Can James Jones Survive a Second Round of Attacks and “Longer Knives”?

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james jones nsc.jpg
I am here in London where I’m participating in an interesting forum sponsored by the Princeton Project on National Security and the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) Transatlantic Program, I’ve received not just one email — but three — from prominent insider journalists and policy hands that Jim Jones’ tenure as National Security Adviser is highly fragile.
One of these emails reports starkly:

Knives getting longer

That’s all my contact said. But other emails have intimated to me a serious tone-deafness by Jones about his role and responsibilities, his relationship with the President, and his relationship with younger, dedicated, hardworking and late-working staff. Jones recently said that National Security Council staff members that stayed longer than 7:30 pm must be disorganized in their work.
I speak to various NSC officials — often at 10:00 or 11:00 pm at night. They are hardworking, racing as fast as they can to manage the many, many, many major initiatives that Barack Obama has decided to simultaneously pursue.
James Jones is considered by his admirers to be a genius when thinking about management structures and decision-making processes. On the other hand, his critics see him as a plodding, slow-moving, out of touch retired general who was better prepared to think about the last era rather than the one we are moving into. His critics think that he’s just too unable to animate nimble, high flex policy decision making products for a White House on a manic dash to get a lot of top tier issues dealt with.
Friends at the National Security Council respect a great deal the way in which NSC Deputy Tom Donilon is managing his brief. Many see him picking up the load that Jones seems unable or unwilling to carry. Donilon is deeply engaged in the broad Middle East and Iran portfolio, the non-proliferation/WMD/arms control portfolio, the China economic and security portfolio, and he has — according to reports — supported and helped cultivate relationship building between State, DoD, the NSC, and other parts of the national security bureaucracy.
Some tell me that James Jones decided to try and remove himself from the “whack-a-mole” crisis reaction style of decision-making that could rob the Obama administration of the chance to define a new course in national security affairs. Tom Donilon, according to reports, wields far more the hand of power when it comes to day to day management and responding to crises that require presidential attention and response.
Jones, in contrast, has been obsessed with the structure of decisions — who is involved in those decisions, what the structure of decision-making should be, and what legal modifications to this process need to be made. He looks at that as the big nut that needs to be cracked — and that would improve, according to Jim Jones, the President’s effectiveness and chances of success at a macro level.
Jones’ self-determined task is not high profile, mostly structural, and has not won him many admirers for leadership — but what he is doing is necessary. If he departs his role, this challenge of dealing with the growing complexity of national security threats and the vital need to recalibrate the policy making and decision-making process will require the attention of someone serious.
So, whether Jones stays or goes — his portfolio will remain vital.
But what is clear is that Jones has enemies and that they are trying to undermine his place in the Obama orbit.
Their motives may not be earnest concern about the tempo or pace of Jones’ management style — but they very well could be his unwillingness to allow the liberal interventionists inside the Obama administration to have more than their fair share of power in the Obama decision-making process.
Jones has structured an all views on the table approach to decision making — quite evident when it comes to Middle East policy — and the hawkish/neocon-friendly/Likudist-hugging part of the Obama administration’s foreign policy operation may be engaged in a coup attempt against Jones.
I don’t know if he’ll survive this latest effort to oust him — but folks need to know that those “longer knives”, on the whole, do not have pure motives.
– Steve Clemons

Comments

22 comments on “Can James Jones Survive a Second Round of Attacks and “Longer Knives”?

  1. David says:

    If you’re the guy who is still at his desk when some late evening crisis blows up, you’re in a great position to poke your head up, get noticed and jump over others in your way. Perhaps Jones is just trying to discourage some of this competitive self-promotion. Some of the sniping just sounds like fairly typical tensions between older

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  2. Sand says:

    ho hum… just passing on stuff to add to the gossip pile.
    Jones vs. Ross – Knock Out In The Third Round
    http://www.moonofalabama.org/2009/06/jones-vs-ross-knock-out-in-the-third-round.html#more

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  3. Ronald says:

    People find Jones very impressive. But he doesn’t actually get the job done. As SACEUR, he allowed his General Officers to run amok and put their personal agendas ahead of mission accomplishment. This resulted in foreign policy efforts that were uncoordinated, inconsistent, and left allies confused and unwilling to cooperate.
    His talkaholic intel chief (Gen Fast)went on to head intel in Iraq, bringing torture to Abu Graib, etal.
    He failed to reduce our force presence in Europe, which was his mandate, leaving us tied to expensive bases that were, and will continue to be, difficult to deploy from in time of war.

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  4. Rowan Berkeley says:

    “Back in 2008, when Jones served as then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s special adviser on Israeli-Palestinian security issues, he authored a report calling for the US to assess what Israel’s ‘real’ security interests in Judea and Samaria are and to limit US support to Israel to filling those necessarily minimal interests. Jones’s report, which rejected all Israeli claims in Judea and Samaria and underplayed the strategic significance of Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist, was viewed as deeply hostile toward Israel, and the Olmert government prevailed on the Bush administration to set it aside.”
    Caroline Glick, JPost, Jun 12 2009

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  5. Radius KD7 says:

    What? Is AIPAC throwing a hissy fit?

