The only thing surprising about Jim Jones’s departure is he survived this long

The only thing surprising about Jim Jones’s departure is he survived this long

Generalismo Franco is still dead. That SNL bit popped into my mind when I heard that General Jim Jones has resigned to be replaced by his deputy, Tom Donilon.

The connection was driven not by General Jones diffident style, although some disgruntled staffers did complain about a certain autocratic air (it goes, I suspect, with a 4-star resume). Rather, the Franco connection was driven by how long this move has been anticipated by beltway insiders.  General Jones is leaving, still leaving. Only a few months into the administration’s tenure, and General Jones seemed to be on the chopping block. He survived another 16 months, but they were exceptionally stormy months with some serious missteps by the  National Security Advisor. Moreover, the most important thing done on his watch – the Afghan Strategy Review 2.0 of the Fall 2009 — has played to decidedly mixed reviews, especially with the revelations of the recent Woodward book.

Indeed, the Woodward book seems to confirm what many suspected and what today’s announcement makes official: that President Obama had more confidence in Jones’s deputy than in Jones himself. Jones is a great patriot who has served his country honorably in a number of important posts. But he never seemed to master the most important part of the NSA job: cultivating a close working relationship with the boss. National security advisors who have that (or who cultivate that) succeed in the job. If underlings on your staff are viewed as being in the inner circle while you are not, then the job becomes impossibly difficult. Ironically, the Woodward book also confirms that Jones struggled with the aspect of the job that he seemed best equipped to handle: relations with the military.  

Jones successor, Tom Donilon, starts with an advantage Jones never had: Everyone believes him to be a close intimate of the president and of other White House powerbrokers. He also is an unabashed partisan, thus strengthening the White House’s ties with the constituency most disappointed in Obama’s foreign policy: the Democratic base. He doesn’t have the same apparent advantages on the civil-military front, and the strongest player in the administration on civil-military relations, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, reportedly has grave doubts about Donilon’s suitability for the job. Whether Donilon can develop as strong a working relationship with Gates and with the senior brass as he has with President Obama and the political team will likely determine whether he is successful in his job.

For my part, I hope he is successful (full disclosure: Donilon and I have been members together of the Aspen Strategy Group, where he showed himself to be sharp-witted, tough, and a compelling critic of the Bush foreign policy). The Obama Team has a series of very daunting foreign policy challenges to handle, and some of them — such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and Iran – won’t wait around for a leisurely transition in personnel.