Look surprised.

“We have a lot of transition at this point here,” said one senior Obama aide. “They decided the time was right to bring forward his departure and for Jones to step aside. We always knew it was going to be roughly in this window, at the end of this year. But we’re making a lot of changes now with Rahm leaving, and there was a sense of just, ‘Let’s get this done now.’”

But there was more to the timing than the ripple effects of Rahm’s departure.

Next month President Obama begins to travel again overseas, and in December he begins the critical process of reviewing his new Afghan strategy. Jones was one of the architects of the last extensive review a year ago, leading to the deployment of an extra 30,000 troops. It made little sense that he would leave directly after an Afghan review that could determine the legacy of this presidency.

“Frankly, a lot of what the December review is about is the next phase now,” said the senior Obama aide. “So it would be good to have a new structure in place as we make those decisions.”

That makes sense on its face, but (a) why push Jones out so soon after Rahm left instead of waiting until, say, the day after the election? All this does is create a sense of chaos in the White House right before the midterms. And (b) what about the Times’s claim that Jones expected departure was “accelerated” due to Jones’s derisive comments in Woodward’s book calling Rahm, Axe, and Gibbs “water bugs” and a “Politburo” who denied him easy access to Obama? Surely that was a contributing factor too. In fact, in my reading today about Jones, the one theme that emerges repeatedly is that he was ineffective in his job because he was aloof from the day-to-day operations of the NSC (those were handled by Tom Donilon, who’ll be replacing him as NSA) and was an “outsider” in a White House where the real power exists in Obama’s “inner circle.” This Politico piece is the most dramatic statement of that thesis, explaining how Jones was named NSA in the first place chiefly because Obama wanted a general in an authority position who’d stand up to the Pentagon when he inevitably refused to give them everything they wanted in Afghanistan. Quote:

Often appearing aloof in meetings, Jones did little to mask his early dismay that deputies two rungs lower than him were often accompanying the president to meetings. “I’m a former general. . I’m used to staffs, and I’m used to a certain order,” Jones told the Washington Post last year. “When I first went into the Oval Office, I didn’t expect six other people from the NSC to go with me.Jones’s distance from that culture – embraced by Donilon — became legendary early in his tenure, when he told the Washington Post that he biked home to McLean, Va., for lunch and poked fun at White House staffers who worked past 7:00 p.m…

Others were less charitable. Former Clinton foreign policy hand David Rothkopf wrote Friday that he was “the worst national security advisor in decade,” and a national security official who worked with him said he was administration’s single worst staff hire.

WaPo notes that “His condition for initially taking the job – that he would be the last one to see Obama on the most pressing national security issues of the day – was often unmet.” But then, that’s been going on practically since day one: See, for example, this Fox News report from all the way back in June 2009 noting that Jones “isn’t seen near Obama’s side often and … has kept his distance from the media” and predicting that he’d be gone by fall. Another damning bit from The Cable, which has the best write-up of the Woodward angle in all this:

“Jones always carried an ‘emeritus’ air about him and appeared removed and distant from the day-to-day operations,” one administration official told The Cable. “In six months, you will be hard pressed to find anyone in the administration who notices that Jones is no longer there.”

The punchline here is that, if you remember back to the 2008 campaign, Jones was also being touted as a potential National Security Advisor in a McCain administration. (He and Maverick are old friends.) Try to imagine how the media would be reacting right now if this same managerial meltdown had occurred on the watch of a Republican president — one of the highest national security officers in the cabinet, headed home each day before nightfall and sporadically frozen out of communicating with the president by his political praetorian guard. It’d be a scandal, and hammered relentlessly as evidence of how the GOP, for all its counterterror bravado, doesn’t take national security seriously. Instead, because this happened under The One, we get a few curios about Jones’s “aloofness.” Ho hum.

Donilon, the new NSA, is not only skeptical of a big troop build-up in Afghanistan (as was Jones) but, per the Daily Beast, has much more experience dealing with the State Department than the Pentagon. That should give you some insight into which way The One is leaning when it comes to the December policy review and what it might mean for troop levels next year.