Normally the White House’s replacement of the National Security Advisor relates more to tone than substance, but the leadership shift from Marine General James Jones to Tom Donilon could have serious consequences.  The National Security Advisor’s first task is to moderate conflicting interests within the intelligence and security community to establish consensus responses to external threats. When genuine policy options emerge from that process he essentially becomes a gatekeeper who limits the choices for the president by weeding out approaches that will not work and prioritizing possible policies that should be considered.  That means that he or she pretty much sets the national security agenda since the president will normally choose from the selections made by the National Security Council, which the National Security Advisor heads.

General Jones was initially taken on by the Obama Administration because of his reputation as an independent thinker who would provide the best advice based on actual national security priorities.  He has done that and, together with Admiral Mike Mullen on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has advised caution regarding possible conflict with Iran, placing him at odds with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Jones’ chemistry with Obama was also reported to be less than good.  Jones has been on everyone’s “next-to-go” list but he finally walked the plank when President Obama decided he needed someone who would be more sensitive to the political dimension of the job, meaning more willing to bend judgments on security to conform to political considerations.  This is characteristic of Democratic administrations, which frequently enter office labeled as “soft” on defense issues and then try to make up for it by appointing a leading general or someone from the national security apparatus to a key position.  They then become uncomfortable with that person and replace him with someone else who has no relevant experience but who understands the politics better.  Sandy Berger under Bill Clinton comes immediately to mind together with memories of bombs away over Serbia and barrages of cruise missiles blowing up Sudanese pharmaceutical factories and Afghan huts.  

Donilon, who has no actual experience in national security or foreign policy formulation apart from working on several staffs, is a lawyer by training and a Washington lobbyist.  His previous stint in government, before joining the Obama transition team, was at Fannie Mae. His brother and wife work respectively for Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s wife.   When the change at NSC was announced, ABC News reported that during his stint as executive vice president at Fannie Mae “Donilon’s tactics reportedly included attacks on the agency responsible for policing Fannie Mae’s operations, the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, and an attempt to launch a separate investigation into OFHEO itself, according to a 2006 government report about Fannie Mae. Those efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, and regulators eventually discovered top Fannie Mae executives had been manipulating the company’s financial reporting to maximize their bonuses.”

Be that as it may, one might well question how a lawyer and lobbyist who worked at a government mortgage agency suddenly became qualified to be the United States government’s point man on national security.  It is somewhat reminiscent of the rapid ascent “by a set of curious chances” of the Lord High Executioner in “The Mikado.”  Donilon’s defenders note that he was one of the members of the National Security Council who resisted the increase in troops for Afghanistan, which is true.  But that is only half the story.  His resistance was due to concerns that there might be a political price to pay if the “surge” were to be unsuccessful.  Such parsing of security strategy based on political consequences could mean that starting wars will henceforth be part of the management of the US election cycle rather than as responses to genuine security threats.  Donilon will likely be willing to ratchet up the “Iranian threat” whenever it appears that the Obama administration needs to shore up its “strong on defense” credentials. It will be especially important to find a new enemy to blame for the upcoming decline and fall in Afghanistan, with Tehran filling the bill perfectly.