December 1st, 2008
08:53 PM ET

Jim Jones and Barack Obama have more in common than meets the eye

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Jamie McIntyre | BIO
Senior Pentagon Correspondent

Probably the biggest unknown factor in the president-elect Barack Obama's national security team is the retired four-star general tapped to be national security advisor: former Supreme NATO commander and Marine Corps Commandant Jim Jones. CNN Senior Pentagon Correspondent Jamie McIntyre has known Jones for years, traveled with him around the world, and offers his inside take on how Jones is likely to carry out his challenging new assignment.

One stark difference between the President-elect and his new National Security Advisor: unlike Barack Obama, Jim Jones is not a dynamic public speaker.

He stops and starts a lot in his sentences, and he’s not given to emotional or rhetorical flourishes.

It makes it easy to underestimate him.

But Barack Obama sees the qualities in Jones that served him well in his stellar 40-year career in the U.S. Marines.

As the former Marine Corps Commandant and Supreme Allied Commander, Jones combines experience as a military commander with demonstrated diplomatic skills.

I first met Jones back in 1997, when he was three-star military assistant to then Defense Secretary William Cohen.

The job had traditionally been held by a one-star general who would serve as a glorified aide to the defense chief.

But Cohen, who had known Jones since he was a young major serving as a legislative liaison on Capitol Hill, wanted someone with more juice to cut through the Pentagon bureaucracy.

“Jones knew where all the bodies were buried, and made sure mine wasn’t one of them,” Cohen told me recently.

As National Security Advisor, Jones’ role is to get the rest of the team to work out differences and minimize the number of problems the president personally has to solve.

But as Mr. Obama said in announcing his team today, he’s “a strong believer in strong personalities and strong opinions.”

In Jim Jones he may have also found a strong referee.

In a telephone interview with CNN– his first since being named to the job - Jones says he sees his role as helping Barack Obama to achieve consensus, "He's looking for teamwork. He's looking for consensus of opinions, but also diversity if it's necessary, and at the end of the day, with major issues he'll make the decision, and everybody will salute smartly and carry it out,” Jones said.

In picking Jones, Obama gets a military man who wasn’t a cheerleader for the Iraq war.

In fact, as Bob Woodward first reported in his book “State of Denial”, as far back as 2005 Jones privately warned his good friend and soon-to-be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Peter Pace: "You're going to face a debacle and be part of the debacle in Iraq.”

And he added this sage advice, "You should not be the parrot on the secretary's shoulder."

Woodward reported Jones was “so worried about Iraq and the way Rumsfeld ran things that he wondered if he himself should not resign in protest.”

Jones didn’t deny that when I asked him about it later.

“We all have bad days,” he told me in 2006. “I remember my first thought of resignation was in Vietnam, when I said. “Why am I doing this?’ You have bad days. So you think about, you think about yourself every now and then, but, uh, now we have good days. So 40 years later I’m still in uniform.”

Jones tells CNN he's eager to serve again. He denies he’s at odds with the President-elect on issues such as Obama’s pledge to withdraw U.S. combat forces in 16 months even though just over a year ago Jones seemed clearly uncomfortable with an Obama-style Iraq withdrawal plan.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee September 6, 2007, Jones was asked about it by Obama’s future Republican rival John McCain.

“Do you believe that if we just set a time frame for withdrawal that that would be in the United States' interest in the region?,” McCain asked.

"I think deadlines can work against us. And I think a deadline of this magnitude would be against our national interest,” Jones replied.

But today Jones told me that a lot has changed since then. The Iraq security forces have improved and the Iraqi parliament has approved the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that calls for all U.S. troops top leave Iraq by the end of 2011.

"The new SOFA agreements give us a pathway to work in. So I don't know of anything that would put us at odds. I think quite the contrary,” he said.

During that testimony last year, Jones also recommended a pull back of U.S. forces that closely mirrors the plan adopted by the Iraq parliament.

"The force footprint should be adjusted, in our view, to represent an expeditionary capability and to combat the permanent force image of today's presence. This will make an ultimate departure, an eventual departure, much easier," he testified.

And there’s one more issue on which Jones and his new boss agree: gays in the military.

Jones, having served with and for Marines who he later learned were gay, said in an interview last year with CNN that his views have softened over the years:

"People can serve and serve honorably regardless of where they come from," he said.

Filed under: Barack Obama • Jamie McIntyre • Jim Jones • Raw Politics
soundoff (5 Responses)
  1. RandyT, USN Ret.

    He is a United States Marine, I need to know little more to have faith he will serve our country and President (elect) Obama well.

    December 1, 2008 at 11:57 pm |
  2. E Gervais

    Can/Will Bill take Hillary's Senate seat?

    December 1, 2008 at 10:16 pm |