In the Arena

Getting Defensive at NSC, State

  • Share
  • Read Later

Bob Woodward is body armor in official Washington. He’s protection against the verdict of history, since his insider books are usually the first attempt to explain the inner workings of any given Administration. You want to be on his good side; just ask Colin Powell. So when former General Jim Jones invited Woodward along on a trip to the war zones in late June, Jonathan Martin (substituting for Ben Smith) and others wisely spotted this as the General up-armoring against the rumors that he wasn’t adapting too well as National Security Adviser. What’s curious is that Hillary Clinton was attempting her own defensive maneuvers at about the same time, hoping to hire her former enforcer, Sid Blumenthal–an effort that was nuked by the Obama White House.

The interesting thing here is that there are no real policy disagreements among the Obama foreign policy players. By all accounts, they’ve been getting along just fine. But the Jones and Clinton moves may indicate some pre-emptive skittishness, a sense of–unjustified, I believe–insecurity on the part of the two principals. 

Jones was going to have a problem adjusting to the hothouse politics of the West Wing, in any case. His military style was olympian and detached; two of his staffers, Mark Lippert and Denis McDonough, had extremely close relationships with the President, forged in the crucible of the 2008 campaign. It is still too soon to know if Jones is going to succeed in the job, but it seems clear that his friends–not just in the journalistic community, but also in the Administration–are concerned and rushing to his defense. In June, Secretary of Defense Bob Gates, whose contacts with journalists are surgical, called the Washington Post’s David Ignatius specifically to support Jones. Also in June, the Washington Post’s Sally Quinn wrote a column warning any detractors not to mess with the General. The Woodward trip represented a tripling-down of Jones support among Washington Post stalwarts. 

Ironically, the Jones rally came at a moment when the NSC staff–which Jones is reorganizing according to the geography of the military command structure–was being bolstered by the arrival Dennis Ross from State, who assumed the absolutely crucial Centcom portfolio. Ross had been pinched at State. He had been promised the Middle East from the Mediterranean to Afghanistan, but the appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East envoy–a last minute surprise to many at State–pretty much limited Ross’s zone of operations to Iran. And even there he was pinched by the fact that the President is taking the lead role in determining the strategy for dealing with the Islamic Republic (And that State’s Under Secretary for Political Affairs, William Burns, was handling the nuclear negotiations). 

Ross seems to have jumped–he wasn’t pushed–to the NSC during a time when not very much news was being made by Hillary Clinton or her stalwarts at State. One wonders whether the attempt to hire Blumenthal was an attempt to rectify that, to beef up her speech-writing and promotion shop, or a sign of nervousness on the Secretary’s part. It certainly was a flaming red flag in the Obama White House. After all, Blumenthal’s service to both Clintons has been (add: allegedly) marked by the free-range feeding of malicious gossip to journalists…which is why the White House immediate slam-dunked Blumenthal, in no uncertain terms. (It was an article of faith among the Obama campaign staff that Blumenthal was the source of scurrilous rumors about both Obamas in the spring of 2008.)

“I have no idea why she did that,” said one Obama loyalist. “Her relationship with the President is excellent. She’s doing a terrific job at State.”

Again, the bottom line here is that everyone agrees about the policies–and that the policies have a good chance of succeeding. There is a good chance that this is merely background noise, the sort of gossip and jockeying that goes on in any Administration. But still…