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McCain demands answers on Lippert/Jones feud

Obama confidant Mark Lippert has been nominated to become the Pentagon’s top Asia official, but before he can be confirmed, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wants answers on Lippert’s internal feud with Gen. Jim Jones when they both worked at the National Security Council (NSC). "In several passages of his book Obama’s Wars, published in 2010, ...

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Obama confidant Mark Lippert has been nominated to become the Pentagon's top Asia official, but before he can be confirmed, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wants answers on Lippert's internal feud with Gen. Jim Jones when they both worked at the National Security Council (NSC).

"In several passages of his book Obama's Wars, published in 2010, Bob Woodward discusses your official relationship with [National Security Advisor] General James L. Jones and offers a disturbing portrayal of your actions that could be described as arrogant and disloyal," McCain wrote to Lippert today, in a letter obtained by The Cable.

Obama confidant Mark Lippert has been nominated to become the Pentagon’s top Asia official, but before he can be confirmed, Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) wants answers on Lippert’s internal feud with Gen. Jim Jones when they both worked at the National Security Council (NSC).

"In several passages of his book Obama’s Wars, published in 2010, Bob Woodward discusses your official relationship with [National Security Advisor] General James L. Jones and offers a disturbing portrayal of your actions that could be described as arrogant and disloyal," McCain wrote to Lippert today, in a letter obtained by The Cable.

McCain didn’t say outright that he wants to hold up the Lippert nomination, but he strongly implied that his support depends on Lippert’s explanations of what went on during his tenure at the White House.

"Your actions while working at the NSC are an important indicator of your fundamental qualification to carry out the duties of the critically important position for which you have been nominated," McCain wrote.

He then listed 21 specific questions for Lippert to answer in written form, dealing with almost every juicy anecdote related to White House infighting found in Woodward’s book. McCain wants to know exactly how Lippert interacted with Jones, as well as with political advisors at the White House. He also wants to know if Jones had power over Lippert — or if it was the other way around.

More specifically, McCain wants Lippert to spell out whether any of the charges of insubordination found in Woodward’s book are true, whether Lippert ever leaked to the press about Jones, and whether he tried to cut off Jones’ access to President Barack Obama, as Woodward reported. McCain also wants Lippert to detail any and all conversations he may have had with Jones regarding their contentious time working together.

In one part of the letter, McCain asks Lippert to comment on Woodward’s contention that Jones viewed him and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough as "major obstacles to developing and deciding on coherent national security policy."

McCain also wants Lippert to answer charges found in Woodward’s book that he cut NSC Senior Coordinator for Iraq and Afghanistan Gen. Douglas Lute out of important discussions as well.

Behind the McCain inquiry might lie a bit of political revenge, however. Lippert was one of Obama’s earliest and closest advisors on foreign policy, having been with Obama since his days as a senator. He was a key figure in Obama’s presidential campaign, leading the foreign policy advisory team, and then served as chief of staff of the NSC, a position that had not existed in George W. Bush‘s administration but which Obama resurrected in 2009.

According to Woodward’s book, Lippert was pushed out of the White House after an internal struggle with Jones, who blamed Lippert for a series of negative leaks to the press about Jones’ mismanagement of the NSC.

"In July [2009], Jones laid out his case to Obama and others. All seemed to agree that it was rank insubordination. Obama promised to move on Lippert," Woodward wrote. "On October 1, the day of the McChrystal speech in London, the White House press secretary issued a three-paragraph statement that Lippert was returning to active duty in the Navy. The statement made it sound as though this had been Lippert’s choice. ‘I was not surprised,’ Obama said in the statement, ‘when he came and told me he had stepped forward for another mobilization, as Mark is passionate about the Navy.’"

Jones was later pushed out himself, after being blamed by top White House officials for a series of his own leaks to the press about the White House’s top advisors, whom he called "the water bugs, the "Politburo," "the mafia," and the "campaign set."

The Lippert nomination was an open secret in Washington as early as April, but was delayed for months. The rumor was that Defense Secretary Robert Gates did not want Lippert, a close confidant of the White House clique, burrowed inside the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

At Lippert’s Nov. 17 nomination hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, McCain also brought up Lippert’s initial opposition to the surge in Iraq, an issue that was front and center during the feisty 2008 presidential campaign between Obama and McCain.

"Mr. Lippert appears to be qualified and I praise his service in uniform. I have serious concerns regarding his nomination. At a meeting in my office I asked Mr. Lippert his views on the success of the surge in Iraq and I find his answers to be less than satisfactory," McCain said on Nov. 17.

Lippert testified at his hearing that he never leaked to the press about Jones and that his departure from the White House was due to his own personal desire to return to active duty military service.

"In terms of the press accounts, I did not leak to the press about General Jones. My departure from the White House was voluntary. I actually turned down a promotion at the White House to return to active duty," Lippert said at the hearing. "General Jones and I worked collaboratively on many issues and I’m proud of what we accomplished, but there was also times we disagreed, but I knew General Jones was the boss."

McCain pressed Lippert to admit that his departure had anything to do with Jones, but Lippert would only say that he left voluntarily after being offered a "promotion" to serve in the White House Military Affairs office.

In addition to McCain, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) has also indicated he might oppose the Lippert nomination, due to Cornyn’s ongoing unhappiness with the administration’s refusal to sell Taiwan new F-16 fighter planes, which are built in Cornyn’s home state. Cornyn had filed an amendment to the defense policy bill aimed at forcing the administration to make the sale, but that amendment was spiked this week.

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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