Security adviser tries a quiet approach

Security adviser tries a quiet approach

On a foreign policy team of supersize egos, Gen James L Jones, President Obama’s national security adviser, is flying below the radar. Compared with his immediate predecessors, Condoleezza Rice and Stephen J Hadley, General Jones is rarely seen at the president’s side. Neither does he serve as a gateway to the president, in the way that Samuel R Berger was viewed because of his close friendship with President Bill Clinton.

By his own account, General Jones favours more of a “bottom-up approach,” one very different from what has usually been practised from the national security adviser’s corner office in the West Wing. During a National Security Council meeting in March on Obama’s new Afghanistan strategy, General Jones, although seated next to the president, seldom voiced his own opinions, according to officials in the room. Instead, he preferred to go around the table collecting the views of others.
Inside the administration, the fact that the Marine Corps commandant has left only the faintest of footprints has prompted some early sniping, including the argument that he is not using his position to bring policy debates to resolution. 

In an interview General Jones responded that low profile did not necessarily mean low impact. “You can be a leader that takes charge of every meeting and takes charge of every issue and rides it to its conclusion and plays a very, very dominant role,” he said. “For me, that has the effect of muting voices that should be heard.” He added, “I don’t think that in order to satisfy everybody’s view of the national security adviser to the president that I have to be hovering around him all the time.”
“The national security adviser needs to be behind the president, both literally and figuratively,” said David Rothkopf, author of ‘Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power’. General Jones, Rothkopf said, is not “seen as the guy in the room.”
But General Jones’s style suits Obama, say close aides of the president. To the general’s credit, there has so far been no evidence of serious clashes on a team that includes not only Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but also Robert M Gates, the defense secretary, and Vice President Joseph Biden, both national security experts in their own right. “I look at the result of our national security policy and I’m pretty pleased so far,” said Brent Scowcroft, the national security adviser to the first President Bush.
General Jones has delegated a lot of the operational details of the job to his deputy, Thomas Donilon, and to a couple of Obama campaign veterans, Denis McDonough and Mark Lippert. In addition, he has sent staff members to Oval Office briefings with the president, aides said.

In London last month, General Jones left the staffing of Obama at the Group of 20 summit meeting to Michael Froman, an economics expert on the National Security Council. He attended Obama’s meeting with the Russian president, Dmitri Medvedev, but left during dinner so that he could mediate an argument over Turkey’s distaste for the European candidate for NATO secretary general.
By the time Obama arrived in Strasbourg, France, two days later for the NATO summit meeting, General Jones had presented the outlines of a deal, one that Obama sealed after a final huddle with the Turks.

General Jones skipped the climate session in Trinidad so that the energy secretary, Steven Chu, could sit in his seat. Instead, he huddled with Brazil’s minister of defense and national security adviser, talking about how Obama and the US should engage with Venezuela and its president.
Teeing up

General Jones described that behind-the-scenes “teeing up” process as an example of how he could be helpful to the president. He maintained his cool even when asked about sniping from staff members that he left work early. “I’m here by 7 in the morning, and I go home at 7, 7:30 at night; that’s a fairly reasonable day if you’re properly organised,” he said.

Some of General Jones’s critics say that his practice of keeping a schedule separate from Obama’s suggests that the former four-star general and supreme commander of NATO “thinks like a principal” rather than as a member of the staff of the president.

But Richard Holbrooke, Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Gen Jones was “a Marine, and he believes in team-building,” an approach that Holbrooke said had produced “a sophisticated, multilayer decision structure at the NSC that did not exist before.”

One of the big unanswered questions is how the relationship between General Jones and Obama is evolving. The two men see each other every morning, when Obama receives the presidential daily briefing, and talk several times a day, administration officials say. “This president is very deliberative,” General Jones said. “He likes to know that there is a process to teeing up these very big issues, and that process fits his style.”

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