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Tom Donilon: The Last Best Hope to Help Obama Make Vital Strategic Leaps

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jones obama donilon.jpg
(Outgoing National Security Advisor General Jim Jones, President Barack Obama, and newly named National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon; photo credit: Talk Radio News)

Recently I met with David Rothkopf, Foreign Policy blogger and one of Washington's premier chroniclers of American national security personalities and architecture, for lunch and discussed with him who President Obama's next National Security Advisor should be.

richard haass dede.jpgOur list was provocative, a bit reckless in a way because we were grasping for names as symbols of certain views or confiding to each other private understandings we had with some of the contenders. Neither of us agreed with all of the names the other threw on to the table.

I won't say who survived our own mutual, back-and-forth vetoes, but the roster included Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass, National Security Council senior staff Dennis Ross, Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke, US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon, CSIS President and former Deputy Secretary of Defense John Hamre, CIA Director and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, former US Senator Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman General James Cartwright, Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg, CNN GPS and Time essayist Fareed Zakaria, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns, US Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder, and former New York Times foreign affairs columnist and Council on Foreign Relations President Emeritus (and Daily Beast wunderkind) Leslie Gelb.

There are obvious problems with the candidacies of a number of these people -- some because of temperament, some perhaps age, political stripes, or most importantly -- whether President Obama could work with the person closely and comfortably.

richard holbrooke dede.jpgExtending this chatter, Les Gelb asked me at the recent Atlantic Monthly/Aspen Institute/Newseum sponsored Washington Ideas Forum if I didn't have to worry about political reality who would be my "choice" for National Security Advisor. I hedged by giving him a shorter version of the above - but told him that for various reasons, the most interesting candidates would be Haass, Holbrooke, Panetta, Donilon, and Steinberg.

Haass, Gelb and I both thought -- as well as Rothkopf, would be too much of a stretch for Obama even though the President really does like to incorporate reasonable, centrist, pragmatic Republicans and their thinking on his team. Richard Haass though would make a formidable National Security Advisor -- perhaps better for a Democratic president who too frequently thinks he/she needs to do symbolic things to show toughness rather than a Republican.

Richard Holbrooke is the contemporary Machiavelli of the Democratic political establishment -- and I admire him for it. Of all the leading Democratic foreign policy practitioners, Holbrooke is the most tenaciously committed to results in the often fuzzy, inchoate realm of humanitarian, global justice efforts. But the Obama-Holbrooke chemistry reportedly has high toxicity levels, even though there has been recent improvement.

Leon Panetta would have been an interesting choice - sort of the guy who can do everything. Bob Woodward's recent book on the Obama team recounts how Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell warned incoming DNI Admiral Dennis Blair not to underestimate the "knife fight" he would get into over defining the turf between CIA and DNI no matter how well he knew and liked Leon Panetta. McConnell was right and Panetta ended up clobbering Blair. But to resolve the competing, vague lines of authority in the intelligence, war fighting, diplomatic, stabilization, and development functions of government, Panetta could have been a modern day James Forrestal in getting government to work better and less dysfunctionally on these tasks.

James Steinberg and Tom Donilon are both experts in national security decision making process as well as strategy. They have both been key in moving the Obama administration's machinery as well as it could be moved given the miserable economic and foreign policy portfolios passed off to them by the George W. Bush administration. Steinberg has handled the Asia portfolio well -- and Tom Donilon became something of a Wizard of Oz in the White House, orchestrating behind the scenes literally hundreds of Deputies and Principals meetings with perhaps the most inclusive structure of non-traditional voices and institutions at the table in national security questions in US history.

In fact, the whole question of what is and isn't a national security issue has undergone revolutionary broadening in the Obama administration, and Donilon's task has been to make discussions of the new roster of challenges -- everything from water and climate to development and natural disasters to migration -- a real part of the national security structure rather than tokens.

While the Obama administration has had some serious strategic trip-ups, particularly in Israel-Palestine deal making, the fact is that Donilon's furious, competent pace has kept the country and the White House afloat and kept the system from taking on too much water and getting bogged down.

After the announcement that Tom Donilon would succeed General Jim Jones as President Obama's National Security Adviser, Donilon went from being the busiest man in the White House to the even busier busiest man. This is good, and bad, news.

donilon obama oval office.jpgDonilon really did have to be the President's National Security Advisor. Next to Denis McDonough, who moves from NSC Chief of Staff to Donilon's former position, no one is trusted or relied upon as much by Obama than Donilon. None of the other contenders on the list above -- with the sole exception of Leon Panetta -- has the broad institutional grasp and political understanding of how to move the administration's many national security prima donnas forward.

Donilon's incumbency in the middle of all of the action today made him stand out more than Steinberg, Ross or other potential inside options who had more narrowly defined portfolios.

Obama's decision making system -- which is huge now and an obvious corrective to the cabal-like operation that Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Richard Cheney ran during the G.W. Bush years -- simply could not function without Donilon (and McDonough).

But that does not mean that the role of being the premier adviser to the President on America's global threats and challenges can be properly filled by someone who is excellent at a speedy, inclusive, decision making process but too overwhelmed to get distance to think and advise strategically.

