Peering down at a blank sheet of graph paper, a fresh crisis looming, President Obama’s top national security advisor calmly scribbled notes.
The Pentagon was poised to launch strikes against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi, whose forces were advancing on rebel-held cities. But the advisor, Thomas E. Donilon, wasn’t writing a memo urging war or peace, airstrikes or diplomatic pressure. Instead, working a few paces from the Oval Office, Donilon was doing what he does whenever emergencies arise: setting up a system for his boss to make choices. On time. And in a way that ensures presidential orders get carried out.
With changes taking place atop the CIA, the Pentagon and in key overseas posts, Donilon, who has held the national security advisor’s post for six months after two years as No. 2, is expected to see his sway over U.S. foreign policymaking grow. But his influence differs from that of many of his predecessors.
Where some past national security advisors — Henry A. Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, for example — were grand strategists, Donilon is a master of process, enforcing order and structure for a president who deeply values both.
“He’s very devoted to a rigorous process,” said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor. “When things are chaotic in the world, the first thing he’ll do is set up a process.”
Donilon’s rise to one of the most powerful posts in the U.S. government reflects Obama’s wish to maintain personal control over foreign strategy. Rather than rely on architects with a worldview worked out through years of study and research, Obama wants a national security advisor who will execute the president’s vision, someone willing to wheedle and prod the foreign policy machinery to carry out Obama’s goals.
Though a top White House official, Donilon is virtually unknown to the public. He insists on preparing so carefully for news interviews that he can’t afford to do very many of them. He typically avoids the Sunday talk shows. One aide recalled that before Donilon delivered a routine news briefing, he demanded more than five hours of staff time to prepare.
Obama seems to share his penchant for logic and order. Both are trained as lawyers, and their minds work in similar ways. A couple of times a year Obama gives Donilon a handwritten list of goals, from nuclear weapons containment to progress in Afghanistan. Obama breaks down his outline into points and “sub-points,” Donilon said.
Proximity to the president and control of the paper trail is a recipe for real power in the White House. Donilon has both. By contrast, his predecessor and former boss, Gen. Jim Jones, never developed a close rapport with Obama.
Apart from the first family, there may be no one in the White House who spends more time in Obama’s company than the 55-year-old Donilon. He has walk-in privileges to the Oval Office and a guaranteed spot on the president’s calendar as the advisor who chairs the morning national security briefing.
So low-key is Donilon that even foreign policy experts are unsure of where he stands. They see him as a manager, not a strategist.
“I have no doubt that he is a very, very experienced and intelligent operational guy,” Brzezinski, the national security advisor under President Carter, said in an interview. “And that is very important, because part of the job is that. Whether he does the other part is also a question of whether the president really wants it.”
Colleagues describe Donilon as inherently cautious, wary of the fast-moving currents that have shaken Egypt, Syria and other states. Younger National Security Council aides like Rhodes and Samantha Power have been quicker to embrace the fledgling democratic movements. Donilon seems less invested in affecting policy than in helping Obama make sense of the chaos.
He does it by imposing rigorous demands across the government. State Department and Pentagon aides must come to meetings prepared to speak for their bosses. Meeting summaries are typed up and circulated to participants. Assignments are handed out; dissenting opinions are taken to Obama for a final airing, if need be. In some parts of the bureaucracy, aides have bristled over the control Donilon exerts. He doesn’t seem to mind.
“This is not a salon,” Donilon says.
Seated for an interview at the long walnut meeting table in his sunny office on a recent afternoon, a large globe near his desk, Donilon made his points in numerical sequence. Some ideas came with two points; others as many as seven. Always, there was a list.
To the degree that he has a foreign policy vision, it has to do with priorities. The Bush administration paid great attention to Iraq and terrorism at the expense of Asia and the spread of nuclear weapons, White House officials contend.
“At the core, our foreign policy has been about restoring American prestige, authority and power and influence in the world,” Donilon said. “We went through a period of significant diminution of American power and authority and prestige in the world, for lots of different reasons.
“There was a high cost to the war in Iraq to American capital. We spent a lot of capital on that. We spent a lot of policy bandwidth on that, understandably, to the detriment of other problems we have in the world.”
Donilon talks proudly of how Obama has had nine face-to-face meetings with China’s leader, Hu Jintao. Yes, problems with China remain, he concedes. The U.S. still wants China to revalue its currency. But Donilon believes U.S.-China relations are on a better path. One reason: There’s a process in place.
Donilon’s path was an unusual one. A native of Providence, R.I., he came to the job not from academia or the foreign policy think tanks, but from Democratic Party politics.
In his early 20s, he served in Carter’s White House and later locked down delegates for Carter in the contested Democratic primary of 1980.
He had made a crucial contact in the Carter administration, becoming a protege of Warren Christopher. After Christopher became secretary of State in the Clinton administration, he tapped Donilon as his chief of staff.
Some saw Donilon as a “street fighter, constantly on the prowl for ways to show his boss to advantage,” wrote political author Elizabeth Drew in a book about the Clinton presidency.
He grew wealthy over the course of his career: His financial disclosure form shows assets ranging from $7 million to $18 million.
Donilon was a top executive at mortgage giant Fannie Mae from 1999 to 2005, earning millions in salary, bonuses and stock. He got out as Fannie Mae was faltering. In 2008, the company was taken over by the federal government.
Donilon returned to elective politics that year, when the Obama campaign came calling. David Axelrod, a top campaign aide who went on to become a senior White House official, asked whether he would help run Obama’s debate preparations. At that meeting Donilon got an early introduction to the close-knit group surrounding Obama.
“You know, we have a very well-balanced team,” Donilon recalls Axelrod telling him. “A team where we don’t have a lot of bad antibodies. And when we bring anybody new into this organization we really have to be sure we’re not bringing someone in who’s going to disrupt the team.’ ”
Now Donilon heads the part of that team devoted to the world outside U.S. borders. His work habits are as controlled and orderly as the world is unruly.
He starts the day with a look at a map from Morocco to Iran, taking in the sweep of countries in the grip of grass-roots uprisings.
“There’s rarely been a time when a foreign policy team has had to deal with so many consequential issues simultaneously,” he said. “And to do that you have to have a process and a structure that allows you to build up.”
It’s tough for a national security advisor to survive in the job if the president doesn’t value him. Donilon has sought to make himself indispensable to Obama.
“In his two years as deputy he was really a workhorse,” Axelrod said. “He was a go-to guy for the president. Tom is completely about the job itself and serving the president, and that creates a lot of comfort.”