The Donilon-Steinberg Connection

Can President Obama bring his no-drama style to national security? Historically the tensions between State and Defense and the National Security Council have run through every administration in the post-war era in some more than others. It was particularly tense in the first years of Reagan and throughout the Carter White House and most notoriously in the George W. Bush years. The national security adviser is supposed to be the honest broker but often winds up a contentious player in his or her own right. (See Brzezinski, Zbigniew)

Obama though has several things going for him. The first is the high stakes of having important figures with reputations to protect at the State and Pentagon jobs. It’s in everybody’s interest to make this work: Certainly it is for Hillary Clinton who will be at a party tonite to celebrate her swearing in. Certainly it is for Robert Gates who doesn’t want to end his career in government looking like he can’t get along with Democrats. And it is certainly in the interest of Gen. James Jones at the NSC who has a reputation for being as genial as he is smart.

Another thing helping Obama: It also helps when people know each other at the staff level. One Clinton veteran noted to me the close ties between Tom Donilon, the number two at the NSC, and Jim Steinberg, number two at State. They worked together in the Warren Christopher State Department. The two remain close and have known each other for decades. Those kinds of friendships can be quite helpful when institutional tensions arise as they undoubtedly well for this president just like his predecessors. I’m told they continue to talk often. That is a good thing for their organizations and for the rest of us.