Shadow Government

The strange absence of Jim Jones

Which is worse: getting mentioned in a comprehensive analysis of what is wrong with the Obama White house or not getting mentioned? I guess it depends on your level of seniority. But I am guessing that National Security Advisor Jim Jones is done no favors by going unmentioned in this Financial Times story. The FT ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Which is worse: getting mentioned in a comprehensive analysis of what is wrong with the Obama White house or not getting mentioned? I guess it depends on your level of seniority. But I am guessing that National Security Advisor Jim Jones is done no favors by going unmentioned in this Financial Times story.

The FT article claims that President Obama’s tight-knit core leadership team, primarily drawn from the campaign and from old Chicago hands, is responsible for the tactical and strategic missteps that have dogged the first-year of the administration. I was drawn to the Financial Times story by Steve Clemons’s discussion of it on his blog. Clemons has very good sources within the Democratic Party and is a generally reliable bellwether for the mood of establishment Democrats on foreign policy. By blogging about the FT article and adding dishy tidbits of his own (such as catching Valerie Jarrett bowing out of a public speaking engagement because of "urgent duties" back at the White House only to turn up a few minutes later at a different Washington watering hole), Clemons explicitly endorses the central thesis and calls on President Obama to shake up his staff. If the underlying FT article is truly based on "dozens of interviews," apparently none of which is favorable to the White House team, and if Steve Clemons (and the faction he represents) is piling on, then things are in a bad way.

That’s the bigger story. But when I read the underlying FT article, my eye was drawn to a smaller story, one that Clemons does not comment upon: General Jones is not mentioned at all in the FT article, neither favorably nor unfavorably. The article discusses national security — specifically, the White House team’s travails during the Afghan Strategy Review, the botched effort to close Guantanamo Bay, and the big trip to China — but does not discuss the national security advisor.

In fact, when the article lists the heavy hitters who are big losers because of the undue influence of the Chicago/campaign team, General Jones is not mentioned:

Kathleen Sebelius, Mr. Obama’s health secretary and formerly governor of Kansas, almost never appears on television and has been largely excluded both from devising and selling the healthcare bill. Others such as Ken Salazar, the interior secretary who is a former senator for Colorado, and Janet Napolitano, head of the Department for Homeland Security and former governor of Arizona, have virtually disappeared from view.

And again, when the article avoids mentioning Jones in a longer list of key advisors:

Among the broader circle that Mr. Obama also consults are the self-effacing Peter Rouse, who was chief of staff to Tom Daschle in his time as Senate majority leader; Jim Messina, deputy chief of staff; the economics team led by Lawrence Summers and including Peter Orszag, budget director; Joe Biden, the vice-president; and Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser. But none is part of the inner circle.

By inference, the national security advisor is neither in the inner circle nor the outer circle. Where is he?

Anyone who has served in a White House will know that the reporting for stories such as these can be pretty sketchy. So Jones’s absence could be less an indication of a breakdown in the role of the NSA and more an indication of a breakdown in the reporting (or editing) at the Financial Times. But if the article really does reflect the workings of the White House — or at the very least, the informed view of insiders about the workings of the White House — then General Jones’s extremely low profile is really quite remarkable, and raises questions about whether the national security council staff (now known as the national security staff) is sufficiently empowered to fulfill its traditional role.

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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