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James L. Jones and the committee to run the world

James L. Jones and the committee to run the world

In an interview with the Washington Post published Sunday, retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, Obama’s national security advisor, gave his most detailed public comments yet on his vision for how he plans to run the National Security Council (NSC).

Jones declared that Obama’s NSC would be “dramatically different” from its predecessors, in terms of enhanced power and government-wide coordinating authority across a larger group of federal agencies involved in the modern national security project. He vowed to eliminate “back channels” that allowed certain executive players to subvert the interagency process in the Bush-Cheney years, and to centrally coordinate and include a broader collection of federal agencies involved in the current national security project. “The most important thing is that you are in fact the coordinator and you’re the guy around which the meetings occur,” Jones told the Post. “When we chair a principals meeting, I’m the chairman.”

National security experts interviewed said a more powerful and integrative NSC makes sense given the more complex security challenges the United States confronts. But some said the reason why such lines of authority have been blurred and crossed in the past and the NSC has been a relatively weak institution are equally complex, having to do with the style and preferences of the president, the personal and professional relationships among players that bypass sanctioned interagency lines, and the fact that in the U.S. government, power and influence reside largely in the departments and agencies, with large numbers of personnel, resources, and connections to their Congressional committees.

“The single biggest factor in determining whether the NSC is important is the involvement of the president in national security policy,” said David Rothkopf, author of a history of the powerful council, Running the World. “If you go back and look at national security advisors, the more important ones than the others are the ones in a real partnership with president who wanted to be involved.

“For that reason, I think there’s plenty of evidence already to suggest that this will be a very powerful NSC,” Rothkopf continued. “Because Obama is engaged, and he does want to be involved. It seems to me that Obama is going to carry forward the long-term trend of having the center of gravity in national security policymaking increasingly be the White House.”

“To produce the kind of teamwork [needed for current national security challenges] takes a tremendous amount of integration,” said James Locher, executive director and president of the Project on National Security Reform, a congressionally funded, independent initiative that has studied how the U.S. government should be organized and in whose guiding coalition Jones participated. “The problem we’ve been experiencing, whether it’s 9/11 or Iraq or Afghanistan in stability operations or in the response to Hurricane Katrina, is that we could not produce that integration across departments and agencies.”

“General Jones says he would have a more central role, and … he has great leadership and management skills,” Locher continued. “He will play much more of a role in terms of guidance out to the system. One of the problems that we have had in the past is that we have gone from crisis to crisis and focused on handling the issues of today and tomorrow, and not spent time managing the system from a strategic perspective. General Jones shows that he is disciplining himself, that we have got to make these organizational changes if we ever hope to get on top of this.”

For all its access to the president, the NSC is relatively tiny. Its budget is estimated at only about $9 million, going to salaries and operating expenses. Of the current NSC staff, approximately 30 percent are employed by the NSC, and 70 percent are assigned there by other departments and agencies, one source said on background.

“As [George H. W. Bush’s national security advisor Brent] Scowcroft said often, the national security advisor job has two main components,” Rothkopf continued. “Staffing the president” — giving him talking points, handling phone calls, answering his questions, supporting him minute-to-minute on international issues — “and running the national security process. And it’s a balancing act.”

“The best-run process ever, by consensus, was Bush 41,” he said. “And part of the reason it was the best-run process was the president was the best friend of the national security advisor [Scowcroft], [plus] he was deeply engaged and knew exactly what he wanted.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Rothkopf that when he was a deputy national security advisor during Bush 41 and he had a question at an NSC deputies meeting, he would get up, walk down the hall, ask the president, and go back to the meeting. “It was a very congenial process with very clear direction from the top.”

Some observers said that differences between on-paper and in-practice lines of authority had emerged in recently publicized stories about appointment selections, including that of former Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who said Jones offered him and then rescinded the Iraq ambassador job. They described a “hidden hand” and “black box” of White House decision-making that suggested other forces prevailing in the process.

“They — at NSC and State — are trying to base selections on real, true expertise,” one former NSC source said on condition of anonymity. “But … Presidential Personnel is … a black box. In every important decision, people making the decision need some protection. … The silver lining may be that the hidden hand, which presumably waved through Geithner and Daschle’s problems, is now discredited, and the focus could shift back to expertise.”

“Personalities and knowing how the system works are very important,” said a former Hill Democratic foreign-policy hand with ties to the Obama team. “Those relationships are established de facto and de jure. Saying this is how it’s going to work is not the same as how it’s going to be.”

He suggested that the person who actually has Obama’s personal confidence in the NSC more than any other is Denis McDonough, the top foreign-policy advisor from the campaign who is now deputy assistant to the president and director of strategic communications in the NSC.

“The president loves Denis,” the former Hill staffer continued. “If the president is calling anybody at 2 a.m. on a foreign-policy question, it’s Denis. In every meeting with the president, whether it’s [with Middle East envoy George] Mitchell or on North Korea or Iran, Denis is in the room. He is always in eye-contact location with the president. He usually walks into the meeting with the president and leaves with him.”

McDonough “is becoming more powerful by the day,” he said.

UPDATE: A Hill foreign-policy hand writes, “Picking up on this excerpt from your post: ‘As Scowcroft said often, the national security advisor job has two main components. … Staffing the president … and running the national security process. And it’s a balancing act.’ I wonder if Obama has smartly structured his NSC so that he is relying on Jones and [deputy national security advisor Thomas] Donilon to run the interagency process while relying on Denis [McDonough]/[NSC chief of staff] Mark [Lippert] to do the POTUS staffing work – at which they are very good and experienced based on their campaign time.  Sort of a division of labor to allow everyone to maximize their strengths.”

TIM SLOAN/AFP/Getty Images