Next Security Chief Offers Military, Diplomatic Skills Retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones, named as the next national security adviser, blends military and diplomatic experiences. A Vietnam veteran who grew up in Paris, Jones has tackled tough issues, from the Balkans to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
NPR logo Next Security Chief Offers Military, Diplomatic Skills

Next Security Chief Offers Military, Diplomatic Skills

President-elect Barack Obama has named Sen. Hillary Clinton and retired Marine Gen. James Jones to serve as his secretary of state and national security adviser, respectively. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President-elect Barack Obama has named Sen. Hillary Clinton and retired Marine Gen. James Jones to serve as his secretary of state and national security adviser, respectively.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

Retired Marine Gen. James Jones, the man nominated as the next national security adviser, brings to the assignment both the polished skills of a diplomat and the hard-edged experience of a warrior, say those who know him.

Jones was raised in Paris through high school and came to the United States to attend Georgetown's School of Foreign Service. He still speaks fluent French.

His battlefield experience began in Vietnam. On the night of May 27, 1968, then-Lt. Jones led Fox Company outside the mountain redoubt of Khe Sanh. Suddenly, his position was overrun by a large force of North Vietnamese troops. Jones exposed himself to withering enemy fire, grenades and rockets as he dashed around to adjust his defensive lines, his Silver Star medal citation says.

Trouble On Multiple Fronts

Now, 40 years later, Jones faces the foreign policy equivalent of Khe Sanh. His country's defenses are being overwhelmed everywhere he looks: Iraq. Afghanistan. Pakistan and India. A nuclear North Korea, an emboldened Russia.

"We certainly don't have any shortage of problems," says Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution, who points to Afghanistan as one of the most troublesome issues.

"We're basically losing the war right now," O'Hanlon says. "Certainly, Jones is going to have to do a lot because it's important" to Obama.

Jones told NPR earlier this year that the international community has to do more in Afghanistan, both in financial support and in troop presence. He also said the government of President Hamid Karzai has to step up.

"That government has got to do more than simply live in the palace in Kabul," Jones said. Its representatives have "got to get out there and be seen and felt and, you know, stimulate the enthusiasm of the people."

Military And Diplomatic Experience

Jones follows two other generals who held the job as national security adviser: Colin Powell under President Reagan and Brent Scowcroft under President Ford and the first President Bush.

Jones' broad experience surpasses theirs at the time they took that White House job. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Jones served on the relief mission in northern Iraq; his son has served two tours during the current conflict.

The elder Jones went on to serve in the Balkans before becoming the Marine Corps' top officer. He later commanded all NATO forces, a role that gave him a hand in Afghanistan policy. More recently, Jones has been a special Middle East envoy, working on security issues with the Israelis and Palestinians.

"I've seen him grow over the years, and he has great diplomatic skills. And he's a great people person, and he really knows how to calm a situation and look at something analytically," says William Cohen, who served as defense secretary under President Clinton and brought in Jones as his military aide.

The two had known each other since the 1970s, when Jones served as a Marine liaison on Capitol Hill and Cohen was a senator from Maine.

Jones "brings considerable military experience, and I would say his diplomatic skills are quite extraordinary," Cohen says.

"He tends to be the kind of person who commands a lot of respect and is widely admired," says O'Hanlon. "He's almost too good to be true, like he's out of central casting."

An imposing figure, at 6 feet, 4 inches tall, Jones is "almost like a John Wayne figure," O'Hanlon adds.

Retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, who has known Jones for three decades, recalls that Jones' interest in international relations began at Georgetown.

Zinni calls Jones a "quick learner" who knows Washington well; he has the leadership skills to keep "the team working together."

Jones is considered a pragmatist who has worked well with both Democrats and Republicans over the years. He also advised John McCain during the presidential race.

From Commander To Staffer

While Jones has held top command positions, now he will be one of Washington's most important staffers. It's more than just running the bureaucracy, O'Hanlon says: It's also about coming up with "big ideas" — strategies the country needs.

A good national security adviser has to be creative, O'Hanlon says. He points to Scowcroft, who under the first President Bush worked to reunify Germany and cut U.S. nuclear forces in Europe.

Whether Jones "can also be the grand strategist is another question," says O'Hanlon. "And there are times when that has been a necessary part of the national security adviser portfolio."

The job can be a tough one, balancing competing interests and egos. O'Hanlon points to Condoleezza Rice, who held the job in the current Bush administration before becoming secretary of state. She was criticized for being ineffective, failing to resolve policy differences between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Powell.

Speaking in Chicago Monday, Jones said he was deeply humbled to take the national security job during what he called "challenging times."