Stephen J. Hadley Looks Back on 9/11, Iraq, and Afghanistan

A Conversation With Stephen J. Hadley

Elise Labott

Global Affairs Correspondent, CNN


Stephen J. Hadley, former national security advisor to President George W. Bush, joins CNN's Global Affairs Correspondent Elise Labott to discuss his experiences in foreign policy and national security. Hadley reflects on the evolution of terror groups since 9/11, changes in intelligence strategy, decisions made in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the effects of those decisions on today's challenges in the Middle East and Russia.

The Home Box Office History Makers Series focuses particular attention on the contributions made by a prominent individual at a critical juncture in international relations.


LABOTT: I'm Elise Labott from CNN, and welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations meeting. Many thanks to HBO for sponsoring the last installment of this series.

History Makers focuses particular attention on the contributions made by a prominent individual at a critical juncture in the foreign policy and really allows us to apply those lessons learned for the many foreign policy challenges that we have for today, and obviously there's no shortage of those right now.

So this meeting is on the record. I'm going to lead a conversation with Steve Hadley for the next several minutes, for about a half hour, and then we'll open it up to your questions.

So thank you very much. One housekeeping item: If you could turn off your BlackBerrys and phones. I never do; I always put it on silent, but if you could—if you could, because it does interfere with our audio and this meeting is on the record and being streamed live, so we'd appreciate it.

Now I think that Steve Hadley really needs no introduction, as our formal national security advisor under President Bush, now principal at RiceHadleyGates. Really there's few people that have been in this position at such a critical juncture in our foreign policy, so we're going to go around the gamut. What we're going to do in this series is really, as we said, look back at some of the lessons learned from the policy choices while Steve was in office under President Bush, but try and apply them to how we look at the situation today.

So and I think in that vein, a lot of us—certainly myself—are kind of reeling from what we saw in Canada today, Stephen, and—and earlier this week several Canadian soldiers were shot. One was a hit-and-run by someone who is believed to be an Islamic convert, on Monday, and today this shooting in parliament, again, another soldier killed, and we have learned by an Islamic convert.

So why don't you kind of talk about—you started—not shortly after the Bush administration took office we had 9/11, and Al-Qaeda was seen as the—as the global and really the only major threat out there to the United States. Can you talk a little bit about how that threat has evolved, where today it's not just Al-Qaeda, it's not just ISIS, but these groups can inspire any what they say "lone wolf" around the world to launch attacks that we can't plan for?

HADLEY: Well, let's start there. That's a good place to start.

And thank you for doing this tonight.

LABOTT: Thanks for coming.

HADLEY: And thank all of you for coming.

There are a lot of people in the audience who served with me, and if I get stuck I'm going to be calling on you to fill in the gaps for my answers.

In some sense, if you step back, we're kind of in the third wave of this terrorist challenge. The first was 9/11.

What we were dealing there was with a fairly centralized Al-Qaeda that had a safe haven in Afghanistan from which they could plan major terrorist attacks, and of course that's what we saw on 9/11, a decapitating attack, if you will, on our financial sector, on our Pentagon, and potentially on our governmental authorities.

And the strategy really was to harden things at home, but also to take the fight to Al-Qaeda, to deny them that safe haven, to disrupt that centralized organization so that they could not do what the intelligence community they predicted they would do was that 9/11 would be the first of a series of mass casualty attacks on the United States, including weapons of mass destruction. And that did not happen, through some very good policy and courageous work by intelligence officials, and all the rest.

We succeeded in displacing Al-Qaeda from Afghanistan and going after them under two administrations in Pakistan. And what happened was the capacity of Al-Qaeda, then, to do those kind of 9/11 kinds of activities degraded, but it then metastasized, if you will, to a number of regional organizations that had regional objectives but actually were infused with the Islamist ideology. And they have the capacity to do more localized terrorist events, and that's the kind of thing you saw in Canada.

What we see now, in a way, is a third phase, because ISIS is, in some sense, quite different. They have emerged on the scene; they now control territory, something Al-Qaeda after 9/11 never really achieved.

