When General James Jones testified before the Senate Committee on Armed Services in September 2007, he had an opportunity to make a dramatic impact on the contentious Iraq war debate. Jones, whom Barack Obama has tapped to be his national security adviser, had just finished chairing a special panel that assessed Iraq's security forces, and was presenting its findings. With his long and unblemished military leadership record, his imposing six-foot-four-inch frame, and his laconic wise-man's demeanor, Jones had the highly attentive ear of both Congress and the press. A damning assessment of Iraq's prospects would embolden Democratic arguments that it was high time to withdraw. An upbeat assessment would empower Republicans insisting Iraq could still be saved if Americans would be patient.

Remarkably, Jones managed not to disappoint either side. Instead, he trod what The New York Times called a "finely nuanced" middle path. Jones said the Iraqi police force was rife with corruption and sectarianism--but that the Iraqi army was improving. He agreed with Democrats who argued that the United States should begin troop withdrawals and affirmed their core view that the surge's security improvements had not led to political progress. "It is clear in your report ... that the Iraqi government will struggle to continue to achieve [a] national reconciliation," Hillary Clinton, a surge opponent and advocate for withdrawal, declared with satisfaction. But Jones also warned that a withdrawal deadline as proposed by the likes of Clinton would be "against our national interest." "I find the report to be extremely encouraging," exulted Iraq hawk Joe Lieberman. A headline in the next day's Washington Post neatly summed up the proceedings when it proclaimed Jones "GEN. RERSCHACH."

Jones somehow maintained this inkblot style through the presidential campaign. He privately advised Obama, even after publicly appearing with his old friend John McCain--making him one of a tiny handful of people who probably would have been picked for a top slot regardless of which candidate won the election. How does Jones pull it off? Much of the explanation is that no one can pin down his worldview enough to find fault with it. Jones is "pretty much a black box," says one Democratic foreign policy staffer on Capitol Hill. "He doesn't have a personal agenda," says Fred Graefe, a Washington lobbyist who has been a close friend of Jones since they served in Vietnam 40 years ago and claims not to know even whether he is a Democrat or Republican. "He's a little bit of a mystery," adds another Democrat who closely watches foreign policy for a special-interest group.

Jones, to be sure, is not a complete mystery: He is an internationalist by nature--though he is also less dovish, particularly on Iraq, than some people may understand. But it's true that his record suggests someone more interested in management than in grand vision--and someone who, unencumbered by strong ideological leanings, can evaluate ideas dispassionately whether they come from left or right. This probably helps explain why Obama picked him. With a foreign policy team dominated by strong figures like Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and Robert Gates, Obama does not need a national security adviser with big ideas; he needs someone smooth as a diplomat and tough as a Marine. Which just happens to describe Jim Jones.

 

Like Colin Powell, Jones is that rare uniformed official whose soft diplomatic touch helps him talk to generals, congressmen, and foreign leaders alike. The son of an international businessman, he grew up in Paris and graduated from Georgetown's School of Foreign Service before joining the Marines. After beginning as a platoon commander in 1967, he rose through the ranks to become Marine Commandant in 1999. Four years later, he returned to Europe, taking over as supreme allied commander of NATO. As he accumulated medals, Jones also honed his political skills. In the 1970s, he worked on Capitol Hill as the Marines' Senate liaison. (Jones worked from a desk next to McCain, who then represented the Navy.) And his time at NATO "showed his skills as a mediator and coordinator--skills the national security adviser needs, especially with powerful cabinet secretaries," says Matthew Waxman, a former deputy to Condoleezza Rice at the National Security Council. (Rice, a big fan of Jones, twice courted him to take the State Department's number-two post.)

European diplomacy probably came naturally to a man who was raised in France--learning the native tongue first--until he was 17 years old. The experience also left Jones with a keen awareness of America's image abroad. "He talks all the time about how he was raised in France," says Graefe. "His memory of post-World War II France is of how they loved and respected Americans in uniform." That, combined with an oft-cited 2005 episode from Bob Woodward's book State of Denial--in which Jones advises his old friend Peter Pace not to accept an appointment as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because of the arrogance of Donald Rumsfeld and "the debacle in Iraq"--may have given some Obama supporters the impression that the new national security adviser is a uniformed dove.

