Obama Looks to Dennis Ross for Strategic Advice

  • Share
  • Read Later
(From left) David Brody / UPI Photo / Landov; MANDEL NGAN / AFP / Getty; Win McNamee / Getty

Dennis Ross, President Obama and General James Jones

Correction Appended: June 25, 2009

The list of Obama Administration figures losing power to Dennis Ross is growing longer by the day, but one addition to the number is particularly surprising: General James Jones. Obama picked the 6-ft. 4-in. former Marine to be his National Security Adviser last November, after meeting him only a handful of times. And while Obama is happy with Jones' strategic military advice, the President seeks more guidance on the "political and diplomatic" front than he's getting from Jones, two senior Administration officials tell TIME. Bringing Ross over from the State Department, where he's currently in charge of policy for a region that includes Iran, is in part intended to fix that, the officials say.

Details of Ross's new job description began to emerge a week after word of his move first surfaced. Not only will he oust General Douglas Lute as head of Iraq policy at the National Security Council (Lute moves over to the Afghanistan/Pakistan office), but the senior directors for Arab-Israeli affairs and for Iran and the Gulf will now answer to Ross as well. With his proximity to the President, Ross will probably supersede special envoy George Mitchell as the most powerful voice in the Administration on Middle East peace talks. Ross will provide Obama with strategic guidance for territories stretching from Morocco to India — supplanting a significant portion of the role traditionally played by the National Security Adviser.

For months now, whispers around Washington have suggested that Jones was not establishing himself well at the NSC and might be replaced; one top aide to the general acknowledges having heard those rumors but believes them to be false. Obama's Middle East team is working on so many fronts that he wants one long-term thinker tracking strategy for the whole region.

"You have a lot of folks here focused on near term targets," says a senior Administration official. "And what you want is someone who can see a little bit longer-term strategy." That's the job most powerful National Security Advisers have performed, from Henry Kissinger to Brent Scowcroft and Sandy Berger. Says the senior Administration official: "General Jones is a very seasoned military strategist, and Dennis is a recognized strategist in the political and diplomatic sphere, which will allow us to make sure that we're seeing the long game."

Ross's critics, however, see the Peter Principle playing out. Ross has no particular expertise on Iraq, and will have his hands full trying to manage that and Iran and Arab-Israeli peace. Even if he succeeds, though, Ross is unlikely to ascend higher than he is now. Obama met Jones only briefly before hiring him, and clearly the relationship is not what either hoped for. But Jones still delivers the benefits that initially drew the President to him: as an experienced military officer, he can provide cool judgment in a crisis and can give political cover to an inexperienced President at the same time. Jones' deputy, Ross's new boss, is Tom Donilon, who is so far seen as a successful No. 2.

Ross is ascending at a key moment. In Iraq the U.S. is drawing down and redeploying its troops, but the country faces major political and security challenges if it is to stabilize. Obama has also initiated a more complex relationship with Israel than his predecessors by openly confronting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a demand that Israel halt settlement activity. And events in Iran threaten to complicate the diplomatic strategy Ross had evolved for the Administration on Iran's nuclear program. So while Ross is being touted as a thinker for the long game, he'll more often find himself putting out fires across the better part of two continents.

The original version of this article has been updated.