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  6. matter says:

    re: “the hawkish/neocon-friendly/Likudist-hugging part of the Obama administration’s foreign policy operation may be engaged in a coup attempt against Jones.”
    Talk about burying the lede!
    Why not state the obvious upfront and name names?
    The Zionist traitors within the (nominal) Obama administration are pursuing an Israel-first agenda; Jones is standing in the way.

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  7. NatSecurity says:

    Steve Clemons is so dead on in this post; fair; balanced; smart;
    judicious; compelling. I just saw this via Politico and think the blog
    is very smart. Why don’t we have other such nuanced and fair
    reporting on these issues in the blogosphere. My hat is tipped to
    Mr. Clemons. Whether Jones stays or leaves, Clemons has
    articulated better than anyone I have read, and I have read a lot,
    what the trade-offs are for the President. Thanks Steve.

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  8. anIRprof says:

    Two thoughts.
    First, Steve’s “liberal interventionists” remark was interesting. Don’t forget that Samantha Power ended up in an NSC position, and knowing someone who was considered for a job under her, Power certainly had no intention of standing back and letting “realists” run the show. Given her propensity for drama and closeness to Obama, I wonder if that’s part of what’s up…
    Secondly, on the long hours, no doubt the “last guy to leave” dynamic is there, but the NSC really does have a tough job. How many people do you think work there? I asked a group of military officers once, and they figured at least the size of a combatant command, like CENTCOM — 2,000 or more. The correct number is about 100, even as low as 75 at points under G.W. Bush. That absolutely astonished those colonels — it is not many people to coordinate that much activity among so many departments.

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  9. James Douglas Orton says:

    For the wonks among us, it might help to take a look at Recommendation Number 3 of the Project on National Security Reform. (See http://www.pnsr.org) Recommendation 3 called for the strengthening of the national security advisor position away from crisis management toward longer-term, integrative, strategic thinking.

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  10. Don Bacon says:

    Oh — one of my military anecdotes: A military boss said to me once: “Don’t let the door hit you in the ass.” I worked hard all day, was productive (sez me), ate lunch at my desk, had a one-hour commute and I had a family, so I was amused. Still am.

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  11. Don Bacon says:

    Dan,
    Exactly. I’m (more) proud of you, an academic, for picking up on that ‘stay-at-the-desk-later-than the-other-guys’ syndrome which I saw first-hand during my twenty years in the military. What they mainly do is sit at their desks after the working stiffs leave and network over the ‘phones to similar upward climbers, like a bunch of gossiping washerwomen.

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  12. Zathras says:

    I may be a little old-fashioned about these things, but my first question to some of Steve Clemons’ sources is what the hell they are doing calling him at 10 in the evening. In the age of the blogosphere, he has to be considered as just another journalist. Officially approved leaks can be provided to him during normal business hours; NSC staffers providing the other kind should be doing something else, with their time if they can forego leaking about their superiors and with their careers if they cannot.
    With respect to Gen. Jones, it seems to me that he has recognized that an administration with a foreign policy team composed of strong personalities from disparate backgrounds won’t function well over the long haul without orderly procedures. He has taken it upon himself to begin establishing such procedures. Naturally all the White House staffers who would like to see decisions made that bypass the Secretary of State or the Pentagon or the DNI object to this, something I hope President Obama recognizes and thinks is just too bad. His NSC staffers work in the West Wing, not on “The West Wing.”

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  13. Dan Kervick says:

    The previous administration, especially the first term, was marked by “stovepiping”, “angling” and all the other Machiavellian shenanigans that allowed the foreign policy and national security process to be hijacked by a usurping vice president and some allies in the defense department, on the strength of sheer chutzpah and sharp elbows, and exploiting a weak president and weak White House national security operation. I’m reading between the lines here, but it sounds like Jones is catching flak because he is trying to restore some order to this process of coordinating the legitimate operations of the different departments of government, and is trying to lessen the role of naked ambition in the policy process.
    The comment about the late hours is also interesting, as is Steve’s remark that he often speaks to various NSC officials at 10:00 or 11:00 at night. My guess that in the national security field especially, putting in long hours is part of jockeying for position and influence. If you’re the guy who is still at his desk when some late evening crisis blows up, you’re in a great position to poke your head up, get noticed and jump over others in your way. Perhaps Jones is just trying to discourage some of this competitive self-promotion. Some of the sniping just sounds like fairly typical tensions between older, experienced hands trying to maintain a balanced and businesslike process in the workplace and younger go-getters on the make, eager to change the world and climb the career ladder several rungs at a time.
    Being hard-working is great. But when workaholics with no lives chain themselves to their desks, that puts unfair pressures on their hard-working but more balanced colleagues, in the same department or other departments of government. Jones might be right to suggest some of these folks should get a life, and go home at a reasonable time to spend more time with their families. Despite what they might think, the world probably won’t blow up while their indispensable selves are out of the office. The country needs their service, no doubt. But their kids need them to help with homework and show up at baseball games.