But that's not quite accurate. There is no evidence that Jones thought the Iraq war was a bad idea or offered substantial resistance before the invasion. The public record shows him more focused on tactical questions, not the strategic rationale itself. In the run-up to the war, Jones was busy trying to convince Ankara to allow a U.S. thrust across Turkey's southern border into Iraq--an effort that failed. It's important to remember that, at the time Jones called Iraq a "debacle" to Pace in 2005, he was expressing a pretty widely shared view--something even many war supporters conceded. In an April 2007 interview with Charlie Rose, meanwhile, Jones actually seemed to defend the war, even in hindsight. He spoke supportively of the surge, asserted that "Iraq will be better off in the long run without Saddam Hussein," and demurred when Rose asked him whether the invasion had been a mistake: "I don't know if it was a mistake simply because you're struggling and you're perceived not to be doing well." He struck a similar tone when he appeared on "Meet the Press" in September 2007, telling Tim Russert that the United States could not afford to lose in Iraq. "[T]he strategic interests of the United States in the region are very, very high, and I'm not talking about just soil, I'm talking about being perceived to have been successful here against this fundamental battle against terrorism. If we are perceived to fail, I think you're going to see terrorism expand, and I think that the stability of the Gulf region is going to be brought into question," Jones explained. (Those words, incidentally, may hint at how Jones could advise Obama, should troop withdrawals from Iraq lead to new violence and instability.)

Jones's precise views on the war, however, may be less important than his critique of the person who managed it. When Rumsfeld considered tapping him for the Joint Chiefs job in 2001, Jones declined even to meet with a defense secretary whom he found, by Woodward's account, self-important and uninterested in free and open debate. When he warned Pace against accepting the same job, Jones focused not just on the condition of Iraq but on the perversion of the policy-making process. "Military advice is being influenced on a political level," Jones told him. "You should not be the parrot on the secretary's shoulder."

A parrot is exactly what a national security adviser should not be. The position was created during the Eisenhower administration to help the president keep up with the fast-expanding size of the U.S. government and its hundreds of international and security tasks spread across dozens of agencies. The national security adviser's role is to gather opinions from across the government and synthesize them into a menu of options for the president, favoring none and testing the assumptions of all. Only after the president has made an informed decision does the adviser whip others into line to execute it.

Recent history suggests that success in the job depends on two things: diplomatic skill and a willingness to think skeptically about all ideas--including the president's. Jimmy Carter's foreign policy was paralyzed by infighting between his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. For her part, Rice was steamrolled by Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, hardened Washington veterans who didn't consider her an equal. They short-circuited the policy-making process by going straight to Bush and shutting out dissenting opinions, with disastrous results. What's more, Rice may have been too close to Bush. She bonded with W. over pro sports and workout regimens, and often weekended with his family at Camp David and in Crawford, Texas. This may explain why she seemed to spend little effort challenging the administration's groupthink about the war: She believed too much in Bush's instincts and deferred to his cocky certitude.

Obama's national-security lineup certainly brings the risk of tensions. Clinton is an epic figure who will operate under the constant suspicion that she is favoring her own image over Obama's. Some speculate there could be friction between Clinton and Obama's strong-willed pick for U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice--particularly given that Obama is elevating Rice's job to the cabinet level. "That has the potential to be a real problem," says one veteran of the foreign policy bureaucracy. And Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a Republican whose conservative top deputies will now be replaced by Democrats, with unpredictable results.

But Jones could be an ideal antidote to the natural tensions involved in this lineup. Most importantly, he has the diplomatic skills to navigate the Obama administration's egos and relationships. Plus, he does not appear to be a natural antagonist of anyone else on the team. Though he doesn't know Gates especially well, both men share long experience in the national security establishment (Gates was in the Air Force and previously headed the CIA). Jones and Clinton have a more direct connection, having bonded--as Hillary did with many military officials--during her tenure on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The two are said to have particularly clicked at a 2005 conference on security policy in Munich. Jones hosted a small private dinner that included Clinton and South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, among others; at the end of the convivial evening, according to one person present, Jones followed Clinton out to her car to exchange private words. (Jones's relationship with Susan Rice remains a question mark.)

Most interesting, perhaps, is the fact that Jones doesn't know Obama particularly well. The two men didn't meet until Obama's foreign policy aide, Mark Lippert, arranged a 2005 sit-down, and, as of this October, Jones had only spoken to Obama twice. This could be an asset. Jones's role, during deliberations about U.S. policy, should be something close to neutral arbiter. It's never easy to tell a president that he is wrong--but it might be especially hard telling Barack Obama, whose cult of personality can have an overpowering effect. In the months to come, the best way Jim Jones can serve Obama is by deftly managing the egos on his foreign policy team, but above all by not being the presidential parrot.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.