Some of the early reactions to the Donilon appointment have focused on his political connections and savvy over his intellectual merits and standing. These critics couldn't be more wrong.

While Donilon has not taken the path to power that many others in the national security establishment have of carefully pruned and crafted exposes on American foreign policy - published in journals of record like Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, National Interest, and American Interest -- he has been actively engaged for years in national security strategy groups and working meetings.

His thinking about US foreign policy is known to any who have worked with him in these groups. He's a systematic, creative, pragmatic thinker about America's foreign policy challenges -- and whether he has expressed himself in roundtable discussions rather than a large volume of opeds makes no difference.

Donilon is a pragmatic, non-ideological practitioner who knows that America's greatest challenge today is restoring its stock of power and its ability to positively shape the global system. He knows that American power is doubted today and needs to be reinvented - and he thinks about this all of the time. It is what animates him and the furious pace he keeps.

Jim Jones is also being misread by many critics who seem to be cheering his departure. They scoff at his distance from the President, his alleged aloofness -- though I never found him aloof in my encounters with him. I found him straightforward and a wry wit. What they are missing is that Jones demonstrated that the NSC job should not be overly reactive to moment by moment events -- and to a large degree, he was right.

Jones instinctively knew that if he allowed himself to get sucked into granular, involved-in-every-detail realities of the President's national security inbox, then the Obama administration would lose its ability to make strategic leaps and place bets on power and possibility that would position America beyond just reacting to the crisis of the day.

Vice President Joe Biden was right in saying during the 2008 campaign that Barack Obama and the United States would be severely and frequently tested by the international system - by friends, by foes, by states and non-state actors -- to see where the lines of power were faked and where they were real. Former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft has called this "the age of 1000 pinpricks". Both are right -- and General Jones knew that his job was to preempt a 'reactive presidency' from undermining a 'strategic presidency.'

Jones also wanted to think through how to assemble economic and traditional power voices into national security discussions and decisions - and contributed much to the blueprints for a new national security decisionmaking experiment that Tom Donilon and Denis McDonough have implemented.

donilon profile.jpgDonilon is at the helm now - and needs to accomplish several things and keep some key factors in mind:

1. Figure out how to keep the elaborate interagency machinery of policy formulation, review and decision making going without Donilon's constant supervision. Delegate and train the next Donilon.

2. Step back from the freneticism of the operation now and build capacity to think strategically -- create a new "Solarium Project" in which the administration tasks teams to systematically think through the costs and consequences of alternative paths to vital national security objectives. Iran comes to mind. Get your key people into a retreat. Get them to think out loud. Push restart with them.

3. Remember that the Department of Defense is not an independent stand alone body that is a rival to the White House. The Department of Defense and everyone in it -- from Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen and his strategists to the various service chiefs and even David Petraeus -- work for the White House. Establish protocols for reasserting control of the system. It is unhealthy and imbalanced when the Pentagon can outgun the National Security Council with its strategists, its intelligence capacity, its fleet of cars and jets, and its resources in what often looks like a competition between the White House and DoD. Obama must vest Donilon with the authority to bring the military into a position where it works for the White House - not competes with it.

4. Go back to candidate Obama's remarks about the interconnectedness of challenges and resist the silo-ing that is going on in much of the administration with regard to Afghanistan policy, China, Russia, and some other high profile concerns.

5. Create a basic primer course for the political shop on American foreign policy, national security and international economic policy challenges. The political team -- from those engaged in public outreach, political strategy, and communications -- need to better understand the consequences of the NSC's tasks today, and politics should trump policy only in rare times. America's power situation is eroding badly and needs to be corrected. Regrettably the political shop is keeping the President from doing not only what is bold but what is necessary to reverse the perception and reality of American decline today. Obama should give Donilon's operation greater leverage in final policy decisions.

There are probably many other items that should be added to this list -- but Tom Donilon and his team are going to have a huge job ahead as no one will remember to give them credit for an improved US-Russia relationship, an on-then off-then back on restart with China (which Donilon engineered during a recent trip to Beijing), vast gains in restoring the non-proliferation commons and locking down nuclear and WMD materials, and the like. They will only see the problems and challenges ahead - Israel/Palestine and the broader Middle East, Afghanistan, Iran, transnational terrorism, the domestic and global economy, and whatever Iraq evolves into.

Donilon's job needs to be about more than process now.

He needs to work with President Obama to show him how to change the way global gravity is shifting.

Donilon thinks this way. He is a realist and a skeptic of many of the military's grand schemes in which large resources are given, big promises made, and then no accountability for the military down the road. His ascension telegraphs that President Obama feels he does need to bring the Pentagon to heel, and Donilon is the right guy to do this.

Rather than spending his time in tractionless pursuit of platitudes or remaining safely in the grooves of inertia and incrementalism, Donilon's political skills and his knowledge of the policy terrain may give us our only chance for the Obama team to finally begin making key strategic leaps that will benefit the nation and international system.

-- Steve Clemons publishes the popular political blog, The Washington Note. Clemons can be followed on Twitter @SCClemons

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