Gen. James Jones will announce that he is stepping down today as national security adviser, a senior administration official told National Journal. His top deputy, Thomas Donilon, will be elevated to replace him, the official confirmed.
President Obama is scheduled to announce the personnel changes in the Rose Garden at 1 p.m. Jones' departure has been long expected, and Donilon was on a short list of potential replacements for recently departed chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
Donilon was not the preferred choice of Jones, who is known to have recommended that he be replaced by Gen. James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And Donilon actually may have been the choice of congressional Republicans, who believe they can score political points by going after his years as an executive at troubled mortgage giant Fannie Mae from 1999 to 2005.
Donilon was a key player in planning Obama's 30,000-troop surge in Afghanistan. He had come to the White House as a member of the transition team for State Department review; before that, he was one of the top staff who prepped candidate Obama for his debates with John McCain. Earlier, was a senior aide to Joe Biden's presidential campaign, and he served on the Senate Majority's National Security Advisory Group from 2005 to 2007.
Donilon's previous policy roles include working as assistant secretary of state for public affairs and as chief of staff to Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher. As part of that role, he helped negotiate the Bosnian peace accords and expansion of NATO. He is a well-known Washington figure, a former partner at O'Melveny & Myers and the brother of Democratic political consultant Mike Donilon.
Bob Woodward's new book about the Obama administration's Afghan war, Obama's Wars, deliberations paints a fairly critical portrait of Donilon, who is described as having an antagonistic relationship with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and many members of the uniformed military. In one episode, Woodward writes that Donilon was so angry over the initial U.S. military response to the Haitian earthquake that he told Jones to order the firing of Gen. Douglas Fraser, the head of the military's Southern Command, which was leading the relief effort. Jones refused. Gates later told Jones that Donilon didn't treat the military leadership with sufficient respect and would be a "disaster" as national security adviser, according to Woodward.
Donilon's relationship with Jones is also described as strained. Woodward writes that Jones felt uneasy with Donilon's close relationship with the president, which the general felt relegated him to the sidelines. Donilon, meanwhile, is said to have been uneasy about Jones' management style and short work day, at least by West Wing standards. In another scene from the book, Jones calls Donilon into his office for a performance review of sorts. He praises his deputy for his organizational skills, intellectual capacity and vigor, but criticizes him to his face for never having visited Iraq or Afghanistan. "You have no credibility with the military," Jones told him, according to the book.
More substantively, Donilon's elevation could fuel the administration's dispute with the uniformed military about the current state of the Afghan war. In December, the administration is slated to hold a policy review of the current approach, which committed 30,000 reinforcements for a hybrid mission focused on beating back the resurgent Taliban while better protecting key population areas. Defense officials familiar with the administration's months-long debate say that Donilon was a persistent and vocal opponent of sending so many new troops to Afghanistan and preferred a smaller troop increase and a much more sharply focused counter-terror campaign.
With the new campaign showing few, if any, battlefield gains, Donilon -- once he ascends to his new post -- will be able to more strongly push the military to shift tactics and prepare for a larger withdrawal next summer than senior military commanders have said they want. The upshot is that the Donilon pick means that the divisions within the administration's war Cabinet, which were extensively detailed in news coverage and Woodward's book, are certain to escalate in the months ahead.
This article appears in the October 9, 2010, edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.