They have a big swathe of territory on the border of Iraq and Syria, they—and that gives them a funding base. They have oil that they can smuggle onto the black market, so they have a self-contained revenue stream. They have their own shakedown kidnapping operations. They've knocked over banks, so they have millions of dollars in currency.

So they control territory. That gives them an ideological edge, if you will, over Al-Qaeda. They have a pretty self-contained funding mechanism that will be difficult to disrupt.

They have both characteristics of a terrorist capability and a conventional army. They are formidable militarily. And because of this there's enormous ideological appeal with this notion of the caliphate.

And of course, now we've seen this third phase is that people can, if you will, self-radicalize themselves.

LABOTT: How do you prevent that? How can intelligence be so spread out across the world that we can't even see these lone wolf attacks or these—specifically in—in the U.S. homeland?

HADLEY: It's very hard to see. The lone wolves, the person who's not connected with any institution, not connected with a madrassa or a mosque but is on the Internet.

And one of the things we'd never done is these terrorist groups have used the technologies of social media, of the Internet, which we invented—they use them creatively and quickly, and as Doug Feith knows, they used to beat us in the ideological war every day, day in, day out, and we never solved that problem. And that is partly a technological problem; we need to find a way to counter them quickly.

But also it's—in a way it's a little ideological, because there is a struggle within the—the world of Islam, if you will, as to who is going to define Islam, and is it going to be defined as a, if you will, a religion of peace, which is what it really is, or are the—the terrorists and the extremists going to win and—and make it really something very different.

That's a cause we have to engage, but it's not an argument that we're in a position particularly well to position. It's something our allies in the struggle against ISIS need to do—the Saudis, the UAE, and the like. They need to lead and step forward and start confronting the—the Islamists, if you will, on the airwaves about what really is Islam and what kind of religion it really is and what does it require of its adherents.

LABOTT: Let's go back to 9/11. You know, there were—there was talk about it being the greatest intelligence failure of the U.S. in—in—certainly at that time, in a—in a very long time. But there were numerous reports that President Bush was receiving warnings from the CIA as early as May 2001 that there was a group in the U.S. planning an attacks; and then later in June, strikes were imminent; and then in July, you know, it was still coming.

And many in the administration, former officials, have reported that the administration felt that that was bluster and that Saddam was the greater—Saddam Hussein in Iraq was the greater threat out there. We had that August 6th infamous intelligence briefing having Bin Laden determined to strike in the U.S., and—and several markers over the summer, such as that several foreigners could have been in the United States planning the attacks.

So there—while there was not specific and—and credible intel about this specific 9/11 attacks, there was plenty of information out there. Was this about not connecting the dots, or was this about a policy decision that this wasn't the important threat and it wasn't a—that the administration didn't take the threat seriously enough?

HADLEY: It's a good question and I'm glad—glad you raised it. And it's interesting, I had had occasion—there was a conference down in—excuse me—Austin, Texas at University of Texas looking at ten-years-after intelligence reform. And so I looked at that August 6, 2001 PDB item, which was declassified, and it really showed starkly the problem.

Was there what you call strategic warning? Did people know that Bin Laden wanted to strike the United States? Absolutely. And the first part of that PDB is all about that.

Did we take that seriously? Yes. The question is, what do you do about it?

Somebody wants to attack the United States and we have evidence that there's some planning, but if you don't know where, when, and how, it's hard to know what to disrupt and how to prevent the attack. And that's the problem we had.

So if you look at that PDB it's very interesting. It says Bin Laden wants to attack the United States. It goes back to all these statements. It says, you know, we have—we hear rumors of people in the United States; we hear conversations about hijacking airplanes; we have conversations about explosive attacks. And then the next paragraph says the FBI has sixty investigations going on, trying to track down these threats.

You're president of the United States, you know, what more do you do? So I think one of the things you have to think about is strategic warning-- is someone after you? And that I think we had. The problem is that tactical warning, getting and knowing who's going to do what, when, and how so you can disrupt it.

