The relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and his departing national security adviser, James Jones, was doomed from the start. To be effective, an NSA must be personally close to the president and in sync with his operating style. Jones was neither. A marine and retired NATO commander, he was accustomed to formal decision-making structures and operational hierarchies. Obama, the lawyer-professor-politician, was inexperienced with executive organizations and preferred to work informally with trusted individuals. Jones somehow thought he could handle the job on his own terms, but Obama clearly expected responsiveness to his personal operating style. Further, as Bob Woodward reports in Obama’s Wars, Jones even admitted that he “‘wasn’t very good’ at being an aide” when Obama first approached him about the job. On top of all this, the two had barely met.
It is hard to find many besides Obama who thought that the relationship would work. But presidents can be stubborn, and in the short term they get what they want. Over time, they may find that it is not what they need. Although he did provide Obama ballast with the military at critical points -- especially during the 2009 Afghan policy review -- Jones could not be a truly effective counterweight because he was both unable and unwilling to enter the daily policymaking stream. Instead, he seems increasingly to have spent his time on ceremonial duties outside of Washington, such as attending the celebration marking the 20th anniversary of German unification. A level below, Thomas Donilon, Jones’ number two, handled day-to-day issues, working through the interagency National Security Council Deputies Committee. At the top level, the president looked to others for information, advice, and communication with the broader government. Sometimes Obama managed the decision-making process himself, reportedly going so far as personally drafting the summary of his November 2009 Afghan policy decisions.
Now that Jones has resigned, Obama has a second chance. His new choice, Donilon, looks more promising. He is already, in the president’s words, “one of my closest advisers.” If Jones has been strangely disconnected from the policy process, Donilon has been immersed in it. He understands the institutional territory and the policy options, having served not only as deputy NSA under Obama but as chief of staff to then Secretary of State Warren Christopher during the Clinton administration and as an aide in the Carter White House before that.
The easy conclusion would be that Obama’s NSA problem is solved. Just as Brent Scowcroft officially took over as Gerald Ford’s NSA in 1975 -- after having actually performed the role for two years while the one with the title, Henry Kissinger, focused on his other duties as secretary of state -- the man who has been doing much of the job already is now in charge. Scowcroft performed admirably for Ford and did even better two presidencies later under George H.W. Bush.
Hopefully, Donilon will do the same. But in addition to the formidable policy challenges ahead of him, Donilon faces obstacles in shaping the policy process. As Ivo Daalder and I wrote in In the Shadow of the Oval Office and Foreign Affairs, the records of 16 NSAs, from McGeorge Bundy under John Kennedy to Stephen Hadley under George W. Bush, show that the key to NSA effectiveness is establishing trust across the president’s senior team. Scowcroft recognized this. Although he came into the role with Bush’s confidence, he spent his first year muting his personal policy preferences in order to demonstrate to other senior officials that he could be an honest broker between them and the president. It was only after they came to trust him in this role that he felt free to push his own views.
Donilon needs to follow this example. He has ruffled feathers among the military by aggressively challenging their proposals to send additional troops to Afghanistan. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates reportedly said in the heat of that battle that Donilon would be a “disaster” as NSA. The two men have had multiple interactions since, but further repair work may be needed with the military. More generally, Donilon will have to establish his bona fides with Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a trusted, effective cabinet-level peer by showing both responsiveness to their concerns and strength in addressing presidential-level issues.