Jacob Heilbrunn

The Significance of Tom Donilon's Rise to Power

Much press attention has focused on President Obama's shakeup of his economic team. But his foreign policy team is due for one as well. The announcement today that national security adviser James L. Jones will be succeeded by his deputy Tom Donilon is Obama's first move. His next will be to replace Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is eager to resign.

The elevation of Donilon clearly signals that Obama is positioning himself to leave Afghanistan. Forget the policy review that is due. The die is cast. Obama is not going to turn himself into a hostage of the Afghan war.

Donilon is a protege of Warren Christopher, who was a realist as Secretary of State during Bill Clinton's first term. Christopher and Donilon pushed for America to remain aloof from the Balkans war. Donilon raised his eyebrows over Madeleine Albright's approach to foreign policy during the Clinton years. He is a believer in quiet diplomacy. Donilon, a seasoned operator and lawyer, who first worked in the Carter administration, will push for decoupling from Afghanistan and Iraq. As David E. Sanger observes

 

As deputy national security adviser, Mr. Donilon has urged what he calls a “rebalancing” of American foreign policy to rapidly disengage American forces in Iraq and to focus more on China, Iran and other emerging challenges. In the Afghanistan-Pakistan review, he argued that the United States could not engage in what he termed “endless war,” and has strongly defended Mr. Obama’s decision to withdraw American troops from Afghanistan next summer.

 

Donilon's record suggests that he will continue to push for focusing on relations with Russia and China. Human rights will not be an important part of his foreign affairs agenda. He may well clash with Hillary Clinton, who has been pushing for a more interventionist approach in recent months. But one thing seems certain: Obama's approach to foreign policy after the midterms will look very different from his first two years in office.