James L. Jones as National Security Adviser?

In Washington, the truism of the moment is that President-elect Barack Obama has cleverly set out to create a "team of rivals." He is said to be filling out the top ranks of his administration with strong-minded, hard-headed policy warriors—Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates—who will be encouraged to disagree with each other and even with Obama. The conversations may grow heated, but the best ideas will survive and yes men will be shown the door.

It's a nice concept, but doesn't always work out so neatly in real life. George W. Bush had his own team of rivals, after all, and they turned out to be all rival, no team. Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other top Bush officials were experienced Beltway wise men who had very different views about how Bush should conduct his foreign policy. Instead of working together, they pushed separate, often conflicting agendas. This was especially true when it came to Iraq. The president's advisers sometimes fought bitterly and undercut one another. Bush, conflict averse and bored with the details of governing, did little to stop the feuding. That job fell to National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, but she proved unable to stand up to Cheney and Rummy, who routinely ignored her or went behind her back to Bush.

How can Obama avoid that kind of self-defeating turmoil? In part by appointing a tough, experienced national security adviser to hold his potentially fractious team together. The president-elect is said to have chosen retired Marine Corps Gen. James L. Jones, 64. The tall, imposing former supreme allied commander in Europe has a reputation for saying exactly what he thinks, but with a light touch. "If the president is getting off base, he's going to go in there and tell him, in that very quiet way he goes about things" says David Abshire, who served with Jones on an Afghanistan policy panel.

Traditionally one of the president's closest and most trusted advisers, the NSA is tasked with brokering policy disputes between the vast foreign and defense bureaucracies and making sure the commander in chief's views prevail. Aides to Obama would not directly confirm that Jones had the job, but did say the NSA will have no trouble confronting the president's cabinet officers as an equal. Obama "wants a strong player who isn't dwarfed by any of the other personalities around the table," says a senior adviser who, like others quoted in this article, didn't want to be named discussing internal matters.

Along with multiple military tours overseas—a Marine brat, he grew up partly in Paris and is fluent in French—Jones had a sound apprenticeship in the arts of political warfare in the capital. As a young officer in the early 1980s, he was the Marine Corps' liaison to the U.S. Senate. There, he became fast friends with a fellow Vietnam vet, Navy Lt. Cmdr. John McCain. The two are still close. He also struck up a friendship with a rising young Republican senator, William Cohen. When Cohen became Clinton's defense secretary in 1997, he picked Jones as his military assistant. The MA is the defense secretary's gatekeeper—a job needing high diplomatic skills to handle the egos jostling for the boss's time. People who have worked with Jones say he is an impressive negotiator who gets what he wants without resorting to confrontation. He "has a very calm demeanor," Cohen told NEWSWEEK. "He has a methodical approach to problems—he's able to view issues at both the strategic and tactical level." Cohen rewarded his service by nominating him as Marine Corps commandant—from which Jones moved on up to be SACEUR.

Jones met the president-elect through Obama adviser Tom Daschle, the former Senate majority leader and the president-elect's pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services. Obama was impressed with Jones's tough critique of the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq War, and the two men share the view that energy is a top national-security concern. (It doesn't hurt that Jones, like the president-elect, is a basketball nut. He played for Georgetown and still shoots hoops weekly.)

One measure of Jones's stature: other incoming Obama officials are already concerned that he will eclipse their own influence. A source familiar with the details says Biden is privately pushing to install his longtime aide Tom Donilon as Jones's deputy. (A source close to Jones says there has been no discussion of his possible deputy. A spokesperson for Biden said he is working closely with Obama in selecting staff and is "enthusiastic about assembling the most talented team possible.")

Obama aides say top officials will have a role in picking their underlings, but not a free hand. (Hillary Clinton has reportedly insisted that the power to choose her staff is a precondition for accepting the job.) But the incoming president is determined to keep his administration from becoming paralyzed by competing fiefdoms and rival loyalties. "We'll be very clear about putting people in key spots that the principals will be fine with," says a senior Obama aide. "But they'll be our people." Translation: team of rivals, but only up to a point.