The Contemporary Presidency: The Administrator as Outsider: James Jones as National Security Advisor

By Marsh, Kevin | Presidential Studies Quarterly, December 2012 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: The Administrator as Outsider: James Jones as National Security Advisor


Marsh, Kevin, Presidential Studies Quarterly


I'm the national security adviser. When you come down there, come see me.

--James Jones (Woodward 2010, 138)

The relationship between U.S. President Barack Obama and his departing national security adviser, James Jones, was doomed from the start.

--Destler (2010, 1)

On October 8, 2010, James Jones resigned as national security advisor (NSA) to President Barack Obama. Jones's resignation came as no surprise to many in the media as speculation over the NSA's standing and future within the administration had reached a fever pitch with the release of Bob Woodward's Obama's Wars (2010) earlier that fall. Jones had intended to serve no more than two years, but his resignation came early amidst a growing sense that he had lost favor within the administration. Jones's brief tenure as NSA began with great promise and ended with barely a whimper.

The former Marine commandant assumed the position of NSA in January 2009 and received significant acclaim. Indeed, the retired general was seen by many as providing essential foreign policy experience, knowledge, and gravitas to the Obama administration. Commentators were also quick to predict that Jones would effectively coordinate the interagency process and be able to manage any personality conflicts between incoming Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Jones possessed a reputation as a strong-willed, effective, intelligent, and organized manager. The general also was lauded for his willingness to provide his opinions when solicited (Barry 2008).

Yet, for all of the initial promise, James Jones would become one of the weakest and most isolated NSAs since the creation of the National Security Council (NSC) in 1947. "The harshest and most telling critique of Gen. James Jones' tenure as national security adviser is that his absence will barely be noticed" (Kaplan 2010, 1). Jones, while praised by President Obama upon his resignation in October 2010, had all but disappeared from public view. Jones was replaced by his deputy, Tom Donilon, who by all accounts was much more of an administration insider and confidant of the president.

Jones's short and unhappy stint as NSA provides scholars of U.S. foreign policy with a valuable opportunity to continue the study of one of the more prominent and influential positions within the U.S. foreign policy-making community. Scholars have examined the role of the NSA and NSC in order to develop a greater understanding of the U.S. foreign policy decision-making process (see Best 2001; Bock 1987; Brzezinski 1987; Crabb and Mulcahy 1991; Destler 1977, 1980; Inderfurth and Johnson 2004; Menges 1988; Mulcahy 1986; Prados 1991; Rodman 2009; Rothkopf 2005; Shoemaker 1992; Zegart 1999). Ivo Daadler and I. M. Destler's 2009 book In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers and the Presidents They Served--From ffFK to George W. Bush and John Burke's research (2005a, 2005b, 2009a, 2009b) on honest brokerage at the NSC each attempted to categorize national security advisors and determine what role they played in their respective administrations. Various case studies have also applied typologies and models of NSC advisor roles to individual NSAs as well (e.g., Burke 2005a, 2005b; Mulcahy 1995). However, James Jones's role as NSA remains largely unexamined from a formal political science framework. Scholars of U.S. foreign policy making are thus confronted with a basic research question. What role did James Jones play as NSA?

My central argument is that James Jones performed in the administrator role as NSA. Jones managed the day-to-day operations of the NSC, delegated the coordination of the interagency process to his deputy, Tom Donilon, and did not generate policy options. Furthermore, Jones never developed a close advisory relationship with the president and also failed to enter Obama's circle of trusted political aides. …

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