National Security Council uberexpert David Rothkopf says National Security Advisor Jim Jones is
in a position to be, after Obama, the single most important voice in shaping U.S. national security policy. (A role he is strengthening via his shrewdly managed lowish profile, emulating the gold standard among National Security Advisors, Brent Scowcroft.) [emphasis added]
Rothkopf points to Jones' recent expansion of the NSC to include figures like United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and Attorney General Eric Holder, and, informally, White House counsel Greg Craig, who will be invited to attend every NSC meeting. This "firmly establish[es] Jones's primacy in terms of process coordination," he writes, and "might be seen as something of a dilution of the power of the Secretary of State who is certainly one among many in this throng."
The inclusion of Rice, a top Obama campaign advisor, whose job had previously been elevated to cabinet rank, is particularly interesting. As I noted in my recent piece on Hillary's State team, Rice and Clinton were known during the 2008 campaign to take a dim view of one another, and several foreign-policy veterans have told me to watch whether they are able to make nice and coordinate--or whether they will wind up as dueling power centers. Certainly people close to Hillary are taking note of Rice's role; one former aide of hers drew my attention to the Washington Post's story on the new NSC structure last week, with what I would describe as a raised eyebrow.
Something important to note here, however: Rothkopf reminds us that
these bigger formal structures have proved unwieldly and the really key work has been done in smaller groups whether they are informal lunchtime conversations with the President or small regular phone groups between the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, which have been a common feature in recent administrations. [emph. added]
So in the competition to wield policymaking power, the real game is still about hustling and schmoozing behind the scenes. It's a story that dates back at least to the Nixon administration, as this February 1969 story from the Time magazine archives reminds us:
As a result, Kissinger is already widely suspected in Washington of being a would-be usurper of the powers traditionally delegated to the State and Defense Departments and other branches of Government. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman J. William Fulbright fears that the new NSC organization will "move in the direction of taking very important matters out of the hands of the traditional agencies, most of which felt a responsibility to Congress." In the White House itself, one aide who is close to Nixon says: "Kissinger is seen as tremendously talented, energetic and hardworking, going all the time. But there is a certain wariness about him and the whole empire he is building." The President has been forced to issue repeated assurances that Secretary of State William Rogers is indeed the principal adviser on foreign policy, and the State Department the principal executor of that policy. [emph added]
Of course, Jim Jones is no Henry Kissinger (in more ways than one!). You can read my recent short profile of him here.