10.08.10

Why James Jones Quit

A look at Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars reveals how the national security adviser was cut off from the president, pissed at Rahm Emanuel, and generally the wrong man for the job.

A look at Bob Woodward’s Obama’s Wars reveals how the national security adviser was cut off from the president, pissed at Rahm Emanuel, and generally the wrong man for the job.

To read Bob Woodward’s book Obama’s Wars was to realize that National Security Adviser James Jones’ days on Pennsylvania Avenue were numbered. Jones was presented more heroically than he even had been in the press (he seemed to have bent the ear of the chronicler). But he didn’t come off as much of a player in policymaking. White House aides kept him out of the loop. And he McChrystal’d more than one key Obamaite. The juicy details below:

Jones didn’t even know Obama.

The 64-year-old retired general got his start in the White House on very weak footing. Obama, perversely, wanted Jones as national security adviser because they had no previous relationship. The president-elect seemed to think that this would somehow give Jones some leverage when confronting the generals. In the end, Jones’ independence left him out in the cold when major decision-making happened—sidelined and undermined by a variety of Obama intimates.

Jones never wanted the job.

He told the president he would be better as secretary of State. “What I can do is set up an organization of the best people to help you as president,” as secretary of State, Jones told Obama. “I wasn’t very good” at being an aide, Jones added, meaning he didn’t think he would be very good in the national security adviser position.

Jones was never shown Obama’s inaugural address.

“I had asked,” Jones told Woodward, apparently “almost trembling.” According to Woodward, Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff, and the rest of the political team refused to give Jones a peak of the draft.

Jones never got along with Obama’s closest aides.

The former NATO commander thought it wise to insult political operatives in the White House like David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. In private, he had a host of names for the group, which included press secretary Robert Gibbs and Denis McDonough at the National Security Council. He called them “the water bugs,” the “Politburo,” the “Mafia,” and the “campaign set.”

The feeling was mutual.

During Obama’s big trip to Europe, Jones was forbidden from consulting with the president. “My access was cut off,” Jones said. He accused Mark Lippert, a former Senate aide to Obama who placed at NSC, of leaking bad press about Jones. But it seems Jones had the last laugh. After repeatedly complaining to the president and his aides about Lippert’s insubordination, Lippert was knocked off his perch and returned to active duty in the Navy (he’d been in the reserves). But Jones didn’t entirely get his way. The president made it sound like Lippert had made the move voluntarily.

Who’s next?

You wouldn’t have guessed from Woodward’s book that Tom Donilon would land the job. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates thought that Donilon, Jones’ deputy, would be a “disaster” as a successor, an aide told Woodward. In Gates’ view, Donilon doesn’t have the proper respect for senior leadership or a deep enough understanding of the military. Others have Donilon being quite popular in the White House. When Rahm Emanuel left the chief of staff job for Chicago, many expected Donilon to take over that job.