When James Jones took the job of national security adviser to President-elect Barack Obama, he was entering unfamiliar territory. A retired Marine general, he was no stranger to bureaucracy or politics: after all, he had carried the grand title of Supreme Allied Commander at the politically fraught NATO headquarters in Brussels.
But he was a stranger to Obama country, and it showed. There were several dozen foreign policy and national security advisers to candidate Obama, and several hundred more in a wider loop, covering a wide range of foreign affairs. Jones was nowhere among the wider orbit, never mind the handful of inner circle aides.
Still, he committed to two years of working for Obama, despite his long-standing friendship with the losing presidential candidate, John McCain. But despite the title, power and access to the president, Jones never fit in—a sentiment seemingly confirmed Friday, when he announced he was stepping down.
“We’re making a lot of changes now with Rahm leaving, and there was a sense of just, ‘Let’s get this done now,’” says a senior White House aide.
The official story is that Jones was close to reaching the two-year stage of his assignment but agreed to leave earlier as part of the more sweeping changes inside the White House, starting with the departure of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel. When Emanuel left to run for mayor of Chicago, that move set in motion a series of wider staff changes.
“We have a lot of transition at this point here,” said one senior Obama aide. “They decided the time was right to bring forward his departure and for Jones to step aside. We always knew it was going to be roughly in this window, at the end of this year. But we’re making a lot of changes now with Rahm leaving, and there was a sense of just, ‘Let’s get this done now.’”
But there was more to the timing than the ripple effects of Rahm’s departure.
• Leslie H. Gelb: Donilon: More Feared Than Loved• Why James Jones QuitNext month President Obama begins to travel again overseas, and in December he begins the critical process of reviewing his new Afghan strategy. Jones was one of the architects of the last extensive review a year ago, leading to the deployment of an extra 30,000 troops. It made little sense that he would leave directly after an Afghan review that could determine the legacy of this presidency.
“Frankly, a lot of what the December review is about is the next phase now,” said the senior Obama aide. “So it would be good to have a new structure in place as we make those decisions.”
The rise of Tom Donilon, Jones’ deputy, to take the title of national security adviser will affect the Afghan review at several levels.
Where Jones was steeped in the military culture and could draw on—or be persuaded by—his friends in the uniformed leadership, Donilon is a political animal whose policy experience lies with the diplomats at the State Department. He is also most closely associated with Vice President Joe Biden, whose opposition to the troop increase in Afghanistan was determined and vocal.
White House officials insist that Donilon has built good relationships with the military through the so-called deputies committee, which he has successfully chaired as the central policymaking group inside the National Security Council. “Donilon has deeper relationships at the State Department than the military,” the senior aide said. “There’s no secret about that.”
In many ways it is Donilon’s relationship to the president that qualifies him for his job. It was Donilon who delivered the daily presidential briefing on issues of foreign policy, rather than Jones. And according to author Bob Woodward, it was Donilon who was seen as the president’s “go-to guy” on the NSC, rather than Jones. (Woodward also suggests that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has little respect for Donilon’s abilities; a charge the White House disputes, saying Donilon gets on well with Gates.)
Richard Wolffe is a Daily Beast columnist and an award-winning journalist. He covered the entire length of Barack Obama's presidential campaign for Newsweek magazine. His book, Renegade: The Making of a President, was published by Crown in June.