And that's where we got into the connecting the dots, because in retrospect, there were tidbits which, if they had been connected in real time we might have had a more particularized tactical warning we could...

LABOTT: Because otherwise you're just a sitting duck, really, waiting for an attack.

HADLEY: Otherwise—exactly right. And what the intelligence reform was—was designed to do was to try to break down the barriers between the various intelligence agencies and provide an information network so you could share information in real time, so you could get out of all the background noise tactical warning in advance so you can disrupt the plot.

If we'd had that in place before 9/11 I can't tell you whether we'd have been able to disrupt it or not, but we put in those things now so hopefully we can disrupt them in the future. And the evidence over the last ten years is it's worked pretty well. And the predictions that we would—that 9/11 would be the first of a—of a series of mass casualty reports did not come about and it didn't—it didn't come about not because they weren't trying, but that we were able to detect and disrupt.

LABOTT: Well, let's talk a little bit about Iraq and the intelligence. President Bush said his greatest regret was the intelligence failure leading up to the Iraq war.

You know, around that time there was also—the intelligence community was warning for a wave of mass casualty attacks involving WMD. That didn't happen. Obviously we know now that the WMD in Iraq was not to be found. Was this an intelligence failure or was this, you know, policy driving intelligence?

HADLEY: I think it's—was not an intelligence failure, but it was a failure. And second, I think, you know, there was a lot of looking into and—and the Senate looked into it, other commission looked at whether there was a politicization of intelligence.

LABOTT: Or a cherry-picking of intelligence.

HADLEY: Right. And I think we learned two things from that—three things, really.

One, nobody thought that we put political pressure on the intelligence officials and tried—distorted their findings. But there were a couple things that we learned about it.

One is that there were dissenting views, and those dissenting views were not brought forward in a—in the kind of comprehensive way to put policymakers on notice that there was a range of views and to give them the opportunity to hear the dissents. And that's one of the reasons, of course, we now have a DNI, a director of national intelligence, who is over all sixteen intelligence agencies; and those PDBs that the president reads every morning, those intelligence reports, now don't just come from the CIA, but they in fact reflect all sixteen agencies.

That, I think, will be helpful in ensuring that we give adequate weight to dissenting views. And there were some at the time.

But the second thing I would say, if I could, I think was less an intelligence failure as a failure of imagination. And I'll—I'll tell you why I say that.

No one came to the president of the United States or to me or anybody else and said, "What if Saddam Hussein has actually destroyed his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction but he doesn't want to tell anybody, particularly the Iranians, who he's concluded a ten-year war with, because he doesn't want them to take advantage." And some of the debriefing reports reported in the press by the FBI suggest that's what happened.

And this is, I think, a big challenge—not it's an intelligence challenge, challenge for the intelligence community and for all of us not just to think outside the box but think as if there's no box, and systematically build into our process somebody says, "OK, here's all the evidence we have. Let's go off and think about alternative explanations."

LABOTT: But there was a kind of belief at—by many at the time, and—and still to this day, that intelligence notwithstanding, this president was determined to go into Iraq. Do you think if the intelligence picture was different that President Bush still would have gone into Iraq?

HADLEY: I think if we had known that there was no weapons of mass destruction there...

LABOTT: Right.

HADLEY: would have been impossible for him to go into Iraq. Because one of the reasons—there—there are two things on this. One is, WMD was not the only thing we were concerned about Saddam Hussein. Support of terror, invasion of his neighbors...

LABOTT: Understood, but that was the premise for going in.

HADLEY: ...that's exactly right. And when we talked about how to present this case to the American people a number of people said, "Go with your best argument—that's WMD." I think in retrospect that was probably a mistake.

But I think that—so—so without the WMD I think it would have been very difficult to deal with Saddam Hussein. In terms of was Bush was determined to do it, one of the things that someone said at this conference which was interesting, nothing changed before 9/11 or after 9/11 factually, but what was a change was our assessment of risks and willingness to run risks.

