News & Stories

Pitching a President from Inside the Oval Office

Posted Feb 18 2020
Stephen Hadley
Stephen Hadley and Daniel E. White MPA '20

Stephen Hadley, who served President George W. Bush as national security adviser (and before that as deputy national security adviser), recently gave keynote remarks at SIPA’s annual career conference in Washington, D.C. In a conversation with SIPA News before his speech, Hadley commented on a range of foreign-policy concerns in Russia, China, and the Middle East, providing insight for moving forward in an ever-complex world. He also shared some valuable advice for emerging professionals in national security (and many other fields as well).

In February 2021, the New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] is set to expire. Given that President Putin recently accepted resignations from his entire cabinet, do you see a future for arms control with Russia—during this administration or a new one—before that expiration date?

I hope so. We got out of the INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty because the Russians cheated and would not come back into compliance. And the problem is, they put us in a great box. If you stay in the agreement, even though they’re cheating, you invite them to cheat on other agreements. And if you’re the one that leaves the agreement, even because of their cheating, everyone blames you.

There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed. There are new types [of weapons], some of which Putin concedes are covered by the New START agreement and some he maintains are not, that are quite threatening to us. There’s this whole issue of sub-strategic nuclear weapons or tactical nukes, which have never been addressed in an arms control agreement. So, I hope we can use the upcoming expiration of the START agreement, the New START agreement, to begin a strategic dialogue with the Russians about how we’re going to maintain strategic stability and develop a road map to address some of these issues.

The [Trump] administration is right that we need to be talking to the Chinese about these issues, but to bring them in and make it a trilateral negotiation doesn’t make sense. The Chinese are a coming nuclear power, but they’re nothing, in terms of deployed warheads, like us and Russia.

Speaking of China, what is the right word to describe them? Are they competitors, or adversaries, or enemies? And how should we approach them long-term?

I think we get caught up in the name. What has happened over the last four or five years is the policy community’s view on China has hardened in a way, at a rate, and to a degree that I did not anticipate. And a lot of people now think China is an economic predator, a military threat, a geopolitical rival, and an ideological challenge—offering an alternative model to democracy and free markets.

It’s probably a little harsh, but China actually made a strategic mistake, something China supposedly doesn’t do. Xi Jinping, in about 2015, began to abandon the hide and bide strategy—hide your power, bide your time, continue to build up, but keep your profile low. Instead, he decided it was time for China to assert itself. He did it in terms of the South China Sea and the Belt and Road Initiative, which is a big strategic initiative to advance Chinese influence. And the truth is he did it about three or four years too soon. Had he just let things go as they were, Huawei would have wired the world with the 5G network. He would’ve been able to become everybody’s number-one trading partner at our expense and been able to build all the global infrastructure. And we would have probably continued to focus on the Middle East and not pay much attention. So, he made a strategic mistake because he woke the sleeping dragon—not China, but the United States.

Xi sees the national security strategy that says our principal problem is the emergence of revisionist powers. [Revisionist nations, in one theory, want to end the current system and revise the international order.] I think we’re close to the point where in a lot of ways on the military side, some people would say China isn’t a near-peer competitor to us. We’re a near-peer competitor to them. But it’s a different China. And I think waking up to the realities of Chinese power is a good thing. It is bipartisan. And the Trump administration, to its credit, is trying to deal with some of these longstanding problems, particularly the Chinese using the international trading system to their advantage. They’ve really gamed the system and Trump’s administration says that’s got to change. So, we’re in a transition and I think it’s going to take a couple of years for us to figure out what our strategy is. We have a China trade policy, but we don’t have a China strategy.

Relations between China and Taiwan are increasingly tense, especially after Taiwan’s President Tsai was reelected earlier this year. How big of a threat is Taiwan to force America’s action? Or are the other things on China’s agenda, whether it’s Hong Kong or the Uighurs?

No. Taiwan is a strategic issue for China, but not for us, at least in some respects. The only reason President Tsai got reelected was because of Hong Kong. If you look at where she was a year and a half ago, everybody was concerned, and she was way down in the polls. And I think the problems in Hong Kong have reelected her. There certainly are independence leanings in her party. She so far, in her presidency, has been pretty smart by not signing onto the Chinese interpretation of “one China,” but also not declaring openly for independence.

In the Bush administration, we had this problem with Chen Shui-bian [then president of Taiwan], and we managed it by basically saying that we did not support Taiwan independence and that there should be no unilateral change of the status quo by either side. That’s a formula that would allow us to get through this. But I think China is going to put more pressure on Taiwan, and the issue is whether China thinks time is on their side or not. And whether Xi Jinping has some kind of deadline by when he wants the issue of Taiwan status resolved.

I have always thought that if China wanted to bring Taiwan to its knees, it didn’t have to invade. They’ve already hollowed out that economy. It is very much dependent on its investments and trade with the mainland. It is vulnerable. I think with a well-placed cyber-attack; the Chinese could crater the Taiwanese stock market. And if we can convince China that it is not in their interest to do it, then as long as Taiwan does not force China’s hand by some kind of declaration of independence, the situation can be managed. But it’s the kind of thing we need to be talking to China about. And it’s the kind of thing you manage not in public but behind the scenes.

I don’t think that dialogue is going on. And that’s why it needs to be not just a trade relationship, not just an economic relationship. We have to have a strategic conversation with China, and we need to begin to address, quietly, these kinds of issues because I think we can manage them and it’s in the interest of both countries to manage them. But the relationship is not framed up at this point to do that.

