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David Rothkopf

More on the Jones-Donilon transition

I spent a lot of time this weekend stewing over my appraisal of Gen. Jim Jones as national security advisor. I stick by my conclusion that he was a highly unsuccessful national security advisor. But I don’t think my assessment was nuanced enough. Because Jones was a good man who had an extraordinary career before ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I spent a lot of time this weekend stewing over my appraisal of Gen. Jim Jones as national security advisor. I stick by my conclusion that he was a highly unsuccessful national security advisor. But I don’t think my assessment was nuanced enough. Because Jones was a good man who had an extraordinary career before serving in the Obama administration and who has contributed a great deal to his country.

Sometimes when one is in the instant-opinion business, as many of us are in Washington, nuance is the first casualty. A premium is placed on finding the pithy quote or sound-bite. Speak first, think later would be a way to describe the standard operating procedure if in fact, most people thought later.

The main reason Jones faltered as national security advisor was not his aloofness nor was it his unwillingness to roll up his sleeves and manage the policy process. The main reason Jones faltered was he served a president who did not empower him, did not embrace him and worse, allowed other members of his team to upstage him, circumvent him, and undercut him.

There is much Jones could have done to have been more successful. But he could never achieve much without the support and collaboration of an experienced commander in chief who knew something about national security policy.

For these reasons I also chose to describe him as unsuccessful rather than as a "bad" national security advisor. While I think the signature foreign policy decision of the first two years of this administration, doubling down in Afghanistan, was a serious error, and while I think the policy process was almost as new ideas-free as it was allegedly (but not actually) drama-free, worse policies were found in the Bush administration and there have no doubt been national security advisors in the past couple decades who I do not reckon had many of the personal qualities of Jones.

Beyond these clarifications of my thoughts about Jones, I have also had some time to think about the appointment of Tom Donilon as Jones’s successor. Throughout the past two years Donilon has received great credit for managing the policy process smoothly. No doubt he has done that. He is also a smart guy who is tirelessly working to support the president. In the times I have met him and in the view of people I deeply trust, he is also a very good guy. He deserves credit for these things.

But, if the policy process runs smoothly and produces weak policies, then how good is it?  And if you hire people for jobs based primarily on their intelligence, work habits or loyalty (not unimportant traits, to be sure), you run the risk of undervaluing other characteristics that are even more important to devising new policies — like creativity or the kind of sophisticated understanding of policy that can come only from a lifetime spent rigorously grappling with critical questions.

The times I have met Tom, I have been struck by how likeable and capable he has seemed. His work in the State Department and in the NSC certainly has helped prepare him for this job. I have every hope that he will succeed. (For more on this, see Steve Clemons thoughtful piece on the appointments that he produced over this past weekend.) And as I said, Tom Donilon has one big advantage over Jones, he is working for a considerably more experienced president.

But it has to also be said that not Donilon but the Donilon choice is worrisome on some levels. His record as an author of policy is spotty where it is not sparse. That his relationship with the leadership on the military side is not terrific poses the risk of brewing problems, especially given the military’s unease with the president and the rest of his team and the impending departure of Secretary of Defense Bob Gates.

To me, however, the primary reason I am worried about the Donilon appointment is that taken with the fact that the president has filled the other prominent recent openings in his staff from within is that it puts the administration at risk of deepening a case of the worst thing to afflict the most unsuccessful of White Houses: groupthink.

The president — already open to criticism that he is captive to his inner circle — is, through recent actions, suggesting that the whole "team of rivals" approach for which he was hailed early in his tenure might well have been a momentary impulse, an expedient or perhaps an idea he no longer feels he needs to embrace. At just the time when the administration would benefit from new blood, new ideas, and other voices of stature bringing real experience to bear, the president is sending the message that no, he’s just fine with the way things have been going.

As is known to readers of this blog, I am the first to give the president credit for his achievements and to argue on behalf of some of the terrific appointments he has made (Secretary Clinton, Secretary Gates, Secretary Duncan, CIA Director Panetta, Fed Chairman Bernanke, Secretary Chu, Elizabeth Warren, the list of terrific people at high levels is a good one). But I know that administrations evolve and that doesn’t always mean they grow stronger. There are always tensions between the path of least resistance (which is to say the path of political expedience) and true leadership.

Perhaps Tom Donilon will rise to the occasion as some of his best predecessors have (Sandy Berger was a deputy who became one of the best national security advisors) and for all our sakes I hope he does. But if he does it will be because he grows into the job, displays new confidence, offers a strong voice of his own, is unafraid to challenge the president, embraces a diversity of views as energetically as he seeks to produce consensus, makes a real effort to re-engage and restore trust with the military, and transcends the useful political training of his past to place national interests ahead of those of any party or candidate. And if he does, it will be in part because when future openings occur in the administration, the president returns to his original impulse to bring in women and men of stature to challenge him and to press for the changes we need.

 Twitter: @djrothkopf

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