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Is Gen. Jones trying to grab part of the energy and climate portfolio — and should progressives worry?

By Joe Romm  

"Is Gen. Jones trying to grab part of the energy and climate portfolio — and should progressives worry?"

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Yes — and no (unless you worry about Iraq, Afghanistan, and Al Qaeda, in which case, yes, you should worry that Jones might be talking his eye off the proverbial bomb ball).

James L. Jones said in an interview that he will be the primary conduit of national security advice to President Obama.

The WashPost reported Sunday:

President Obama plans to order a sweeping overhaul of the National Security Council, expanding its membership and increasing its authority to set strategy across a wide spectrum of international and domestic issues….

New NSC [National Security Council] directorates will deal with such department-spanning 21st-century issues as cybersecurity, energy, climate change, nation-building and infrastructure.

A highly placed source confirms for me that national security adviser (NSA), retired Marine Gen. James Jones wants to play in areas like the outercontinental shelf (i.e. offshoring drilling) and smart grid.

This worries some progressives and enviros since Jones has emphasized energy security concerns over global warming — see, for instance, this lame transition report on energy Jones oversaw for the US Chamber of Commerce. He “has recently called for domestic oil shale production and permanently ending limits on offshore oil and gas drilling — views starkly at odds with those of environmentalists, who are hoping Obama will champion their agenda.”

Progressives shouldn’t worry that Jones will impact issues they carry about, since he won’t, as I discuss below.

Progressives should worry that the friggin’ National Security Adviser thinks he doesn’t need to focus laser-like on two wars and the terrorists who are trying to kill Americans. Jones wouldn’t just be kidding himself if he thinks he can spread himself so thin as to cover a host of tangential issues. He would be committing criminal negligence. Condi Rice, anyone?

Yes, generals try to seize territory. That’s what they do. But in this case, there isn’t really anything terribly important to seize — even if Jones’ campaign is “successful” — as I previously noted here: “SOS trumps NSA (Hillary Clinton trumps Gen. Jones).” Let me elaborate on the reasons why:

1. I repeat, he’s gonna be really, really busy dealing with traditional national security issues. There are at least one or two trouble spots around the world. And Dick Cheney says we’re gonna be attacked again. Jones’ reputation and legacy will be determined solely by those traditional issues and they will command 99% of his attention. He is simply not an expert on climate or clean energy issues, so I can’t imagine why Obama would listen to him when the President has gone out of his way to hire some of the leading experts on those subjects and given them the relevant portfolios.

2. His staff is gonna be really, really busy dealing with traditional national security issues. Unless you have a number of first rate people following an issue, attending key meetings, and so on, you can’t be a major player. Yes, I know he is trying to hire some knowledgeable energy and climate people to help him on this issue. I can’t imagine the better ones will want to waste their careers working for him.

3. The NSC simply has no obvious role to play on the key issues that progressives care about — jumpstarting the transition to a clean energy economy, a domestic climate bill, and international climate negotiations. That would be true even if there weren’t other obvious places to oversee such policy — let alone a newly created energy and climate “czar” in the White House, Carol Browner. Yes, Jones may try to muscle into issues like offshore drilling and where international pipeline should be sited, but it’s only the latter type of issue where he has legitimate reasons to waste spend time.

4. To revise and extend what I wrote back in December, when I was at DOE it was the State Department that convened the meetings that thrashed out the domestic greenhouse gas emissions reduction target we were going to propose at Kyoto. I don’t remember the National Security Council being significantly involved. At the one sort of Cabinet-level meeting I attended on the subject, again I don’t remember seeing or hearing from the NSC.

The NSC would play a role in international energy security crises, say a terrorist incident in Saudi Arabia. And here it is probably better than not to have somebody like Gen. Jones, who, besides his many obvious qualifications for the job of NSA, is quite knowledgeable on energy matters. But again, in my five years at DOE, I can’t remember the NSC once weighing in the formulation of domestic energy policy. The National Economic Council did weigh in, of course, but the NEC’s role is likely to be replaced in an Obama administration by some sort of national energy council.

Now you might say, “but the NSA has the ear of the President — won’t Gen. Jones be in a position to give the President terrible advice on, say, domestic oil shale production?” And I would reply, “Why would Jones waste the time and patience of the President — not to mention his own political capital and credibility — offering opinions on subjects that are not in his portfolio, and therefore represent issues that he does not follow closely and does not stay actively engaged on in high-level interagency meetings? Why would he piss off the Secretary of Energy, the SOS, the energy czar and EPA administrator (among others) by going behind their backs or over their heads to undercut whatever policies that the relevant agencies and the relevant interagency councils had agreed upon.”Seriously, this isn’t the way the executive branch works. You have a portfolio of subjects, and you make yourself the Administration’s expert on those subjects, and you staff up on those subjects, and you send your staff to the relevant interagency meetings, and you attend the relevant Cabinet meetings. You pick your battles very carefully and you don’t piss off your colleagues by intruding into their portfolio because on issues where your portfolios do intersect, you want them to support you, and on all other issues, you don’t want them to intrude on you either.

These cabinet level jobs are absurdly hard as it is. Heck, I had an acting assistant Secretary job for six months and it was a pure burnout job. I don’t know how people do it for four years, but they don’t do it by pissing on other’s people’s front yards — or back yards.

5. I don’t know why the media — or the liberal blogosphere to judge by my inbox — simply refuses to take Obama at his word on his commitment to clean energy and strong action on climate. For those who don’t understand how seriously committed he and his entire team is to strong action in those areas, I’d recommend reading the first half of my recent Salon piece: “Real science comes to Washington: Myopic conservatives and the media still don’t get global warming. But if anybody can preserve a livable climate, Obama’s amazing energy team can.”

