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Looking ahead to the post-Rahm White House

Looking ahead to the post-Rahm White House


The big political news today is that Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s chief of staff, is leaving the White House and heading to Chicago to try to fill the big shoes of Richard Daley, the outgoing mayor. The move will surprise nobody who’s been paying attention for the last few weeks, but this report, in the Chicago Sun-Times, seems definitive.

I’ll leave it to the domestic-policy folks to assess whether Rahm did a good job. What I’m more interested in is what his departure means for Obama’s foreign-policy team.

Major shakeups are on the way next year: Both Jim Jones, the national security advisor, and Bob Gates, the defense secretary, have told reporters they’re headed for the exits in 2011. This creates a bit of a timing crunch for Tom Donilon, Jones’s highly capable and hard-working deputy, who is a leading contender to be either chief of staff or national security advisor.

Richard Wolffe lays out a rather earnest case for Donilon as Rahm’s replacement here, channeling his White House sources in arguing that Donilon’s work ethic, organizational chops, and range of policy experience qualifies him to be what is essentially America’s prime minister.

Wolffe comes up short, however, in responding the critiques of Donilon laid out in Obama’s Wars, Bob Woodward’s new book.

Woodward’s sources have a couple main beefs. The main one is that, for all his foreign-policy knowledge, Donilon doesn’t understand the military, is often disrespectful toward top generals and Pentagon staffers, and makes snap judgments without considering all the options. Gates thinks Donilon would be a "disaster" as national-security advisor, according to Woodward, who also writes that Jones would "never in a million years" have made Donilon his deputy had he known how the White House dynamics would play out (Rahm had recommended Donilon, and Woodward says the men were like "two tuning forks — when one vibrated, so did the other"). It’s also clear that Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, can’t stand the guy.

In one memorable scene, Jones sits his deputy down and gives him an impromptu performance evaluation. You’re indispensable, Jones tells Donilon. But you’ve made three mistakes. No. 1, you haven’t visited the war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq and therefore, in Jones’s words, "you have no credibility with the military." No. 2, you "frequently pop off with absolute declarations about places you’ve never been, leaders you’ve never met, or colleagues you work with" (Woodward’s words, channeling Jones). No. 3, you don’t have any respect for the emotional or personal needs of the rest of the NSC staff.

In another incident, Donilon bursts into Jones’s office to demand that he fire Gen. Douglas Fraser, the head of Southern Command, for his allegedly "incompetent" handling of the Haiti relief effort. Jones tells him to "calm down" and give Fraser a chance to sort out his resource constraints. Donilon’s comments about another, unnamed general apparently made Gates furious.

Now, there are plenty of reasons, both within Woodward’s book and in reporting elsewhere, to think that Jones isn’t exactly the second coming of Henry Kissinger, or even Alexander Haig. The man just doesn’t come across as a particularly brilliant mind, and by all accounts – including Donilon’s — he doesn’t work very hard. That doesn’t mean Donilon would be any better, though. Maybe, with all his domestic policy experience and his good relations with the political team, Donilon would make a great chief of staff. But Woodward makes a powerful case that he’d be a bad national security advisor.