Keeping an eye on Obama's National Security Adviser

The place of the National Security Adviser in U.S. politics is not something most Canadians, including federal officials, have thought much about. But after Barack Obama’s recent visit to Ottawa, that should change. As we reported in the March 9 issue of the magazine, the key White House official in setting the agenda for Obama’s meetings with Stephen Harper was General James Jones Jr., the current NSA.

To recap, Jones, a retired Marine general who stands six foot four, was the lead U.S. official at the table in the key Feb. 12 planning meeting for the visit, sitting across from Harper’s chief of staff, Guy Giorno. Jones was at Obama’s elbow for much of the Feb. 19 visit. His particular interest in Canada comes from two intriguing angles. He’s an influential figure in shaping Obama’s Afghanistan policy, and acutely aware of Canada’s role there. As well, he has long argued that energy supply is central to U.S. security, and has touted Alberta’s oil sands as a strategic asset.

Last December, before Obama appointed him, Jones wrote this, in his capacity as then head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy: “[W]e must continue to invest jointly in the technologies that will allow us to use oil sands and oil shale in an environmentally responsible way. It is estimated that by 2030, production from Canadian oil sands will reach 3.6 million barrels a day. This represents a promising new source of energy at a time when many existing oil fields are in decline.”

Of course, investing jointly in technology was precisely what Obama and Harper agreed to do, through their “Clean Energy Dialogue.” This despite Obama’s previous allusions to the problem of “dirty oil,” and the fact that other figures in his administration are thought to be skeptical about the emissions-intensive oil sands process. Jones’s viewpoint evidently prevailed. Having a sympathetic figure as National Security Adviser seems to be a useful thing. But just where does Jones fit?

For a sense of what his job is all about, there’ s a timely new book, In the Shadow of the Oval Office: Profiles of the National Security Advisers and the Presidents They Served — From JFK to George W. Bush, By Ivo H. Daalder and I.M. Destler, usefully surveyed in this Washington Post review, which notes that Jones is on the record suggesting he will broaden the job beyond its traditional foreign-policy preoccupations to encompass “such department-spanning 21st century issues as cybersecurity, energy, climate change, nation-building and infrastructure.”

For an insidery take on where Jones stands in the new order in Washington, this Foreign Policy piece reads teas leaves about how different officials rate in Obama’s power structure, and concludes the NSA is near the very centre.”[T]his is very much a White House centric administration,” writes David Rothkopf. “Obama, [Vice-President Joe] Biden, Jim Jones, [Chief of Staff] Rahm Emanuel, [White House Counsel] Greg Craig (who one imagines might be behind the language that specifies the White House Counsel “shall be invited to attend every NSC meeting”), and Jones Deputy National Security Advisor Tom Donilon will be fixtures at every meeting.”

For anyone who’s thinking, ‘But isn’t the real foreign policy clout concentrated in the firm grip of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?’, this column by the Thomas Freidman sketches how Obama has spread the influence around. And Freidman takes particular note of Jones’s assessment of how the globe is seen from Obama’s Washington: “The world today can be much better understood if you think of it from the perspective of regions and not states.”

And for those now wondering, ‘How did Canadian journalists miss the important of Jones in the general scheme of things, and to Canada in particular?’, I direct you to this perceptive piece by our own Luize Ch. Savage, who offered early intelligence about Jones as a guy who “has been to Alberta and views Canadian oil as a strategic North American resource—and appreciates Canada as an ally in places like Afghanistan.” (As well, the Globe and Mail’s Shawn McCarthy flagged Jones as a man to watch in his Jan. 15 story, “Canada’s energy ally in Obama’s ‘green team,’ but that story appears to be available online only on a pay-to-read basis, so, sorry, no link.)