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Jim Jones Doesn't Play Politics? Really?

6:57 PM, Oct 4, 2009 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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Last week John McCain accused his old, dear friend Jim Jones of playing politics with the war in Afghanistan. On the floor of the Senate, McCain charged that in counseling the president, Jones was trying a little too hard not "to alienate the left base of the Democrat Party." Today Jones replied on CNN that, "Senator McCain knows me very well... I worked for Senator McCain when he was a captain. I've known him for many, many years. And he knows that I don't play politics with national - I don't play politics. And I certainly don't play it with national security. And neither does anyone else I know."

Focus on that first part of the quote for a second -- Senator McCain does know Jim Jones very well. They've been friends for thirty years, since they worked together as military liaisons with Congress in the late 1970s. Which was why it was so odd that Jones didn't endorse John McCain for president last year. Jones did stand at McCain's side once or twice during the election, but he also allowed his name to be floated as a possible VP choice for Obama in early June. Jones walked a very fine line during the election, hedging his bets and preserving his options. You might even say he was playing politics.

But there's more to the story than that. McCain and Jones had a pretty heated argument over the surge in Iraq as well. During the 2007 Munich conference, the two got into it pretty good over the Bush administration's decision to surge additional forces into Iraq as part of a new counterinsurgency strategy there. In retrospect, Jones was obviously wrong -- and McCain hasn't forgotten it.

Jones may have come by his opposition to the surge in Iraq honestly, but it was also very convenient for Jones, who avoided alienating "left base of the Democrat party." Fast forward two years and Jones is in the White House. He didn't support the surge and the left-wing of the Democratic party had no reason to try and kill his appointment as national security adviser. Still, Jones has no real constituency and his support for additional troops in Afghanistan -- anathema to progressives -- might earn him a whole bunch of new enemies at a time when he's emerged as one of the most vulnerable members of Obama's team.

Lefty Washington Monthly blogger Steve Benen sides with Jones, naturally, and says that given Jones's appearance on the campaign trail with McCain, he's "not exactly a progressive political activist" -- i.e., he couldn't possibly be concerned about alienating, as McCain put it, "the left base of the Democrat party." But that sort of misses the point. McCain wasn't accusing Jones of being in the pocket of the liberal base, he's accusing him of being a craven and soulless politician who puts his own political survival ahead of the national interest.

Jones was the only man in America who had a serious shot at being a major player in whichever administration emerged from last year's election. To pull off such a feat, one has to play politics. Jones can protest all he wants, but McCain, who has gone out on a limb on issue after issue (immigration reform, campaign finance reform, defense acquisitions, Iraq, etc., etc.) does indeed know him very well, and apparently McCain has noticed that Jim Jones's positions on matters of policy and politics invariably align with his own political interests.