The key to understanding why President Obama picked deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon to replace Gen. James Jones has three grooves: one, Donilon is a civilian policy wonk loyal to the President who has been involved in every facet of foreign policy since the beginning of the administration; two, he's a politically-savvy Democrat; and three, he's an adviser whom the President can count on standing up to and pushing back against the military, when necessary.
The perception of Jones was that he was often indecisive, to the point where some of his colleagues would joke about the irony of his Secret Service code name: "Iron Hand."
But Jones, former commandant of the Marine Corps, was committed to the inter-agency process he oversaw and to the structure of the National Security Staff he helped create. This was deliberate on Jones's part: he believed the policy-making process was so "20th century" (in his words) and was committed to the new process he helped create, one that elevated issues like cybersecurity and climate change to the spectrum of issues that the National Security Staff wrestled with on a daily basis.
Obama selected Jones in part based on the private recommendation of Brent Scowcroft, the former Bush national security adviser, who told Obama that Jones would serve as an honest broker and would help the President navigate the complex terrain of civilian-military relations during a time of two wars. Jones had to first figure out how to handle the assortment of political and policy aides who knew the President better and could channel his voice; this led to friction that has lasted, in some degree, to this day.
Jones's colleagues at the White House credit him, along with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for the apparent success of the "Russian Reset," which resulted, most recently, in Russia's decision to move toward the U.S. on sanctions against Iran and to return money that Tehran paid to Moscow to purchase S-300 missiles (that Tehran now won't receive). Without Jones, a colleague said, the new START treaty with Russia might never have been negotiated.
If Bob Woodward's book, Obama's Wars, is canon, then two things are true: Jones, while initially warming to Donilon, grew wary of the man who would be his successor. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates does not view the prospect of Donilon's new job with enthusiasm. (Gates, today, said that he enjoyed a "good" working relationship with Donilon "despite what you may have read.")
"The Woodward characterization is way outdated and it does not reflect the current state of the relationship," a senior defense official said today. "They did some have issues back during the Af-Pak review, but those issues have been addressed and long since overcome, and they have enjoyed a good working relationship now for many, many months." The official added that Donilon's ascension does not affect Gates's own timetable for leaving the Pentagon.
In a statement released this afternoon, Gates said that "Tom brings a wealth of experience and seasoning into this critical position, particularly from his current tenure as Deputy National Security Advisor. As I can attest from firsthand experience, Tom has been in one of the toughest jobs in Washington and done it well."
If anything, it's Donilon's "tone" that offended Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, who didn't like Donilon's "butting in" to what were purely defense affairs. A Pentagon consultant who participated in the first Afghanistan review and who is close to several senior generals and admirals put it more starkly: "The military hates the guy."
A senior administration official said that Jones and Donilon "have a far broader working relationship than is reflected in that book," which means, essentially, that it could have been better, but it was not toxic.
Donilson gets along well with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said today that Obama had made a "wise" choice in selecting him.
Over the next several months, President Obama will govern amid an incredible amount of turnover in his foreign policy team: not only has Gates said that he will not be around forever, but Mullen's tenure as Joint Chiefs chairman comes to an end, along with that of Vice Chair Gen. James Cartwright, who gets along well with the President and his team. Other key positions that must be filled include the Chief of Naval Operations, the Chief of Staff of the Army, and the Commanding General of the Joint Special Operations Command, the nation's counterterrorism army. In December, the administration plans to assess the Afghanistan strategy, and in November, Obama plans a 10-day trip to Asia.
Jones had told the president he intended to leave during the final quarter of 2010. After Rahm Emanuel's resignation as chief of staff, Obama decided that, "[l]ooking prospectively, it's better to get the new team in place now and head fresh into this trip and this review," a senior administration official said.
Donilon shares Obama's impatience with the pace of the troop surge into Afghanistan, and he shares Obama's intention not to get mired in a years-long drawdown that will replace the conventional military footprint with a quasi-combat permanent presence.
He already attends the daily intelligence briefing, explaining to the President what policies are in place to contain and respond to the daily matrix of national security threats. He chairs the deputies process, which is what tees up issues for the President to decide. He has been quite aggressive in expanding the reach of that table, and there is not an issue that does not have, in some way, Donilon's fingerprints.
Donilon has been the NSS's point person on Iran, bringing together diplomatic, military, and intelligence policies. He's effectively the deputy to Secretary Clinton in managing the administration's new push for Middle East peace. And he's become active in working the administration's complex military and economic relationships with Asian countries.
"Donilon is viewed as uber-competent, a guy who knows how to work the bureaucracy to get things done. But he is not going to be a big thinker for Obama -- the President will have to turn elsewhere if he wants that," an adviser to the State Department said.