Exit Jim Jones

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As long rumored, Jim Jones will be leaving this month as Barack Obama’s national security advisor. This was never a snug fit; Jones complained that he had less access to and sway over Obama than some more junior staffers, notably NSC chief of staff Denis McDonough, one of the most quietly influential figures in the White House, and Jones was rewarded with plenty of sniping from unnamed rivals around him. While Jones seems to have outmaneuvered at least one of his alleged detractors, he never emerged as the strong figure many people expected the former top NATO commander to be.

One reason may have been his lack of a strong personal relationship with the president. Obama tapped Jones for the job after having met him only twice. He may have been more focused on the useful symbolism of bringing a military man with Republican ties onto his team. It’s also possible that Obama heeded the words of foreign policy mandarins who said that Condoleezza rice was too close to George W. Bush to be the sort of neutral arbiter the job demands, and that Rice failed the president by not acting as a more independent broker of dissenting opinions. Whatever the rationale, Jones never seemed to become a true Obama confidante, and much of the heavy lifting on the NSC fell to his deputy, Tom Donilon, who will now replace him. Here’s a passage on Donilon from a story I wrote last year:

While Jones oversees the national security structure from above, it is Donilon who spends the most time sitting down with lesser-known officials from across the government to flesh out policy options before they reach the Oval Office. “He’s the key guy setting the parameters of national security policy discussion and decision-making,” says one person familiar with the NSC system. Even more so than Jones, in fact, Donilon is foremost a process guy. A lawyer by training, Donilon made his name as a political operative under Jimmy Carter and Walter Mondale–“a fierce partisan,” says a friend–later playing key roles in Joe Biden’s 1988 and 2008 presidential bids. When, in the Clinton administration, his law-firm colleague Warren Christopher became secretary of state, Donilon followed him to Foggy Bottom as Christopher’s chief of staff. Today, Donilon leads what in government parlance are known as “deputies meetings,” in which second-tier officials coordinate policies and hash out competing positions before either reaching decisions or kicking issues up the chain to “principals meetings”–which usually feature cabinet secretaries, Jones, and Biden. In a busy stretch, Donilon might lead as many as four deputies meetings in one day.

Good luck to Donilon; with multiple big foreign policy threats stacked up, he’ll certainly need it. (The NYT‘s David Sanger notes, by the way, that Donilon is a skeptic of the Afghanistan war and a strong supporter of a non-trivial withdrawal process beginning next summer.)