The harshest and most telling critique of Gen. James Jones' tenure as national security adviser is that his absence will barely be noticed. President Obama announced today that Jones is resigning and that his deputy, Tom Donilon, will replace him. But Donilon has been de facto national security adviser for many months now, while Jones has been, to a startling degree, a West Wing wallflower.
When Obama named Jones to the slot nearly two years ago, expectations were otherwise. Jones, a 40-year veteran, had served as the Marine Corps' commandant, chief of NATO, military assistant to a secretary of defense (William Cohen in the Clinton administration), commander of expeditionary forces in northern Iraq and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and, in his earliest days, a company commander in Vietnam.
In short, it seemed that Jones could be Obama's shrewd liaison to the Pentagon: a retired general who had credibility with the military on a variety of levels, who knew where the levers were and how to maneuver them. (I confess that I wrote a column at the time, concluding just that.)
Though not a great strategic thinker, Jones was widely regarded, by many of his friends and associates, as a skilled bureaucratic operator and an iron-hand organizer. If interagency squabbles were to erupt, as they do in most administrations (and, recall, many were speculating at the time that Hillary Clinton might try to pursue her own political ambitions as secretary of state), Jones seemed the right man to impose order.
Things turned out very differently. First, interagency disputes were (and, compared with most administrations, still are) relatively minor. There was little need to impose order from on high, and to the extent differences arose (mainly on personnel matters), the president and his political staff were able to handle them. Second, Obama struck up an unexpectedly close relationship with Robert Gates, who stayed on as secretary of defense and served as the key liaison with the military chiefs and the congressional armed services committees.
Finally, the national security adviser is an amorphous position. It's as powerful as the president wants it to be, and if the adviser wants his role to be larger, he has to carve out his own path to influence and power. Jones never found that path, or even his own footing, in the Obama White House. Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff, urged him to pick Tom Donilon as deputy national security adviser. Donilon was not only an experienced foreign-policy aide but also an inside player on Obama's campaign team. Obama continued to meet with Donilon directly, as did Emanuel, bypassing Jones.
Bob Woodward, in his book Obama's Wars, quotes Jones at some length about his bitterness toward this inner circle's denizens, calling them the "Politburo," the "Mafia," and the "campaign set."
But to the extent Jones was undermined, the fault was his own. Four-star generals, even retired ones, grow accustomed to assuming their authority when they enter a room. Aides and junior officers stand up; everyone around them salutes. Jones figured that the White House would be no different. He let down his guard, worked short hours, and found himself outflanked and marginalized.
The power equation was apparent even at today's Rose Garden ceremony, where Obama thanked Jones for his service to the country and welcomed Donilon onboard. While properly gracious and respectful toward Jones, Obama described him as "a steady voice in Situation Room sessions," while he hailed Donilon as "one of my closest advisers" and "a probing intellect" with "a remarkable work ethic."
The only surprise about Jones' resignation is that it didn't take place several months ago.