And after seeing what a terrorist group could do with box cutters on 9/11, what the president was concerned about was states that were pursuing both weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorists, and the risk that those weapons of mass destruction would get transferred to terrorists and would be used against us. And that's really what motivated a lot of the concern about Iraq.

LABOTT: Has the intelligence reform really worked, particularly when it comes to Iraq? Because this lightning advance of ISIS and it's capture of all of this territory I think really took the intelligence community and—and everyone by surprise. So what happened here?

HADLEY: You know, and I think it was a surprise, and I think to his credit, the president stepped up and said publicly he was surprised by two things: one, the rapid advance by ISIS; and secondly, the collapse of the Iraqi army.

Is that an intelligence failure? I don't know. I think it may be as much a policy failure.

The intelligence community did have reports about ISIS that they were giving to the White House. They did have reports about what was happening in the Iraqi army and it wasn't a good story.

But for policy reasons we decided to pull out of Iraq at the end of 2011, and for policy reasons we did not get active in Syria since 2011. So the problem for the intelligence community was not connecting the dots; problem was they didn't have enough dots.

LABOTT: But...

HADLEY: And of course, will to fight is one of the hardest things to get a handle on.

LABOTT: Well, speaking on that will to fight, I mean, this—the Bush administration was a, you know, real supporter of Prime Minister Maliki, despite the fact that there were a lot of concern about his corruption, about his relationship with Iran, about his use of Shia militias against the Sunnis. And why did the Bush administration not see the problems with Maliki back then that these disaffected Sunnis were never going to be brought around to a reconciled Iraq? I mean, you know, was there too much focus on the military improvements in Iraq and not enough on the political reconciliation towards the end of the Bush administration's second term?

HADLEY: Well, you know, it's a good question. I don't think so, but you'll—you'll get other people to—to comment on that.

So, president in 2006 sent me to Baghdad to try to make an assessment of Maliki. Was he a sectarian, or was he just ill-informed, or is he just not able to manage? And we concluded that he was not a sectarian and that he could be moved to form a more inclusive government and that he could support a surge that would involve bringing the Sunnis into the effort. And he made good on his commitments to the president to do that.

And so at the end of 2008 we did have a unity government in Iraq. We had largely defeated Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The level of violence hadn't eliminated but it was way down to a level that Iraqi security forces, we thought, could handle it and it would not destabilize the regime.

So I would say at the end of 2008 we were in pretty good shape. But a couple things happened after that.

One, Maliki became entrenched in power, became more sectarian. He really politicized the army and he, after we left in 2011, really in some sense declared war on the Sunnis.

And if we'd stayed we might have had more leverage over him. Don't know. Never will know.

And the other problem, of course, that really undermined it was Syria, because Syria—a lot of us said the longer Syria goes the more people will die, the more sectarian it will become, the more it'll destabilize its neighbors like Iraq and Lebanon, and the more it opens the door to Al-Qaeda. And sadly, that's exactly what happened, and it has destabilized Iraq. And that's the problem that faces the administration now.

LABOTT: You look at Iraq today and you speak to many U.S. officials—current, former—many Iraqis saying, you know, "Look, Saddam Hussein was bad, but what we have now is worse," and that, you know, that President Bush's invasion of Iraq created, you know, this—sowed the seeds for what we're seeing today. You know, in retrospect, given that you didn't find any weapons of mass destruction, given what you see in Iraq now, was the invasion a mistake?

HADLEY: Good question. And...

LABOTT: But a good answer.

HADLEY: ... counterfactuals are tough. Couple things to think about as you try to answer that.

One is, there are Sunnis who will say this who—who lost a lot when Saddam Hussein went. If you talk to Kurdish leaders, if you talk to Shia leaders who suffered under Saddam Hussein—and some Sunnis who suffered under Saddam Hussein—they have a different view.

Did this come out the way we had hoped? Did it cause more pain and suffering and death for the Iraqis than it ever should have? Did it cause more cost for America in terms of dollars and lives? Of course. And we bear some responsibility for that.