Bottom Line: If Jones seriously pursues a significant piece of the energy and climate portfolio, he will not merely fail at that — he will likely spread himself too thin, piss too many people off, and fail at his traditional national security adviser role, too. And that would be bad news for all of us.

For another take on the Jones issue, Greenwire (subs. req’d, reprinted below) has a long piece today that I am quoted in:

President Obama is weighing plans to elevate the status of energy and climate issues in the National Security Council as part of a forthcoming overhaul of the body, according to the Washington Post and a source close to the administration, and may add the Energy Department to the council.

The overhaul will expand the body’s scope beyond the foreign policy matters it has addressed in the past and broaden the range of federal agencies at the table on an issue-by-issue basis, according to national security adviser James Jones in the paper’s account.

A source close to the administration confirmed to Greenwire that adding the Energy Department to the council is “very much under consideration” and also confirmed that the administration plans to elevate consideration of climate and energy issues within NSC.

David Pumphrey, a senior fellow with the energy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former deputy assistant secretary for international energy cooperation at the Energy Department, said that in the past, DOE and other agencies would participate in NSC discussions, and “this may be a more formalized way of bringing them to the table.”

“I think they are trying for better coordination of all of the activities that have national security and foreign policy impacts,” he said.

Jones, in the Post interview, said: “The whole concept of what constitutes the membership of the national security community — which, historically has been, let’s face it, the Defense Department, the NSC itself and a little bit of the State Department, to the exclusion perhaps of the Energy Department, Commerce Department and Treasury, all the law enforcement agencies, the Drug Enforcement Administration, all of those things — especially in the moment we’re currently in, has got to embrace a broader membership.”

The story adds that new NSC directorates will address issues including climate change and energy.

Jones — a retired Marine general and former head of NATO forces — has in recent years been outspoken in linking energy and national security issues. He continued in this vein after retiring from the military as head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for 21st Century Energy, a position he held before joining the Obama administration.

But environmentalists, who oppose many of the institute’s views on energy and how to address greenhouse gas emissions, are wary of Jones and the potential energy policy influence he may wield. As president of the business-backed institute, he called for domestic oil shale production and permanently ending limits on offshore oil and gas drilling.

The Chamber of Commerce group also supports increased investment and incentives for renewable energy and efficiency.

“It is great that the administration is finally elevating energy and global warming to the national security level, because it does pervade our existing tensions with oil and fossil fuels,” said Erich Pica, director of domestic policy for Friends of the Earth. “Global warming is the next national security and global security threat. … It makes sense to elevate those issues within the NSC.”

While environmentalists hesitate over Jones’ energy policy views, they have generally cheered Obama’s climate and energy picks, including Energy Secretary Steven Chu, new EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Clinton-era EPA head Carol Browner as White House climate and energy czar.

“Hopefully, with the strong advocacy of Secretary Chu and others, our concerns will be minimized,” Pica said.

Glenn Hurowitz, a spokesman for Greenpeace, was more blunt, saying he hoped that Jones is not a “conduit for the Chamber of Commerce’s failed ideas.”

According to the Post story, Jones will serve as the “primary conduit” of national security advice to Obama, “eliminating the ‘back channels’ that at times in the Bush administration allowed Cabinet secretaries and the vice president’s office to unilaterally influence and make policy out of view of the others.”

“We’re not always going to agree on everything,” Jones told the Post, “so it’s my job to make sure that minority opinion is represented” to the president. “But if at the end of the day he turns to me and says, ‘Well, what do you think, Jones?,’ I’m going to tell him what I think.”

Joseph Romm, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, predicted that NSC could address issues such as delicate talks around pipelines in regions like the Caucasus. He also noted the importance of military officials considering how global warming will drive international conflict.

But Romm, a former Energy Department official under President Bill Clinton, said he did not believe Jones will be a player in crafting the U.S. position in climate talks with the international community and China, or in crafting the domestic emissions reduction regime. “Is Jones going to have a role in determining what the U.S. climate legislation is going to be over the next year? Of course not,” he said, noting that those policies originate elsewhere.

“This notion that there is going to be important policy stuff that they are going to grab is, I think, much ado about nothing,” he said, also noting that Jones will have his hands full with issues like Iraq, Afghanistan and terrorism.

But Pumphrey said it remains to be seen whether the NSC overhaul will increase Jones’ influence on energy and climate policies. “Does he pick and choose what goes up, or does he do a job of arraying all the information that goes forward?” he said.

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3 Responses to Is Gen. Jones trying to grab part of the energy and climate portfolio — and should progressives worry?

  1. Ravi says:

    What about the flip side. Jones gets to carry water for the dream team on how global warming is a national security threat?

  2. Modesty says:

    Joe:

    I think there are messaging issues.

    Expanding the purview is in keeping with the *fact* that global climate disruption is a top national security issue. It’s also in keeping with the *message* that global climate disruption is a top national security issue.

    But having Jones in this position is not consistent with this message (or at least is not any kind of support for it), and neither is your claim that the national security adviser should not engage (pursue), to any significant degree, with the energy/climate portfolio.

    No matter the actual workings of portfolio ownership etc., jumpstarting the energy transition, domestic climate policy, and international negotiations all hinge on changing what is politically possible.

    Leveraging the gravitas of national security may be critical to effect this change, but this leveraging will only work if the messaging works.

    So, I wonder if your particular account of why Jones doesn’t matter–or how this account comes across anyway–isn’t more problematic, message-wise, than Jones himself.