In the Middle East we recently saw the U.S. killing of General Soleimani and a counterattack by Iran. Can you talk through what the national security process is like? How do you present the president with options that also balance the risks?

There are a lot of different ways to do it. You can do it in a formal process where you have options papers. For example, when we did the surge in Iraq, that was a formal process where the principals were talking—I think in the first week in December of 2006, we had five NSC-level conversations. And underneath the principals, the cabinet secretaries, there was a deputy’s process. It was developing options, taking guidance from the president to develop more options, so a very interactive process.

When we were trying to figure out what to do about the North Korean-built reactor in Syria, it was a series of conversations that the president had with his national security principals supported by a deputies-led process to do analysis, develop options, develop scenarios, and all of that. That’s probably what we would have used on Iran. I have a feeling that the Trump administration used the principals-levels conversation. I’m not sure how much he used the analytical piece. I just don’t know.

But every president is different and every NSC process is different because it needs to be tailored to how the president manages, how the president leads, how the president gets information and how the president makes decisions.

How different was it when you became the national security advisor in 2005 after having been the deputy? Did you make changes on a large scale, or just at the margins, or somewhere in between?

A first-term president is very different than a second-term president; even though the formal structure didn’t change much, you had a president who was much more comfortable making decisions. And so, whereas in the first term there was an effort made to try to reach a consensus among [Vice President Dick] Cheney and [Secretary of State Colin] Powell and [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and [National Security Adviser Condoleezza] Rice to bring to the president, in the second term I had a different view. Rather than force consensus, my strategy was let’s get the options on the table and bring them down the hall to the president. He’s been reading intelligence for four years. He’s been through a series of crises. He knows what he knows and he’s ready to decide. And we just need to frame it up for decision.

I remember when we went into Iraq [in 2003, during G.W. Bush’s first term], we had a congressional briefing, which was really to explain what we were going to do if we had to go invade Iraq. And the president started the briefing and then said, “And so we’ve got a plan and Condi’s going to brief you on the plan,” which was pretty surprising. And the person who was most surprised in the room was Condoleezza Rice.

Fast forward three or four years [to the second term] and we’re doing the surge, which was the product of a process in which everything focused on the president, bringing the president options and information so the president could make a decision. And when the time came to sit down with members of Congress to explain the surge, there was no question that the president of the United States was going to be explaining the surge. That’s the difference between a first- and second-term president, and someone who had become very comfortable being commander-in-chief.

When we did the surge—the decision to increase our forces and change our strategy in Iraq to try to bring a successful conclusion to that war—the president was reviewing the speech in which he was going to announce the change of strategy. And he looked up and he said, “So, Hadley, is this surge of yours going to work?” And I said, “Mr. President, I think it will. But it’s our last chance to get Iraq right.” He said, “Well, I’m glad to hear you say that. If you ever change your mind, you need to come tell me. Because I can’t keep sending men and women in uniform in harm’s way if we don’t think we have a strategy to win.”

Now, think about that. He was basically saying, “You need to bring me the worst news you could bring me,” which was that the Iraq war is irretrievably lost, and it is going to scar your legacy forever. And he was basically saying, “That’s what I need to hear. Because I owe it to our men and women in uniform.” That’s the mindset you want your commander-in-chief to have in making decisions about committing American forces to combat.

Do you think the Authorization for Use of Military Force has gone too far and enabled presidents to operate carte blanche? Or is flexibility needed so a president can function as the commander-in-chief as outlined in the Constitution?

I don’t think it’s gone too far, but I do think it’s out of date. If you look at the challenge posed by Iran and the possibility at some point that the president would have to make, a conventional strike to go after the nuclear program of Iran, that’s something that isn’t covered by the 2001 use of force authorization, which is about Al-Qaeda, or 2002, which is about Iraq. So, I think Congress needs to be part of this process.

If you have Congressional authorization, it always makes the action by the United States stronger, both internationally and domestically. So, I think the AUMF needs to be revised, but not with the idea of dramatically constraining the power of the president. Under Article Two of the Constitution, the president can use military force in the event the country’s under attack, in the event of imminent attack, or for any other national interest. And I think it’s important to give the president that authority and people who say, “No, no. We ought to basically say that the president cannot act without the prior approval of Congress, unless attack or imminent attack,” I think necks it down way too narrowly. And while Democrats may like that, while there’s a Republican president, they won’t like it if there’s a Democratic president.

What advice would you give future policy practitioners that aspire to serve on the National Security Council or similar positions?

One, travel and take the opportunity to live and work outside the country; get to know the world. Two, study history; read history. (I didn’t read enough history.) Three, you’ve got to know something about economics, and you’ve got to know something about law, because those are the frameworks domestically within which we do all these things. Four, entry-level positions are underappreciated positions; every entry-level person wants to get to the next level. But the jobs early in your career allow you to do things that are really fun, where you really learn a lot—things you won’t be able to do when you become more senior. And take the time to get to know the people at your level, because they are people who are going to be colleagues of yours for the next 20 or 30 years in this business.

Lastly, smart gets you in the door, but character will determine how far you go. Do you treat people with respect? Are you a person of your word? Do you do what you say you’re going to do and don’t promise what you can’t deliver? Do you answer your mail? Do you answer your emails? Do you return your phone calls? And if you make a mistake, do you step forward and take responsibility, resign if you have to, and overcome the impulse to lie, deny, and hide? If you can train yourself to do those things and to have that kind of character, that’s really going to determine how far you go, rather than just how smart you are.

This interview, conducted by Daniel E. White MPA ’20, has been condensed and edited for clarity.