Is this the first crack in the we’re-all-one-big-happy-family talk from the Obama adminstration when it comes to foreign policy? Is Hillary Clinton’s State Department trying to undermine General James L. Jones at the National Security Council? And does it have anything to do with the coming May 18 showdown between President Obama and Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu at the White House?
Maybe I’m sensitive to the emergence of a possible conflict between the State Department and the White House’s NSC because I’ve just written a piece for Rolling Stone on the NSC, called “Obama’s Chess Masters.” In it, I pointed out that Obama’s foreign policy is heavily “White House-centric,” and that Hillary Clinton and Robert Gates will take a back seat to the White House, including General James Jones, the national security adviser. I wrote:
As soon as Obama was elected, there were questions about whether his plan to appoint a so-called “team of rivals” to key foreign-policy positions would lead to chaos and derail his agenda. Indeed, many of the strong-willed and sharp-elbowed officials at the top of the administration are more hawkish than the president himself –from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama’s chief rival last year, to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, a Republican who was appointed by George W. Bush, to Gen. David Petraeus, the politically ambitious commander of Centcom.
Now the sharp elbows may be coming out.
Mark Landler, the Frankfurt-based writer for the New York Times, penned a sycophantic and worshipful piece on Hillary Clinton on Saturday entitled: “Cinton Morphs from Campaigner to Cabinet Member.” In it, while praising Clinton for her “respectful rapport” with President Obama, he included an anonymous (and State Department-inspired) attack on Jones:
But State Department officials, and others in the administration, say less-than-generous things about Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, suggesting there is some jockeying among the top officials around the president. General Jones, these people say, has struggled with his transition from Marine commander to senior staff person, speaking up less in debates than Mrs. Clinton and not pushing as hard for decisions.
Truth be told, while Clinton meets Obama about once a week, Jones sees Obama several times a day.
I can’t help wondering if the State Department slurs against Jones have anything to do with his insistence that the United States intends to take a hard line on Israel-Palestine policy. The Israel lobby has been unhappy with Jones, and recently General Jones told David Ignatius of the Post that the United States intends to lay out its own views on what a settlement between Israel and Palestine might look like. In an April 30 column, Ignatius wrote:
Jones is an activist on the Palestinian issue, which he lists as a top priority for the new administration. He wants the United States to offer a guiding hand in peace negotiations — submitting its own ideas to help break any logjams between the Israelis and Palestinians. “The United States is at its best when it’s directly involved,” Jones says. He cites U.S. diplomatic efforts in the Balkans. “We didn’t tell the parties to go off and work this out. If we want to get momentum, we have to be involved directly.”
This stance may antagonize the new Israeli government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, as may the prospect of U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran. Ideally, the administration would like to explore a new security architecture for the Persian Gulf that recognizes Tehran’s rising power but also sets limits.
This is important stuff. As I’ve written elsewhere for The Nation, and as Zbigniew Brzezinski has said, it’s critical for the United States to lay out its position, rather than sit back and let the Israelis stall on peace talks. Let’s keep an eye on Mrs. Clinton, whose loyalty to the Israeli position was honed during her stint as senator from New York.