What are we to make of Obama’s replacement of General Jim Jones, the national security adviser who regarded Israel/Palestine as the big enchilada, by his deputy, the very political Thomas Donilon? The question was asked of Chas Freeman, author, ambassador and former Obama intelligence nominee, and he responded in the following email to a few friends. He gave our site permission to publish:
. . . there’s a broader issue with the appointment of Tom Donilon, a creature of Congress whose professional formation has taken place entirely within the Washington bubble. Nothing in his background as a lawyer or aide to elected officials and political appointees hints at any skill at strategic thinking, foreign policy formulation, or diplomatic maneuver that is directed at anyone other than domestic constituencies. He gives every sign of faithfully reflecting the political risk aversion, venal deference to campaign contributors, and constipated strategic imagination of the Washington establishment. We Americans have spawned our own version of the eunuchs of old, who flourished inside the walls of the Forbidden City or Topkapi/Dolmabahçe Palace. Their counterparts now practice the arts of the courtier within the Beltway at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. (It is said that Afghanistan has jirgas to make village-level decisions and loya jirgas to decide things at the national level, while Washington now makes decisions in circle jirgas.) Donilon is exhibit A of this archetypal Washington type; his presumed successor, Denis McDonough, is exhibit B. (For the opposite — optimistic — presentation of essentially the same judgment, see Steve Clemons).
Note that the principal argument for Donilon and McDonough is not their competence or mastery of the subject matter of national security affairs in its diplomatic, intelligence, and military dimensions, but the trust the president has in them. To me, this underscores that American politics has become entirely self-referential and solipsistic. We have evolved the world’s most militarily powerful autistic government. The Obama Administration is practicing non-partisanship by carrying on the foreign policy of its predecessor. Mr. Magoo is still at the helm, as I discovered he was years back. See: “America in the World – Magoo at the Helm” — , now a chapter in the book Just World Books just brought out, “America’s Misadventures in the Middle East.” )
Jim Jones’s retirement (like that of his colleague Denny Blair) reflects the distaste of the White House inner circle (the “water bugs”) for politically inconvenient and annoyingly intractable foreign realities that refuse to conform to the domestic political will as defined by the interest groups to which it has been franchised. This appointment is, in my view, a vindication of the Tea Party crowd’s perception that Washington is self-referential, dominated by special interests (i.e. groups with which the disparate dissatisfied do not identify), manipulative rather than empathetic, and out of touch. At the same time, in relation to foreign policy, it represents a bow to the sort of American parochialism and solipsism that tea partyers exemplify. While I agree that the Middle East is the most consequential arena for American policy failures at present, this appointment belies hope that the many other challenges before our country will be imaginatively and effectively addressed before they become incorrigible.