Despite stature, James L. Jones was awkward fit in Obama White House as national security adviser
Friday, October 8, 2010; 10:11 PM
The question about James L. Jones was never whether he would be among the first senior officials to depart the Obama administration. The question was always how soon.
Jones was the obvious outsider in the White House he called "Obama Nation," a rarified land populated by veterans of the rough-and-tumble 2008 presidential campaign. A generation older than the president and those immediately around him, Jones is a retired Marine general of stature and experience who believes in the hierarchy of command and the inherent wisdom of orderly decision making.
That was what President-elect Obama wanted when he asked Jones, a man he barely knew, to become his national security adviser. Obama - with two ongoing wars but no military background, with plans to remake America's image and role in the world but limited foreign policy experience - saw Jones as adding maturity and reassuring gravitas.
It was an awkward fit from the start. "It took me a while to get the president to call me by my first name," Jones said midway through Obama's first year.
But while Jones eventually developed what he saw as a working relationship with the president, he remained outside the inner circle in the White House. Obama campaign aides, with assignments both foreign and domestic, maintained free access to the president, who sometimes failed to stay true to his promise that Jones's voice would be the last he heard on national security matters.
Barely four months after the inauguration, Jones asked Obama to clarify the situation, particularly regarding senior campaign aides Mark Lippert, who had been given the job of Jones's chief of staff, and Denis R. McDonough, then the National Security Council's director of strategic communications. Rumors swirled around the White House that Jones, who tried to limit himself to a 12-hour day instead of the 16 hours or more many spend there, was not as energetic as the youngsters.
Lippert departed in October, and difficulties were smoothed over with McDonough. Now NSC chief of staff, McDonough is expected to take the job of deputy national security adviser, replacing Thomas E. Donilon, who is moving into Jones's job.
"Some of it calmed down," said one person close to Jones, who spoke on condition of anonymity. But "after all that Obama had done to practically beg him to take that job . . . Jim had the sense that Obama didn't really care. In a way, it was like [former president George W.] Bush and Colin Powell," another distinguished former general. Bush, the source said, "wanted Powell" as his secretary of state, but seemed to attend more to others once he had him.
McDonough went out of his way Friday to praise his outgoing boss, describing him as running an "empowering" NSC. Jones, McDonough said, "built an organization" and created a structure "that will endure after he is gone, which I think is the best commendation of his work."
David Rothkopf, author of "Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power," called Jones "the least successful national security adviser" in decades.
Others credited him with success in resetting the U.S. relationship with Russia, serving as an effective presidential emissary to difficult allies such as Pakistan and India, and holding back military excesses in Afghanistan. Some praised Jones for expanding the national security mandate into new areas of economic and environmental policy.
"He has obvious strengths as a brilliant military leader, very strong at NATO," where he served as supreme allied commander, "and commandant of the Marines," said Thomas R. Pickering, a senior career diplomat who served as undersecretary of state in the Clinton administration. "It was very clear the president wanted a man in uniform, with [Jones's] mind-set, to make sure the NSC functioned in a way compatible with his beliefs."
"Under the circumstances, I think he did well," said Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter. "The mandate was shared by too many at the very top," he said, "with no one really directly in charge of interpreting the president's strategic impulses. As a result, there is a real gap between promise and performance."
"I don't blame Jones for that," Brzezinski said. "To some extent, the president and his domestic advisers, who are heavily involved in foreign policy, are responsible for that."
Both Brzezinski and Pickering described Obama's White House team as unable to translate what Pickering called Obama's "expansive views" and "strategic vision" into a foreign policy to match.
"There is a resistance to taking the risks necessary to carry out those expansive views," Pickering said.
Rothkopf said Obama's elevation of Donilon only increases the insularity of this White House. "With Jones, at least you had the illusion of a man of great stature in this important job. We've gotten rid of that and said, no, what we want is Donilon. He's going to make the trains run on time. He's a super-staffer."