- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 9, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

From Day One, President Obama has been making commander in chief decisions on the multiple, overlapping and overwhelming national security crises he found in his inbox. Yet through the first 100 days [Note] Days [/NOTE] of national security crises, you almost never read or heard these three words in the mainstream news:”Gen. James L. Jones.”

Don’t worry, this isn’t a test. He is Mr. Obama’s national security adviser. Yes, the same job the news media bathed with celebrity-glitterati coverage when Henry Kissinger was starring in the Nixon years. The job Zbigniew Brzezinski masterminded with ample media attention during the Carter presidency.

But Gen. Jones - who came to the job with the highest of recommendations, as a former Marine commandant, commander of NATO forces, and one who advised both John McCain and Barack Obama - set out to keep a low profile on his high perch.

There is fine precedent: Air Force Gen. Brent Scowcroft, widely admired as perhaps the best national security adviser (under Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush), always maintained that national security advisers are best when seen seldom and heard less. Gen. Scowcroft saw his role as making sure the president got the full range of views, especially from advisers cautioning against an action about to be taken.

That hasn’t always happened. Condoleezza Rice gets low marks from most experts on national security advisers. Indeed, she once offered this excuse for why she didn’t always ensure that President George W. Bush got ample advice to counterbalance Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and buttress Secretary of State Colin L. Powell: Miss Rice, a 46-year-old academic when she got the job, demurred to an interviewer that she was merely “the baby” of the group.

Time out: Mr. Kissinger was also a 46-year-old academic when he began as national security adviser for the geopolitically formidable Mr. Nixon. Yet the ears boggle at the notion of Mr. Kissinger calling himself “the baby” of any group, anywhere, any time.

Gen. Jones clearly opted for the Scowcroft model. But we have yet to discover whether he is succeeding, because the Obama press corps hasn’t done due diligence in reporting whether Mr. Obama gets the full range of advice he needs. Gen. Jones’s name has appeared in news articles in The Washington Post only a handful of times since Inauguration Day, most of them just saying he was one of several in a meeting.

So, too, for the New York Times’ coverage - until the other day. A May 2 piece about Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s job performance asserted she had good rapport with Mr. Obama and is now influential in policymaking. Then this:

“But State Department officials, and others in the administration, say less-than-generous things about Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, suggesting there is some jockeying among the top officials around the president. Gen. Jones, these people say, has struggled with his transition from Marine commander to senior staff person, speaking up less in debates than Mrs. Clinton and not pushing as hard for decisions.”

Incoming, General! Never mind that the piece later dished an obligatory demurral that Mrs. Clinton had “highest esteem” for Gen. Jones. And anyone saying otherwise wasn’t speaking for her. Also, never mind that Gen. Scowcroft rarely gave his views in meetings, saving them mainly for the president in private.

This back-channel backbiting is just how intramural skirmishes started in presidencies past - and escalated into major battles that hampered policymaking. As in the classic State-Defense-CIA-National Security Council conflagrations I wrote about in the Reagan years.

Suddenly the low-keyed Gen. Jones was an out-front warbler, showcasing his prominence. A Tuesday New York Times article, headlined “Advances by the Taliban Sharpen U.S. Concerns,” quoted Gen. Jones in the second paragraph: “Recent militant gains in Pakistan have so alarmed the White House that the national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, described the situation as ‘one of the very most serious problems we face.’ Pakistan, he said Monday, ‘has to survive as a democratic nation.’ ”

Especially in national security, intramural feuds can escalate quickly - and brake, if not break, the policymaking machinery. That’s the last thing Mr. Obama needs.

So look for a Harmony-R-Us photo-op, appearing any day now on your iPod or television screen.

Martin Schram is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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