Obama Looks to Dennis Ross for Strategic Advice

Obama Looks to Dennis Ross for Strategic Advice

The number of Obama Administration figures losing power to Dennis Ross is growing longer by the day, but one addition to the list is particularly surprising: General James Jones. Obama picked the 6’4″ former Marine to be his National Security Adviser last November after meeting him only a handful of times. And while Obama is happy with his 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 intended to fix that in part, the officials say.

Details of Ross’s new job description have begun 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 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 likely supercede special envoy George Mitchell as the most powerful voice in the Administration on Middle East peace talks. Ross will provide Obama 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. While Jones has been organized and efficient in driving the policy process at the NSC, Administration officials say that he hasn’t been providing the long-term strategic vision that any President wants in a top aide — and which Obama particularly needs, as a relative neophyte in strategic affairs.

“You have a lot of folks here focused on near-term targets,” says one 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’ 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’ 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.

See pictures of Obama in Saudi Arabia.