Jim Jones Drinks the Kool Aid: But Why?

The announcement last Friday of General James Jones’ resignation as the President’s national security adviser, effective in two weeks, continues the exodus of senior policy officials from the current administration.  Jones joins Peter Orszag, Christina Romer, Larry Summers and Rahm Emanuel in the ranks of the departed or soon-to-be-departed.     As with the previous resignations, Jones’ departure, at least publicly, is attributed to personal reasons, and not to policy differences with the President.  “Sources” say Jones never intended to stay very long and is leaving now primarily for reasons related to family. Similar sentiments were expressed by Orszag, Romer and Summers when their resignations were announced – none publicly voiced displeasure with their time in Obama’s administration, and all said they were either eager to go back to previous jobs or were leaving for family reasons.  The only exception is Emanuel, who resigned to pursue elective office but he also left on good terms with the President.

As I noted in my earlier posts regarding Orszag’s resignation, I don’t doubt that personal reasons related to family or previous employment played a role in all these resignations save Emanuel’s.  But the reality is that presidents do not typically acquiesce when senior advisers seek to step down unless they are quite willing to see them move on.  And senior advisers rarely step down from positions of influence. Serving in a senior advising role in the presidency is in many respects the job of a lifetime, particularly if you have access to the president and your views are driving policy or political decisions.  For whatever reason, however, that does not seem to be the case with the individuals here.  Except for Emanuel (and perhaps even in his case), these are senior advisers that for one reason or another wore out their welcome at the White House or who chose to leave because of diminished influence.

Interestingly, this seems to be happening more quickly in the Obama administration than in any previous modern presidency. I’ve already presented data in a previous post regarding the OMB position. Now let’s put Jones’ tenure in historical perspective: if we date his departure to last Friday, he lasted a tad more than 1 ½ years as national security adviser.  The average tenure of the previous 20 national security advisers, dating back to the position’s creation during Eisenhower’s administration, and including those advisers who came on near the end of a presidential term, is  2 ¾ years.  If we limit the analysis to only those 8 national security advisers who came on board at the start of the President’s term, the average tenure is 3.9 years.  (I treat Ford as a continuation of the Nixon presidency here.) In short, when a president picks his first national security adviser, that individual typically serves at least through the first term.  Jones did not even last through the first midterm. Here is a list of all 21 national security advisers, with time served.  (Reminder: I treat Jones’ resignation as taking place last Friday.)

Robert Cutler 23-Mar-53 2-Apr-55
Dillon Anderson 2-Apr-55 1-Sep-56
Robert Cutler 7-Jan-57 24-Jun-58
Gordon Gray 24-Jun-58 13-Jan-61
McGeorge Bundy 20-Jan-61 28-Feb-66
Walt W. Rostow 1-Apr-66 2-Dec-68
Henry A. Kissinger 2-Dec-68 3-Nov-75
Brent Scowcroft 3-Nov-75 20-Jan-77
Zbigniew Brzezinski 20-Jan-77 21-Jan-81
Richard V. Allen 21-Jan-81 4-Jan-82
William P. Clark 4-Jan-82 17-Oct-83
Robert C. McFarlane 17-Oct-83 4-Dec-85
John M. Poindexter 4-Dec-85 25-Nov-86
Frank C. Carlucci 2-Dec-86 23-Nov-87
Colin L. Powell 23-Nov-87 20-Jan-89
Brent Scrowcroft 20-Jan-89 20-Jan-93
W. Anthony Lake 20-Jan-93 14-Mar-97
Samuel R. Berger 14-Mar-97 20-Jan-2001
Condoleezza Rice 22-Jan-2001 20-Jan-2005
Stephen Hadley 20-Jan-2005 20-Jan-2009
James Jones 20-Jan-2009 8-Oct-2010

We see that of the previous 20 NSC advisers, only five served for a shorter time than did Jones, and only one of those five – Richard Allen under Reagan – came in with the President.  In short, Jones’ allotment of kool aid came very early indeed.

What are we to make of this pattern of resignations in Obama’s first two years in office?  I talked previously about my research noting a correlation between the changing political context in which presidents operate, as signified by the movement toward a candidate-centered presidential selection process, and a decline in White House and cabinet retention rates, so I won’t revisit that point here.  (I will in a future post try to update that analysis to take account of staff turnover during Obama’s first two years.)

But let me highlight two significant aspects of the Obama resignations. First, these are not insignificant positions – instead, the resignations are occurring among the most important policy and political advisers in his presidency.  This suggests that Obama is rethinking his initial choices for these key positions.  But why?  I am not entirely sure, but a hint, I think, is provided in some of the remarks regarding Jones’ resignation.  According to the Times (see here) White House officials, including presumably the President, were not happy about remarks attributed to Jones in the recent Woodward book  regarding Obama’s decision to escalate the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. Evidently Jones failed to back the President more effectively during Obama’s  efforts to resist military pressure to extend the U.S. military presence there. Other sources suggest Jones failed to provide the President with political cover on this issue.

