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December 01, 2008

General Jim Jones - National Security Advisor
Posted by Ilan Goldenberg

To effectively evaluate the appointment of General Jim Jones, it's very important to first understand what the national security adviser and National Security Council actually do.  For that, I'd recommend this piece from Ivo Daalder and I.M Destler (Though written in 2000, it's the best explanation I've seen of the function of the NSC).  As they explain, the most important task of the NSC is

coordinating the policy process so that, simultaneously, agencies get a full and fair hearing and the president can make clear foreign policy choices in a timely manner.

To do this, you need a strong and fair mediator as national security adviser.  Someone who can be trusted by the other agencies (especially State and Defense) to present all the options to the President fairly, while being careful to not take sides too loudly.   You need someone who is strong enough to ensure that there is a clear process for decision-making and that the paper flow to the President is well organized.  You need someone strong, who is respected by the other national security principals, to ensure that they don't try to win the argument by bureaucratically outmaneuvering the national security adviser.  Finally, as the national security official with most access to the President, you need someone that the President truly trusts and respects.

The first Bush term was an example of the disastrous consequences of a weak national security adviser.  Condi Rice was close to President Bush, but she was bureaucratically inexperienced compared to heavyweights such as Rumsfeld, Cheney and Powell.  The result was that Cheney and Rumsfeld would use other avenues to get to the President and influence decisions behind her back.  Rumsfeld went as far as not sending reprsentatives to interagency meetings.  Cooperation broke down between the various agencies.  One of the results was the completely disjointed and ineffective planning for the postwar period in Iraq, which truly did require cooperation from Defense, State, Treasury, Justice and other agencies.  Another, was the fact that the decision to go to war was made without all the principals getting to clearly and fairly make their case.  What mattered more in decision-making was not the quality of the argument, but how close you were to the President and whether you could gain access.  And thus more often than not Cheney and Rumsfeld won out.

Jones, on the other hand, seems to have exactly the traits that Rice lacked.  As a General he has a long history of experience with the national security bureaucracy and understanding how to work within it.  Setting up an organized decision-making process is a key part of the national security advisor's job description, and no institution is better at setting up clear decision-making processes than the military.  With his level of experience and the respect he commands, I also can't imagine the other principals trying to actively undermine the policy coordination process he sets up.  Moreover, as Matt Yglesias writes

He’s a career military guy who wasn’t known during that time for doing much “off the record” sharing of his views on policy issues — he followed orders, impressed people enough to keep getting promoted, and either kept his views to himself or else only shared them with people who are extremely tight-lipped.

I think that is exactly the type of guy you want running the NSC. He is not going to draw a lot of attention to himself. This really is a position where most of the work needs to be done behind the scenes and requires much less of a public persona than say Secretary of State or Secretary of Defense.  In fact, it's also worth remembering that Brent Scowcroft is known for running one of the most effective NSC's in recent times and he to came from a military background.  He generally took a similar approach, with James Baker spending much more time in the limelight, while Scowcroft worked behind the scenes.

Jones also has other strengths.  His experience as Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) is probably the best preparation any General can have for understanding diplomacy.  It also gave him a first hand look at the war in Afghanistan - a situation that will be at the top of Obama's agenda.  And of course, as Democrats work to actively build a stronger relationship with the military, choosing a General as the President's top national security aide sends a powerful message. 

Overall, I think this is a very compelling choice.


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The first Bush term was an example of the disastrous consequences of a weak national security adviser. Condi Rice was close to President Bush, but she was bureaucratically inexperienced compared to heavyweights such as Rumsfeld, Cheney and Powell.

This is an extremely important. Aside from the harms you mention is the fact that when our national security establishment is divided and disorganized, with competing power centers, other nations can see those divisions. Adversaries can exploit them by playing one center off against another. Friends lose confidence in the coherence and steadfastness of our policies and disengage from us.

The Bush administration was marred by endless, embarrassing, gossipy speculation about neocons, realists, Cheyneyites, Rumsfeldians, etc. and all the scheming and counterproductive intrigues this gossip engenders in our foreign relations. I hope that whatever foreign policy the Obama administration ends up pursuing, the world sees that there is one policy.

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