Daniel W. Drezner

Meet the new NSC advisor, same as the old NSC advisor

I was remiss in not blogging about Tom Donilon replacing James Jones as National Security Advisor. Well, actually, I don’t think I was remiss, because I didn’t think it was all that big of a deal. Past reportage indicated that Donilon had been the de facto national security advisor for some time now.  The one ...

I was remiss in not blogging about Tom Donilon replacing James Jones as National Security Advisor. Well, actually, I don’t think I was remiss, because I didn’t think it was all that big of a deal. Past reportage indicated that Donilon had been the de facto national security advisor for some time now. 

The one difference is that Donilon has had the ear of Obama in a way that Jones never did. And sure, access to the president is an important lever of influence in Washington. It’s no guarantee of success, however. Condoleezza Rice probably had a closer relationship to President Bush than Steve Hadley, but the latter did a better job as NSC advisor. Like Peter Feaver, I figured that this move simply matched titles to actual responsibilities. 

The personnel change, however, is causing some people to say some silly things. Steve Clemons, for example, provides this assessment:

Obama’s decision making system — which is huge now and an obvious corrective to the cabal-like operation that Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney ran during the G.W. Bush years — simply could not function without Donilon (and [Denis] McDonough).

But that does not mean that the role of being the premier adviser to the president on America’s global threats and challenges can be properly filled by someone who is excellent at a speedy, inclusive, decision making process but too overwhelmed to get distance to think and advise strategically.

Some of the early reactions to the Donilon appointment have focused on his political connections and savvy over his intellectual merits and standing. These critics couldn’t be more wrong.

While Donilon has not taken the path to power that many others in the national security establishment have of carefully pruned and crafted exposes on American foreign policy — published in journals of record like Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, National Interest, and American Interest — he has been actively engaged for years in national security strategy groups and working meetings.

His thinking about U.S. foreign policy is known to any who have worked with him in these groups. He’s a systematic, creative, pragmatic thinker about America’s foreign policy challenges — and whether he has expressed himself in roundtable discussions rather than a large volume of opeds makes no difference.

Donilon is a pragmatic, non-ideological practitioner who knows that America’s greatest challenge today is restoring its stock of power and its ability to positively shape the global system. He knows that American power is doubted today and needs to be reinvented — and he thinks about this all of the time. It is what animates him and the furious pace he keeps.

This might be the ritual suck-up-to-the-next-NSC-advisor kind of blog post, but taken at face value, a few minor corrections are warranted. 

First, by definition, a good foreign policy process should be able to function well regardless of personnel changes. If a process can’t function without particular individuals in charge, then it’s neither a good nor a robust decision-making process. 

Second, "non-ideological" policymakers don’t exist. Policymakers might be in denial about what ideologies they possess. Their ideologies might be so moderate and mainstream that they’re not noticed as ideologies. But any policymaker has a set of ideas that guides them through the complex swamp that is world politics. 

Finally, from what I can read, there was no policy distance between Jones and Donilon. The only difference seems to be that Donilon was more willing to push back against the military, and that the military dislikes Donilon more. Why this promotion should lead to fundamental policy changes is beyond me.   

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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