Michael Goldfarb, formerly chief blogger for the McCain campaign, wrote a piece for the Weekly Standard blog with the provocative title “Rent-a-General Jim Jones,” arguing that the man who spent four decades serving his country as an officer in the Marine Corps, rising to Commandant and then Supreme Allied Commander, is a partisan stooge for the Obama administration.
A friend emails to point out that Jones is “finally doing what he was hired to do — going after McChrystal and Petraeus and providing the president cover to go against his commander’s advice. This is why he will keep his job. He’s irreplaceable.” This is the fundamental rationale for the Jones appointment: the anti-war, never-served, no-foreign-policy-experience president was going to need some cover for his foreign policy of retreat and his wish to ignore sound military advice when it was politically convenient to do so. If the commanders wanted more troops and resources in some theater of war — as with Iraq in 2007 — Obama would need a former four-star on his side. It’s also why he kept around Gates, a man who’s proven to be infinitely flexible to the demands of Obama’s defense agenda — budget cuts and strategic retreats.
Slamming men of the stature of Jones and Gates, who’ve served presidents of both parties for decades, in a single paragraph takes a lot of gumption. What’s Goldfarb’s evidence?
In January 2008, a report by a commission chaired by Jones sounded the alarm about NATO’s failing efforts in Afghanistan: “Urgent changes are required now to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failing or failed state. Not just the future of the Afghan people is at stake. If Afghanistan fails, the possible strategic consequences will worsen regional instability, do great harm to the fight against Jihadist and religious extremism, and put in grave jeopardy NATO’s future as a credible, cohesive and relevant military alliance.” Now, Jones wants to rethink everying, says a request for troops will lead the president to have a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment, and calls General McChrystal’s considered judgement on the best way to move forward an “opinion.” When he was able to affect policy as SACEUR from 2003-2006, Jones did nothing notable and the situation in Afghanistan worsened. As a private citizen and board member of Boeing, Chevron and the Atlantic Council, he saw an urgent need to act. And then he returns to government, the urgency is gone, and he’s advancing Obama’s political agenda.
First, Jones didn’t merely serve on the board of the Atlantic Council; he was its chairman. Second, we have no evidence that Jones is now arguing that Afghanistan isn’t urgent. Rather, he’s stated that the president is going to have a hard time receiving with confidence a request for more troops so soon after having been assured that the previous request for troops would fill the bill. Third, the report in question stated that “The purpose of this paper is to sound the alarm and to propose specific actions that must be taken now if Afghanistan is to succeed in becoming a secure, safe, and functioning state.” Those actions were not taken in January 2008. It’s quite possible that it’s now too late. (Indeed, I was of the view that it was already too late then — if the goals were ever achievable in the first place.)
It’s easy to dismiss Goldfarb, who’s neither a foreign policy expert nor particularly known for partisan detachment. It’s much harder to dismiss similar remarks coming from his former employer, Senator John McCain. The former Republican nominee for president stated on the Senate floor that Jones was couching his words on Afghanistan carefully because he didn’t “want to alienate the left base of the Democrat Party.” Appearing on CNN’s “State of the Union” this weekend, Jones icily responded that,
Sen. McCain knows me very well. I worked for Senator McCain when he was a captain. I’ve known him for many, many years. And he knows that I don’t play politics with national – I don’t play politics. And I certainly don’t play it with national security. And neither does anyone else I know. The lives of our young men and women are on the line. The strategy does not belong to any political party and I can assure you that the President of the United States is not playing to any political base. And I take exception to that remark.
The Washington Monthly‘s Steve Benen reminds us that,
McCain may not remember this, but in June 2008, in the midst of the presidential campaign, Gen. Jones joined McCain at an event in Missouri and flew to the campaign event with McCain on the candidate’s plane. He’s not exactly a progressive political activist. For McCain to argue that Jones is worried about the opinions of the Dems’ liberal base was foolish. For McCain to question the integrity of Jones’ national security advice was absurd.
So it would seem. But for Goldfarb, it’s just more evidence of how clever Jones is.
McCain wasn’t accusing Jones of being in the pocket of the liberal base, he’s accusing him of being a craven and soulless politician who puts his own political survival ahead of the national interest. Jones was the only man in America who had a serious shot at being a major player in whichever administration emerged from last year’s election. To pull off such a feat, one has to play politics. Jones can protest all he wants, but McCain, who has gone out on a limb on issue after issue (immigration reform, campaign finance reform, defense acquisitions, Iraq, etc., etc.) does indeed know him very well, and apparently McCain has noticed that Jim Jones’s positions on matters of policy and politics invariably align with his own political interests.
It’s odd that McCain, who’s known Jones for decades, would suddenly “notice” such a thing. Beyond that — and this is admittedly difficult for someone who makes his living as a partisan flack to grasp — there’s such a thing as dedicated service and political independence. One can argue about the nature of McCain’s willingness to go out on a limb when it’s politically inconvenient to do so; but he’s been a politician these last three decades.
Career Marine officers (or, in the case of Gates, intelligence professionals) tend to focus on getting the job done rather than staking out political stances. To be sure, the successful ones have keen political skills; Jones and Gates both do. They also have political opinions; they just tend to keep those private. Recall, for example, that Dwight Eisenhower, who famously refused to even cast a vote during his decades in the Army, could have had either the Democratic or the Republican nominations for president. Similarly, Gates has served presidents of both parties going back to the Nixon administration and Jones, only recently retired from the Marines, was courted for multiple positions in the Bush administration — finally accepting a part-time Middle East envoy position. It’s not because these men cleverly tack to whichever position is most politically expedience but rather because they’re viewed as non-partisan experts who will provide their counsel in private and carry out their duties with quiet efficiency.
We could use a few more of their kind.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.