On Tom Donilon: A few questions and reservations

I’ve been slow to react to the departure of James Jones as national security advisor, and his replacement by Tom Donilon, and it’s mostly because I just can’t get excited about it one way or the other. You can read a more-or-less favorable appraisal from Steve Clemons here, and a sharply critical assessment from Chas ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

I've been slow to react to the departure of James Jones as national security advisor, and his replacement by Tom Donilon, and it's mostly because I just can't get excited about it one way or the other. You can read a more-or-less favorable appraisal from Steve Clemons here, and a sharply critical assessment from Chas Freeman here. I find myself more-or-less aligned with FP colleague Dan Drezner, who thinks it won't make much difference.

By all accounts Donilon has an excellent relationship with Obama, and people think he'll be good at making the paper flow inside NSC itself. He's also supposed to be an advocate of "rebalancing" U.S. commitments around the world, and something of a skeptic on Afghanistan. That's encouraging, I guess, although it hardly took a genius to figure out that the United States was badly overcommitted in 2008, and anyone with a triple-digit IQ could tell that the war in Afghanistan was not going well.  

My reservations are two-fold. First, has Donilon ever expressed an interesting or novel foreign policy idea, or shown that he has a larger vision for what the United States' position and strategy ought to be? If so, I haven't heard about it. This isn't just an academic's desire for some broader theoretical framework, because foreign policy isn't just about making a "to-do list" and patiently checking off different items. Instead, success depends on seeing the larger picture and figuring out how to set priorities and align different goals, so that actions taken in one arena don't end up undermining other initiatives. That is especially true when a country is facing as many different challenges as the United States currently is, and when you have to make hard choices from among a set of bad alternatives.

I’ve been slow to react to the departure of James Jones as national security advisor, and his replacement by Tom Donilon, and it’s mostly because I just can’t get excited about it one way or the other. You can read a more-or-less favorable appraisal from Steve Clemons here, and a sharply critical assessment from Chas Freeman here. I find myself more-or-less aligned with FP colleague Dan Drezner, who thinks it won’t make much difference.

By all accounts Donilon has an excellent relationship with Obama, and people think he’ll be good at making the paper flow inside NSC itself. He’s also supposed to be an advocate of "rebalancing" U.S. commitments around the world, and something of a skeptic on Afghanistan. That’s encouraging, I guess, although it hardly took a genius to figure out that the United States was badly overcommitted in 2008, and anyone with a triple-digit IQ could tell that the war in Afghanistan was not going well.  

My reservations are two-fold. First, has Donilon ever expressed an interesting or novel foreign policy idea, or shown that he has a larger vision for what the United States’ position and strategy ought to be? If so, I haven’t heard about it. This isn’t just an academic’s desire for some broader theoretical framework, because foreign policy isn’t just about making a "to-do list" and patiently checking off different items. Instead, success depends on seeing the larger picture and figuring out how to set priorities and align different goals, so that actions taken in one arena don’t end up undermining other initiatives. That is especially true when a country is facing as many different challenges as the United States currently is, and when you have to make hard choices from among a set of bad alternatives.

Second, has Donilon ever taken a position that involved some level of moral courage? Has he ever done or said anything that might be regarded as controversial inside the Beltway? Given his long career as a lobbyist and political operative, that’s hardly likely. What was his view on invading Iraq in 2003, for example? Did he publicly oppose that boneheaded decision? Don’t think so. And given that the Obama administration’s defining characteristic in foreign policy has been a tendency to spell out promising courses of action and then beat a hasty retreat from them at the first sign of serious resistance, there’s little reason to expect someone with Donilon’s bio to act any differently.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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