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  14. Don Bacon says:

    Eliminating al Qaeda “safe havens” all over the Muslim world is the current rationale for an expanded (call it world) war. Sufficient war locales are guaranteed because the US is hated in every Muslim country, and not because “They hate our freedoms” –George W. Bush, March 18, 2002. What they hate is getting blown to bits.
    I’m not a huge Colin Powell fan, but he did say this: “What is the greatest threat facing us now? People will say it’s terrorism. But are there any terrorists in the world who can change the American way of life or our political system? No. Can they knock down a building? Yes. Can they kill somebody? Yes. But can they change us? No. Only we can change ourselves. So what is the great threat we are facing?
    “I would approach this differently, in almost Marshall-like terms. What are the great opportunities out there—ones that we can take advantage of? It should not be just about creating alliances to deal with a guy in a cave in Pakistan. It should be about how do we create institutions that keep the world moving down a path of wealth creation, of increasing respect for human rights, creating democratic institutions, and increasing the efficiency and power of market economies? This is perhaps the most effective way to go after terrorists.”
    http://men.style.com/gq/features/full?id=content_5900&pageNum=3
    This is the sort of thinking that the US needs in a National Security Advisor, “Marshall-like”. Somebody who thinks outside the ‘Mo War’ box.

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  15. Bart says:

    Depressing News from the NYT this morning:
    “Some in Qaeda Leave Pakistan for Somalia and Yemen
    By ERIC SCHMITT and DAVID E. SANGER
    American officials say they are seeing evidence that a handful of Al Qaeda leaders are leaving Pakistan’s tribal areas for new havens.”
    Will that be two more countries to expose to our freedoms?

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  16. DavidT says:

    Steve,
    I’ve been waiting to see you do some sort of piece on Jones. He seems to be pretty invisible, even more so than Brent Scowcroft was — one or our more circumspect national security advisors. What I don’t understand is why you’re turning this topic, which so far there has no evidence provided (by you or anyone else) that attempts for his ouster are ideologically motivated. Yes we all have our policy preferences, and it may be that when you push for a particular policy position your motives aren’t pure (whose are after all). However in this case the few mentions on this topic in the press has been regarding his difficulty transitioning to a staff position and not really taking command of the job that is so critical. If he’s ineffectual why would those who wish to keep your supposed “long-knifed” liberal internationalists at bay wish to get rid of him?
    Furthermore, if this really is a competence issue, shouldn’t the first criteria for moving forward be how to get someone in place who is better suited to the job (in addition to being a judicious presenter of all the various options the president and his national security team need to avail themselves of).
    BTW, congratulations on getting the washingtonnote url.

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  17. Don Bacon says:

    Tom Ricks sez: “I am picking up the vibe that some powerful people want to have Defense Secretary Robert Gates move over to the White House to replace retired Marine Gen. James Jones as national security advisor.”
    http://ricks.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/06/11/washington_whispers_gates_to_replace_jones_0

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  18. Curious observer says:

    This makes a Bill Lind column from earlier this month, titled “Stop Letting Cheney Frame the Torture Debate,” all the more prescient/ominous.
    Lind cites the late Col. John Boyd, who said war is fought on three levels — moral, mental, physical. And the moral is the most important. Cede the moral ground, and no amount of firepower will make a difference in the end.
    Money quote, directed at Obama: “First, when this issue comes up again (and it will), go to your NSC director, Gen. Jim Jones, for advice. He is familiar with Boyd’s work. Your political people are not.”
    Lind’s column is here:
    http://original.antiwar.com/lind/2009/06/02/stop-letting-cheney/
    Scary, scary, scary.

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  19. b says:

    Sounds to me like Jones is doing the job exactly as it should be done. Diligent, integrating and structuring while leaving the details to his stuff.

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  20. JohnH says:

    Is it really the hawkish/neocon-friendly/Likudist-hugging part of the Obama administration’s foreign policy operation that is engaged in a coup attempt against Jones? Or are they agents of a foreign government intent on undermining the American government and making it behave contrary to its national interest?

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  21. Don Bacon says:

    SC: “On the other hand, his critics see him as a plodding, slow-moving, out of touch retired general who was better prepared to think about the last era rather than the one we are moving into.”
    This is an apt description, minus the general part, for most of the operatives Obama has retained or re-hired, disappointing progressives that really believed his promises of change. Iraq, corporate welfare, Nafta, jobs, economic justice — the list goes on.

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  22. Josh Meah says:

    Point of inquiry Steve:
    “Jones, in contrast, has been obsessed with the structure of decisions — who is involved in those decisions, what the structure of decision-making should be, and what legal modifications to this process need to be made. He looks at that as the big nut that needs to be cracked — and that would improve, according to Jim Jones, the President’s effectiveness and chances of success at a macro level.”
    I don’t know if you are at liberty to say, but does this mean Jones is interested in keeping everything legal while the other players are attempting to simply act as fast as possible without a legal process?
    Is he the opposite of the subvert Constitution and Department of Justice Cheney and Addington style of leadership?
    Or do you mean to say that he’s just unable to handle the breadth of challenges that the country faces and instead just gets bogged down in strategically irrelevant material?
    Thanks,
    - Josh

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