James Jones’ Death Spiral

We can now officially begin the death watch for National Security Adviser James Jones. In a front page article in today’s Washington Post, Jones admits he is the odd man out:

Jones, reserved and ramrod straight, with a steady, blue-eyed stare, is the unquestioned odd man out at the White House in both background and personality. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff, is known as hyperactive and hyperbolic. On the National Security Council (NSC), chief of staff Mark Lippert and strategic communications director Denis McDonough are intense, stay-late-at-the-office foreign policy experts whose ties to Obama are long and deep. Deputy national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon has an extensive history with the Democratic Party and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.


I’m a 20-years-older-than-anybody-around outsider,” Jones said. “I’m a former general. And it took me a while to get the president to call me by my first name. Now, I’m ‘Hey, you,’ ” he said with a laugh.

“But there is a generational thing here. There is a process thing here. I’m used to staffs, and I’m used to a certain order. I’m used to people having certain roles. And so there’s a very natural adjustment period.”

He also admits that he’s just not as motivated as the people who work with him:

Jones said he is “not used to being in the center of these things. . . . But if I’m not living up to other people’s views of what the national security adviser should look like he’s doing . . . like my hair is on fire all the time,” so be it. “I did that in my life, a couple of generations ago, I was a gung ho major, and a gung-ho lieutenant colonel, and I sacrificed my family life for my career.”

If he can reform the NSC’s structure and process, he said, “then everybody can go home and have dinner with their families. Because they’ll have enough depth and robustness so that we can tee up issues — not constantly in a crisis mode.”

Not a single person in the article disagreed with him on either count.

This is really no surprise. Jones’ primary qualifications for the job of national security adviser were an impeccable military resume and being on record as calling Iraq a “debacle” back in 2005. These two items gave Obama cover in dealing with his own disinterest in national security (here | here). Unfortunately for Jones, his ego allowed him to overlook the fact that the real qualification for the job is a close personal relationship with the president so that the twin bulls in the US national security china shop, Defense and State, can be made to work towards a common goal.

A mere two months ago he was touting his centrality in the new NSC:

The result will be a “dramatically different” NSC from that of the Bush administration or any of its predecessors since the forum was established after World War II to advise the president on diplomatic and military matters, according to national security adviser James L. Jones, who described the changes in an interview. “The world that we live in has changed so dramatically in this decade that organizations that were created to meet a certain set of criteria no longer are terribly useful,” he said.

Jones, a retired Marine general, made it clear that he will run the process and be the primary conduit of national security advice to Obama, eliminating the “back channels” that at times in the Bush administration allowed Cabinet secretaries and the vice president’s office to unilaterally influence and make policy out of view of the others.

Today, the story is a bit different.

“But there is a generational thing here. There is a process thing here. I’m used to staffs, and I’m used to a certain order. I’m used to people having certain roles. And so there’s a very natural adjustment period.”

“My calculus was that it would take six months,” Jones said. “We’re about halfway there, and I think every week gets a little better.”

Despite early predictions that Obama’s “team of rivals” would clash, Jones by all accounts has facilitated smooth relations among high-profile Cabinet members.

In the White House, Jones said he has had to adjust to the relatively free flow of advice that Obama encourages. “When I first went into the Oval Office, I didn’t expect six other people from the NSC to go with me,” he said. Now, he said, “I think the president and I are very comfortable with the fact that I don’t have to be the shadow. I don’t have to be there all the time. I really have great people. I want them to be trusted.”

This reeks of pathos. Note to General Jones. When you aren’t in the room with the president when policy is being discussed, but your notional subordinates are, you aren’t a player. It isn’t a question of the president trusting them, he does, but rather whether he trusts you.

Like a lot of retired officers who go into government and business, Jones is learning a brutal lesson somewhat late in life. One of the virtues of military service is that you are never a direct threat to your boss’s job and none of your subordinates are a threat to yours. Because of the clear lines of authority and the power you have, and are subjected to, by virtue of the efficiency report system and the UCMJ loyalty is assumed. Now Jones is in a true snakepit. His subordinates want to aggrandize as much power as possible to themselves. They owe nothing to Jones because he didn’t choose them for their jobs and he doesn’t have the clout to either get rid of them or bring them in line.

James Jones has become an irrelevancy and will soon be spending more time with his family.