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Donilon to the Rescue

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The relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and his departing national security adviser, James Jones, was doomed from the start. To be effective, an NSA must be personally close to the president and in sync with his operating style. Jones was neither. A marine and retired NATO commander, he was accustomed to formal decision-making structures and operational hierarchies. Obama, the lawyer-professor-politician, was inexperienced with executive organizations and preferred to work informally with trusted individuals. Jones somehow thought he could handle the job on his own terms, but Obama clearly expected responsiveness to his personal operating style. Further, as Bob Woodward reports in Obama’s Wars, Jones even admitted that he “‘wasn’t very good’ at being an aide” when Obama first approached him about the job. On top of all this, the two had barely met.

It is hard to find many besides Obama who thought that the relationship would work. But presidents can be stubborn, and in the short term they get what they want. Over time, they may find that it is not what they need. Although he did provide Obama ballast with the military at critical points -- especially during the 2009 Afghan policy review -- Jones could not be a truly effective counterweight because he was both unable and unwilling to enter the daily policymaking stream. Instead, he seems increasingly to have spent his time on ceremonial duties outside of Washington, such as attending the celebration marking the 20th anniversary of German unification. A level below, Thomas Donilon, Jones’ number two, handled day-to-day issues, working through the interagency National Security Council Deputies Committee. At the top level, the president looked to others for information, advice, and communication with the broader government. Sometimes Obama managed the decision-making process himself, reportedly going so far as personally drafting the summary of his November 2009 Afghan policy decisions.

This article follows the 2009 publication of In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers and the Presidents They Served from JFK to George W. Bush, a book by I.M. Destler and Ivo H. Daadler.

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