James L. Jones, whose decorated Marine Corps career spanned five decades, most recently drew attention for a blunt, sometimes critical assessment of U.S. efforts to train Iraqi police and soldiers. Retired for less than a year, he has been in high demand in Washington for his rich resume.
"I believe we need an experienced leader who can address the regional security challenges comprehensively and at the highest levels and who can provide the full support of our government to the partners as they work to meet their responsibilities," Rice said in announcing the appointment Wednesday. She said that Jones will serve as her special envoy for Middle East security.
Rice called him "the best individual to lead our efforts in this essential endeavor."
Jones, standing at Rice's side in the State Department's historic Treaty Room, said he was eager to begin. "I look forward to doing whatever I can to assist," he said.
In his many military assignments Jones was never based in the Middle East, but Israel was within his command area as head of U.S. European Command from 2003-06.
Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Tuesday formally announced their intention to resume peace talks after seven years of violence. President Bush hosted Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House for a ceremonial inauguration of the process earlier Wednesday.
Security issues are central to the long-stalemated peace process. In the new set of negotiations, for example, Israel will likely insist on continued control of the airspace above a Palestinian state, that such a state not have an army and that Israel maintain a military presence in strategically sensitive areas of the West Bank. The Palestinians will not easily accept those demands.
After he retired early this year, ending a 40-year career in the Marine Corps that thrust him into combat in Vietnam just one year after he was commissioned as a second lieutenant, Jones in March became president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Institute for Energy.
Shortly afterward he accepted a request to lead a congressionally mandated commission to study the development of Iraqi security forces, thrusting him into a highly partisan debate in Washington over the Bush administration's war record and the prospect of ending American military involvement in Iraq.
The panel's report, widely deemed to be evenhanded, presented a scathing assessment of Iraq's Interior Ministry and recommended scrapping its national police force, which it describes as dysfunctional and infiltrated by militias. The panel also recommended that the United States lighten its footprint in Iraq to counter the image that it's an "occupying force."
Jones is highly regarded not only by many in the military establishment, but also by members of Congress.
Robert Tyrer, who has known Jones since 1979 and worked with him when Jones was the senior military assistant to Defense Secretary William Cohen from 1997-1999, said Jones has an unusual "360 degree" vision of international security, to include diplomatic as well as military aspects.
"Jim has almost the unique characteristics you would want to have for that kind of job because he has all the knowledge of conflict that a military background brings you - he was himself a highly decorated combat veteran in Vietnam - ... but better than any senior officer we have ever seen or worked with he has a sense of the importance of diplomacy and also the practice of it," Tyrer said.
Jones had an unusual military career, with numerous command assignments abroad, a stint as Marine Corps liaison to the Senate, and capped initially with his selection as the 32nd commandant of the Marine Corps in 1999, making him a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The post of service chief usually is a general's final assignment before retirement, but in 2003, just before the Iraq war began, Jones was sent to Europe as Supreme Allied Commander and commander of U.S. European Command.
Born in Kansas City, Mo., Jones grew up in France where his father worked for International Harvester after leaving the Marine Corps. He returned to the United States for his senior year in high school and then attended Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps in 1967 and was sent to fight in Vietnam that same year.
As commander of an understrength rifle company in Vietnam in May 1968 near Khe Sanh, Jones and his men made a heroic stand against a North Vietnamese onslaught that lasted 12 hours. For his valor in what he has called a defining moment in his career, Jones was awarded the Silver Star Medal.