But think about what would happen if Saddam Hussein were in power today. One of the things that Charlie Duelfer did in his report about why there wasn't any WMD, one of his conclusions was as soon as the sanctions were off Saddam Hussein—and they were eroding in 2000, 2001—he would have been back in the WMD business. And with Iran pursuing a nuclear program you can bet he would have been back in the WMD business. So we would have had a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

How he would react to Syria, you know, the Ba'ath Party in Syria was not exactly good buddies with the Ba'ath Party in Iraq. Who knows? I think in the end of the day, despite the enormous costs, the Middle East is better and Iraq is better.

But it is in transition, buffeted by the return of ISIS, buffeted by the Arab Spring that has gone in many places into winter, either chaos or a return to authoritarianism. You know, this is a region in enormous transition and it's going to be decades, if not generations, before we know how it comes out.

LABOTT: You know, I don't think it's a stretch to say that this president's been very cautious in Iraq, but a lot of people think that he came into office determined to be the anti-Bush.

HADLEY: No question about that.

LABOTT: And that a lot of his cautiousness is a—is a direct effort to be what he said was not, you know, a kind of recklessness of going into Iraq and—and the adventures of the Bush administration. In his West Point commencement speech said, "Since World War II some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint but from our willingness to rush into military adventures without thinking through the consequences."

So what do you make of the charge that, you know, President Obama has been too cautious to correct the mistakes of the Bush administration?

HADLEY: I think you characterized it exactly right. He thought there were sins of commission by the Bush administration and sort of rush to war. If you look at it, in Iraq with Saddam Hussein, we spent twelve years trying to solve this problem through diplomacy, seventeen U.N. Security Council resolutions, two or three sanctions regimes, a couple inspection regimes, no-fly zones in the north and south, military action under the Clinton administration against Saddam Hussein, and we had a diplomatic effort to try to avoid the war if we could get Iran—Saddam to—to comply.

So I think it was not a war of choice, as some people say; it was a war of last resort. We ran out of options.

And if we don't get a nuclear deal with Iran this administration's going to find itself very much in the same place we were with respect...

LABOTT: Having to make that devil's choice.

HADLEY: Having to make that devil's—devil's choice.

What we've also learned about Syria is there are consequences for mistakes of commission and there are consequences for mistakes of omission. And if you fail to act, sometimes the consequences are worse.

And I'm afraid that's what we've seen in Syria, and events in Syria have now forced the administration, clearly against their preference...

LABOTT: To act.

HADLEY: ... to act and get involved. And I think they were right to do so. The problem is, it's coming so late that the challenge is—is going to be much greater.

LABOTT: Let's talk about Afghanistan for a minute. The war was initially a success. You had, you know, the Taliban on the run. But many claim that, you know, the U.S. took its eye off the ball, went into Iraq, let the Taliban and Al-Qaeda off the—off the mat, and, you know, it's still a problem in Afghanistan.

Did you snatch—the kind of stabilization of Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban—snatch failure from the jaws of success here?

HADLEY: Great question.

LABOTT: I love this interview because I love when they say, "Great question."

HADLEY: I hope not. Let me try to answer it this way: A lot of people, I think, lump Iraq and Afghanistan in the same page, and one of the things people have to remember—and it's relevant to the problems the administration faces in Iraq today and Syria tomorrow—in Afghanistan we—and Doug Feith can, again, correct me here...

LABOTT: We're going to get to him later.

HADLEY: We'll get to him.

With somewhere between 500 and 1,000 CIA A-teams and Special Forces people—500 to 1,000—embedded and working with the tribal elements, we were able to help them overthrow the Taliban. And it was very important that we had that light footprint and as much as we could, maintain that light footprint, because Afghanistans—don't like outsiders. And we did not want to be—follow the precedent of the English and the Russians, who were viewed as occupiers.

And we were viewed as liberators because we empowered the Afghan people to get rid of the Taliban. And interestingly, after all the pain and sacrifice, thirteen years later, fourteen years later they still want the Americans to stay.

