Sunday, February 8, 2009

General Jones takes charge

National Security Advisor Jim Jones in his Marine Corps days

General Jones is in charge. At least he thinks so, which probably means that's the way President Obama wants it. That's my reading of this story in today's Washington Post:

President Obama plans to order a sweeping overhaul of the National Security Council, expanding its membership and increasing its authority to set strategy across a wide spectrum of international and domestic issues.

The result will be a "dramatically different" NSC from that of the Bush administration or any of its predecessors since the forum was established after World War II to advise the president on diplomatic and military matters, according to national security adviser James L. Jones, who described the changes in an interview. "The world that we live in has changed so dramatically in this decade that organizations that were created to meet a certain set of criteria no longer are terribly useful," he said.

Jones, a retired Marine general, made it clear that he will run the process and be the primary conduit of national security advice to Obama, eliminating the "back channels" that at times in the Bush administration allowed Cabinet secretaries and the vice president's office to unilaterally influence and make policy out of view of the others.

"We're not always going to agree on everything," Jones said, and "so it's my job to make sure that minority opinion is represented" to the president. "But if at the end of the day he turns to me and says, 'Well, what do you think, Jones?,' I'm going to tell him what I think."

The new structure, to be outlined in a presidential directive and a detailed implementation document by Jones, will expand the NSC's reach far beyond the range of traditional foreign policy issues and turn it into a much more elastic body, with Cabinet and departmental seats at the table -- historically occupied only by the secretaries of defense and state -- determined on an issue-by-issue basis. Jones said the directive will probably be completed this week.

"The whole concept of what constitutes the membership of the national security community -- which, historically has been, let's face it, the Defense Department, the NSC itself and a little bit of the State Department, to the exclusion perhaps of the Energy Department, Commerce Department and Treasury, all the law enforcement agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration, all of those things -- especially in the moment we're currently in, has got to embrace a broader membership," he said.

Jones' new, improved NSC will be better able to contend with such "department-spanning 21st-century issues as cybersecurity, energy, climate change, nation-building and infrastructure." Interestingly, after a "review" now being conducted by Jones' deputy, the once-likely CIA director, John Brennan, the NSC will fold in some functions of the Homeland Security Council, established after 9/11 mainly to coordinate counter-terrorism activities. Jones also plans to re-jigger the organizational charts of Defense, State and other agencies so that everyone dealing with, say, Pakistan, will be in the same box -- the better for NSC to coordinate.

The Post goes on to note that other new presidents have juggled the NSC set-up, mode of operation, and participation beyond the limited statutory members "to fit his own needs and style," and that "the role and power of the president's national security adviser, and the size of his staff, have grown larger or smaller depending on the president's wishes."

It would seem that President Obama wishes General Jones to have a conspicuously big role and power to ride herd on "powerful figures such as Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates" and a "national security pyramid" that is "heavy with military officials" like retired Navy Adm. Dennis C. Blair as Director of National Intelligence" and big shot "special envoys to trouble spots" including Richard C. Holbrooke to Afghanistan and Pakistan and former senator George J. Mitchell to the Middle East.

I suspect that the chair rearranging to meet "department-spanning 21st-century issues" is at least in part a bit of sugar-coating of an effort to keep a tight rein in Jones' hands on Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon. Participation in NSC deliberations as needed by Treasury, Justice, Energy, etc. will be nothing new, as can be seen from this description of the Council.

Lest anyone be slow enough to miss the point that Jones is in charge, the General spelled it out:

"I believe in collegiality . . . in sounding out people and getting them to participate," Jones said. "I notice the president is very good at that." But he made clear he plans to apply military-like discipline to the NSC. "The most important thing is that you are in fact the coordinator and you're the guy around which the meetings occur. When we chair a principals meeting, I'm the chairman." One of the first of many internal Bush administration clashes occurred when Cheney proposed that he, rather than Rice, chair NSC meetings.

In his initial conversations with Obama before taking the job, Jones confirmed, he insisted on being "in charge" and having open and final access to the president on all national security matters. "We engaged in about an hour-long discussion about what I was already thinking about the NSC; it happened, I think, to mesh pretty well with what his instincts were. He was clear about the role of the national security adviser," Jones said of Obama.

All of which makes a lot of sense. Now, if only Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates, Denny Blair, the Joint Chiefs, Richard Holbrooke, et al. would all agree!

Got any thoughts about this? Post a comment.

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