic political considerations will press more forcefully on foreign policy decisions.

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Donilon, the most senior deputy national security adviser, will replace James L. Jones in the top job by the end of the month. The transition, which Obama outlined Friday in a Rose Garden ceremony, will ensure continuity in policy as the war in Afghanistan enters a decisive stage and elevate an ally of Vice President Biden, who argued most strenuously against a large military escalation there.

Although Jones's departure has been expected, it comes as the Obama administration is beginning to reorganize its policy and political operations in preparation for the term's second half. Obama's conservative critics complain that his foreign policy, particularly his plan to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next summer, is driven too much by his political calculations.

Donilon, a lawyer who served as Secretary of State Warren Christopher's chief of staff during the Clinton administration, has been a nearly invisible behind-the-scenes player in Washington for decades. But he brings a far richer understanding of Washington's political culture than did Jones, a retired Marine general who often found himself outside the bureaucratic loop during his short tenure as national security adviser.

Although less well known than his predecessor in foreign capitals, Donilon understands Congress, party politics and the electoral map in a way that could prove invaluable to Obama at this point in his presidency.

Obama is looking to wind down two wars, create jobs by promoting U.S. exports in places such as China, and broker a peace settlement in the Middle East - issues that could energize or alienate various parts of the Democratic base as he begins his bid for reelection in 2012.

"Tom has a wealth of experience that will serve him well in this new assignment," Obama said. "We have some huge challenges ahead."

Obama said he is "extraordinarily thankful" to Jones for coming out of retirement two years ago to join the administration, calling him a "steady voice" during White House briefings and in meetings with foreign leaders.

He brought decades of national security experience to the post and military credibility to an administration whose senior civilian members have never served in uniform.

But Jones often had trouble fitting into a National Security Council dominated by several hard-charging veterans of Obama's campaign who have known the president for years. His condition for initially taking the job - that he would be the last one to see Obama on the most pressing national security issues of the day - often went unmet.

"I think in many ways he was underrated," said a White House official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal personnel assessments. "But there has been a lame-duck quality to this for months."

Donilon has run the "deputies meetings" that gather the No. 2-ranking officials from across the national security bureaucracy, turning them into an even more important and influential venue for initial policy decisions and strategy.


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