Jim Jones channels Donald Rumsfeld

Jim Jones channels Donald Rumsfeld

By Peter Feaver

Politico has a nice wrap-up of the recent "methinks he doth protest too much" coverage of General Jones, Obama’s National Security Advisor. Apparently, there has been something of a whispering campaign directed against Jones, and the White House made him available for extensive on the record interviews to push back against it.

My former wingman and current Shadow colleague, Will Inboden, has already discussed the penchant of credulous reporters to credit Jones with instituting major changes in the way national security policy is made with "reforms" that are carbon copies of how the last three administrations ran the interagency. However, one little snippet in the Washington Post’s piece on Jones leapt out at me and reminded me of another thing the Bush administration was credited with (or rather, discredited with). The snippet was presumably in response to a question like, "prove to me that you are actually influencing policy and not an empty suit, as some anonymous critics inside have been saying." In any case, here is what Karen DeYoung reported:

As Obama was mulling his first major foreign policy decision in February — whether to increase U.S. military deployments to Afghanistan this year — Jones said he intervened with questions about the information supplied by the Pentagon.

The numbers were "out of whack," Jones recalled. Beyond the requested 17,000-strong combat force, the military had included additional "enablers" that it said were required for logistical and other support functions. "I understand these ratios and what they ought to look like, and when they seemed a little high, I pushed back on it," he said. The numbers were reduced.

That sounds eerily like the interactions Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had
with CENTCOM during the planning phases of both the Afghan and the Iraq
wars. Is this the beginnings of a new Fiasco (cue Tom Ricks)?

Now as a card-carrying civil-military relations theorist, let me stipulate for the record that it is right and proper for civilian political leaders (and in this case, Jones is a civilian political leader, and indisputably acting on behalf of THE civilian political leader) to press the military on these sorts of issues and to decide in ways the military does not like. It is fully within the political competence of civilian leaders to decide they want a heavier or a lighter footprint — even if it turns out they are wrong about how many forces are needed. Civilians have the right to be wrong.

But when they do intrusively manage like this, they are very exposed if things go poorly. In those cases, the judgment of observers and of history can be severe (cue Tom Ricks again and everyone else who has written a bestseller excoriating Rumsfeld). That is why I was so surprised to see Jones reportedly bragging about his involvement in cutting force requests from the theater commanders. Perhaps he made the calculation that a credulous press would not follow-up with tough questions. If that was his calculation, then he may have been correct, because I have seen essentially no discussion of that issue.

One further point: while I can think of many cases of the Secretary of Defense (and of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) intrusively tinkering with the troop requests of combatant commanders in the past couple decades, I have not yet been able to come up with another example of a White House principal doing so since the controversial involvement of the White House in the planning and implementation of the disastrous Desert One Iranian hostage rescue attempt. I can think of many parallels from the Vietnam era and before, but in general, since Vietnam, the White House has been reluctant to tinker with battlefield requests, preferring to delegate that kind of involvement down to the Secretary of Defense level.

In that one respect, therefore, Jones may really be making policy in a way very different from how his immediate predecessors have done so. A change that dramatic deserves more attention and discussion than it has received to date.