So as opposed to Iraq, we wanted to empower local forces and so we were reluctant to put in a lot of forces. We did take some elements and I've tried to follow this. I think there were some intelligence assets that did get diverted from Afghanistan to Iraq, and people will decide whether they made a difference.

I think the problem in—in—in Afghanistan was that in—by 2005 things were pretty good, pretty stable. The Taliban were beginning to make a comeback.

But after 2005 two things happened. One, the problems with the Karzai administration about self-empowerment, not reaching out to their people, corruption began to undermine support. And the second thing that people haven't focused on is that Pakistan began in 2006 an internal political struggle that took their eye off the ball of what was happening in the Pakistani areas and, as Bob Gates said, opened a four-lane highway for terrorists to go into Afghanistan.

LABOTT: Now that you mention Defense Secretary Gates, who served under both Bush and President Obama, said the Bush administration did not have a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan and that, you know, had he employed the strategy in Afghanistan that he did do in Iraq, Afghanistan would have been better off. The idea of separating Afghanistan and Pakistan was not a good idea because, you know, Pakistan's involvement was clearly important in all this.

So were those some of the mistakes that were made?

HADLEY: I don't think so, and I—I need to talk to Bob Gates, my business partner. He's made it hard for me tonight and I'll be speaking with him tomorrow.

You know, the—the surge analogy I don't think works in Afghanistan. Remember, this was the light footprint operation. This was training, empowering the Afghans to do what they needed to do. So I don't think that model would have worked.

Secondly, I think we did have a comprehensive strategy, but remember, Afghanistan when we went in was one of the poorest countries in the world—not just lack of physical resources, lack of human resources. And one of the problems we had is if you flood that with—with economic assistance what do you get? Corruption and inflation. What did we see in Afghanistan when we started putting all this economic aid in?

I don't think the surge is the thing that would have made it go. I think...

LABOTT: What about the separation...

HADLEY: I think one of the big problem was we did—we never solved the problem of Pakistan and the safe haven that gave for the Taliban. And the Obama administration, to their credit, has learned that problem. And that is why, simultaneously with a commitment in Iraq, the president announced airstrikes in Syria. Why? To keep ISIS from being able to use Syria as a safe haven to disrupt Iraq and to buy time so we can train forces in Syria to take on the ISIS.

So I think the problem was we were probably not tough enough on Karzai, didn't—didn't see where this was heading in terms of—politically. And secondly, we never solved—and the Obama administration has not been able to solve—the problem of Pakistan.

LABOTT: All right. I have a couple more and then we're going to open it up to questions.

Let's talk about Russia. You and the Bush administration spent a lot of time with Vladimir Putin. President Bush said he looked into Putin and saw his soul. So what did he miss? He thought he was someone deeply committed to the country and the best interests, but, you know, Vice President Biden says he's—he was hallucinating.

How did you misjudge him?

HADLEY: So I'm in Dallas, Texas and I'm interviewing the former president and I thought, we need to get his answer on the record, so I asked him this question and he said, deadpanning, he said, "Well Hadley, I just read the talking points you gave me."


HADLEY: It's always a staff failure of (inaudible).

So here's how he speaks and he says, "So I'm standing next to Vladimir Putin, right, meeting him for the first time, starting the relationship, and someone in the press asked me, 'Can you trust this guy?'" And Bush says, "So what am I supposed to say? No, I don't think I can trust the guy."

So the question is, so what do you do. And he had had an incident where he talked to Putin and he raised the question about a cross given to him by his mother that had been lost in a fire, in his dacha.

LABOTT: Yes, we read the story.

HADLEY: I don't think I'm scoring any points on that one.

LABOTT: No, I mean...

HADLEY: So the problem is Putin's—the president wants to try to build a positive relationship with Putin...

LABOTT: Right.

HADLEY: ... and he doesn't want to embarrass the guy in—in—in public...

LABOTT: But that...

