James Jones: Obama’s National Security Surprise

December 1, 2008

jonesA year ago it would have seemed all but impossible. Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate with the earliest and most outspoken record of opposition to the war in Iraq, wouldn’t name the man who led the Marines during the run-up to the war — and failed to publicly criticize the operation’s flawed planning — as his closest national security aide.

But he has.And it’s a testament to both Obama’s needs as a young and untested Commander-in-Chief  and the political abilities of Gen. James Jones, Marine Corps commandant from July 1999 through January 2003, that Jones will fill one of the most powerful positions in America, National Security Advisor. At first glance, Jones doesn’t make a ton of sense as the man to help Obama through his now-familiar litany of challenges: two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a global anti-terror campaign, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, rising India-Pakistan tensions and a moribund Middle East peace process. Add to that list a new, self-created challenge:the selection of Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates — two smart, strong and politically opposed people — to head the traditionally antagonistic State and Defense Departments.

Obama doesn’t really know Jones. Back in October, then-candidate Obama said he’d valued Jones advice, but in fact, he’d only spoken with him twice at that point, and Jones was never in his close circle of advisors during the primaries or general election. Jones’ political affiliation is not clear, though he has never been called a Democrat, and his lack of public complaint during the planning for the war drew criticism, despite later reports that he had argued with Donald Rumsfeld and then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace. But those who know Jones say his strengths vastly outweigh his perceived weaknesses. In Jones, Obama gets someone with instant and deep understanding of military plans and details. He gets a 6’5″ Marine Corps veteran at his side who has firsthand experience of combat theaters from Vietnam to Bosnia and who earned Defense Distinguished Service Medal, a Silver Star and a Bronze Star with “V” for valor. While the uniformed military will follow the orders of the Commander-in-Chief no matter what, the public is more likely to support them when they’re being enforced by a decorated veteran with a long career on the battlefield.

Equally important, Jones has, by all accounts, exceptional political skills. “He obviously brings strong military discipline, but he is also a great diplomat, he’s very smooth,” says former Republican Congressman Amo Houghton, who worked with Jones as the senior Marine veteran in the House. “He knows how to salute, but at the same time he’s diplomatically firm.”

He will need to be, particularly in handling Clinton and Gates. He’ll start with a leg up. “[Clinton] has a great relationship with him which is based on her service in the Senate Armed Services committee,” says one Clinton foreign policy advisor. They have spent time in private discussions and informal dinners abroad. The advisor adds that Jones’ has managed to distance himself failures of pre-war Iraq planning under Rumsfeld: “He strikes me and others as being untainted by the Rumsfeld politicization of the officer corps.” Clinton’s relations with Gates are less warm, and managing that dynamic will be Jones’ hardest job. Clinton did vote to approve Gates and respects him, aides say, but even if their relationship was mutually fawning, institutional rivalries would inevitably make that short lived. One thing Obama can count on is that he’s getting in Jones an experienced military hand who should be able to handle two tough players in the cabinet. Whether all four can actually work together to tackle the global crises the country faces is another matter.

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