If accurate, this paints a troubling but not historically unprecedented portrait of trends in Obama’s advising system.  Simply put, the pattern seems to be one in which Obama is allowing (or encouraging) advisers who are out of step with his policy views to resign, and replacing them with individuals with whom he feels more comfortable.  Why is this troubling?  Because the most effective advisers are those who encourage dissent within the presidential advisory system, and who force the President to consider alternative views – particularly views which run contrary to his political or policy predilections. By all accounts, Emanuel played this role very very effectively as chief of staff.  Jones, as national security adviser, is in many respects Emanuel’s functional counterpart, responsible for overseeing the national security decisionmaking process.  Note that in this capacity the NSC adviser is often forced to take on two somewhat contradictory roles.  He must be both “honest broker” charged with managing the policy process so that all views are properly vetted and presented to the President.  But he may also be asked to serve as a policy advocate, making the case for a particular policy option.  Balancing these two roles can be very difficult.  For the NSC adviser to be effective, however, the President must reward him or her for performing as honest broker – even if that means encouraging dissent and even backing those who hold views with which the President disagrees.  For whatever reason, this did not happen with Jones.

Note that if I am correct regarding the movement by this President to close ranks, the pattern is not without historical precedent.  Indeed, the tendency in most administrations, over time, is to limit dissent by weeding out those who do not share the President’s views. Moreover, this is not simply presidents’ doing; senior advisers who find themselves continually on the losing side of an argument soon find that life in the White House is not very enjoyable and many choose to move on rather than bang their head on the wall on behalf of a losing cause.  What is different about this presidency, at least so far, is how quickly this is occurring at the most senior advising level; the kool aid is being ladled out early, and in heavy doses, and Obama’s senior aides seem more than willing to drink.


  1. Of course, the 1947 National Security Act implies that the National Security Advisor is a referee among these three powerful bureaucratic positions.

    The most interesting aspect of the Obama national security team is that State, Defense (and to a degree CIA) are NOT battling habitually over the budget or policy pie. This is one of the President’s signal achievements in his first two years.

    And it has nothing to do with Gen. Jim Jones, who by all accounts has been a relatively “old school” Marine, an unimaginative and reactive thinker. I have no idea how he was offered the job in the first place, except that he brought more credibility among the Brass at a point when the administration had very little.

    Consider that President Obama has excellent rapport with Defense Secretary Robert Gates — a Republican and an initially hesistant choice for SecDef. The comity among DOD, State and CIA is, by extension, due to the effectiveness of Gates as SecDef. Gates is really the lynchpin here, easily the most powerful of the National Security decision-makers, and his departure (not Gen. Jones’) would signal a major political course change. It is a shame that Gates thinks the President’s new choice for NSA would be “a disaster,” and this could signal that Gates is about to leave as well, but it does not mean that Gates himself would be unable to work effectively in an overhauled cabinet.

    Why is Gates the backbone of the President’s team? He ran CIA in the past. Hence he can be relatively sympathetic toward Leon Panetta’s job as DCIA or James Clapper’s job as DNI, and at the same time was steeped in DOD’s capabilities (since DOD has always owned 85% of the US intelligence assets). As a former civilian analyst, he is also highly sensitized to root social dynamics of countries in crisis — the very antithesis of Secretary Rumsfeld’s dismissiveness — and hence a very good friend of the State Department’s civilian overtures in US policy.

    He has probably been the best Secretary of Defense that the United States has ever witnessed — a more vigorous and effective bureaucratic leader than even Melvyn Laird (’69-’73) or Cap Weinberger (’81-’87). Let’s hope that of all the national security leadership, Gates will be comfortable staying on.

  2. Martin,

    It’s hard to tell from my vantage point just how effective Jones was as a process manager – I guess we will have to wait for the memoirs, case studies, etc., before making a final judgment. But certainly the perception is as you describe it: he was not very imaginative and too low key for Obama’s taste. As for Gates, I agree with your assessment: he’s been, by most accounts, very successful. (He might even be, as you suggest, the best Sec. of Def. in the modern era, although some might argue that Marshall rates up there despite his limited time in this position.) The real clash in the intelligence budget has been between the DNI and the CIA, but that’s due almost entirely to the structural impediments built into the DNI’s coordinating role, something about which I’ve discussed in previous posts. The rumor mill, if it can be believed, suggests that Gates is not long for Obama’s world, however. If he does resign, it will be turnover in still another key policy position.

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