Jones Out, Donilon In

General James Jones’ replacement with his former deputy as national security advisor is a welcome move for the Obama Administration.

President Barack Obama confers with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Chief of Staff Bill Daley in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 23, 2011
President Barack Obama confers with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Chief of Staff Bill Daley in San Salvador, El Salvador, March 23, 2011 (White House/Pete Souza)

Former Marine Corps General James Jones stepped down as President Barack Obama’s national security advisor last week. The resignation of such a top official would normally be treated as big news in Washington, particularly when that official is responsible for US security around the world. But Jones’ departure comes as an exception to the rule. Many inside the Beltway expected him to quit over the past few months. Indeed, this view was parallel to Bob Woodward’s portrayal of Jones in his new book Obama’s Wars as a depressed character who never managed to garner the respect he deserved from other members of the administration.

Jones reportedly didn’t have a close working relationship with the president, which is a “must have” in his position. Some of the decisions that were implemented by the president were taken without his advice. General Jones failed to be the president’s eyes and ears on national security. He never truly confronted the military when the situation called for it. Nor did he stick up for the White House during the Afghanistan strategy review last fall.

With Jones out, Obama has tapped Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon as his replacement. While I personally have no recollection of Donilon as a player, he is apparently well versed and highly regarded by everyone who has worked with him over the years.

Before serving as Deputy NSA, Donilon was the Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs during the Clinton Administration, where he was in charge of — you guessed it — improving the State Department’s image. Donilon also served as a top member of Obama’s campaign team, so he knows how the current president operates in crisis mode.

But the qualities that Donilon exhibits are perhaps much more important than the jobs he has held in the past. From all accounts, he is a workhorse in all things policy and he never takes a day to slack off. Steve Clemons calls him an expert at a “speedy, inclusive, decisionmaking process.” Bob Woodward praises Donilon as someone who runs “100 mph” compared to Jones’ 35. And sources within the administration have confirmed that Donilon has essentially been running the national-security shop for months, organizing meetings, questioning deputies, and making sure the president is fully informed on all the policy options that are available.

It will be interesting to see whether Donilon’s appointment will affect the campaign in Afghanistan, for he is skeptical about American success in that part of the world. Jones had skepticism about the war as well, but he was consistently undermined by the military brass, all of whom were unified in their request for more troops. Donilon is no pushover, and he has already sparred with the military over troop levels.

The White House has been shaken up for the time being. Expect more departures in the coming months if the Democrats do poorly in the midterm elections.

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