HADLEY: ... so he says the first thing that comes into his head.

But here's the narrative on Putin: We spent four years—we established a strategic dialogue with Putin, probably naively—making the case to him and to his people that Putin had an enormous opportunity to bring Russia permanently to the West and do the hardest thing for an authoritarian to do, to build institutions of free press, political parties, a strong judiciary, civil society that would compete with him for power.

And Putin in the first four years said, "That's what I intend to do but I have to do it my way because there are dark forces in Russia that it—that can be awakened, that I cannot control."

And the truth is at the end of the day he didn't do it, and he's moved consistently in a more authoritarian direction. And it's a tragedy for the Russian people; it's a tragedy for us. And we didn't—we couldn't change his mind.

LABOTT: Do you think that more should have been done to prevent him from invading Georgia? Do you regret that NATO didn't give Georgia and Ukraine the map to membership at, you know, before 2008? Would that have prevented that and what we're seeing in Ukraine right now?

HADLEY: Don't know. We don't know. We know what happened when we didn't give them map. I just as soon would like to have given them map and seen if we'd have had a positive effect.

We made all kinds of signals to Putin to stay out and the president made all kinds of signals to President Saakashvili not to provoke Putin. I remember he said, "Don't provoke Putin. You can't handle him and we will not be able to save you from Putin."

Many people think Saakashvili did provoke him. The rest is history.

What did we do? Did we displace Russia from South Ossetia and Abkhazia? No. Russians were there before the invasion; the Russians are there now.

But what we did do through signaling by sending a destroyer in the Black Sea, sending humanitarian assistance by military aircraft, bringing the Georgia unit back from Iraq—their best-trained unit to Georgia to defend itself, we—and some skillful diplomacy by Condi Rice, we kept Russia from going to Tbilisi. The road was open. We kept them from going to Tbilisi and overturning the democratic government.

We threw the—the relationship in—in the toilet afterwards, broke our diplomatic, political, and military ties, and tried to signal to Putin that he had made a strategic miscalculation. We did not impose economic sanctions. We ran out of time, and also at a time when the world is facing the greatest financial and economic crisis since the Depression, it's a little hard to go to the—to the—to the interagents to say we ought to sanction Russia and further press down economic activity.

I wish we'd done more and I wish the Obama administration had not been so quick to go to the reset and reverse all the things we did, because at the time we all sat around the table and said, "If we don't handle this right it'll be today Georgia, tomorrow Crimea, and the next day the Baltic states." Well, they're two-thirds of the way there.

LABOTT: That's what's happening. How far do you think we'll go?

HADLEY: It depends on how much he succeeds and how much he's resisted. And so far he's exceeding—succeeding better than we should have hoped and he is not being resisted as much as he needs to be.

LABOTT: All right. We're going to open it up to the Q&A now. I'm going to invite you to join in in the discussion.

Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it. Please stand, state your name and affiliation. Let's keep our questions to a question and keep them short so we can ask as many as possible.

We're going to go to Allan and then to Barbara, and then we'll move back to this gentleman here.

QUESTION: Allan Wendt.

Steve, going back to the Iraq war, you will recall how the French were vilified in Washington—surrender, monkeys, and all that—when Chirac said, "We—we believe that he will have—that he has weapons of mass destruction but we have U.N. inspectors in there on the ground. Give it a little more time and we'll find the weapons."

In retrospect, was Chirac right?

HADLEY: I don't think so. We made the judgment, and history will judge, that more time was not going to work, that in a state like Iraq, if he wants to hide the weapons he can and he will. And we had a lot of intelligence which we interpreted at the time, now wrongly, in retrospect, that he had a, you know, a hide strategy going on.

So, you know, I don't think—I just don't think that would have done it. I just don't think that would have done it.

LABOTT: Barbara?

QUESTION: Thanks, Elise. Masterful job, may I say.

But let's hone in a little bit more on Iran. Do you regret axis of evil? Do you regret the fact that the Bush administration did not engage with Iran in 2003, when a certain offer was put forward and Iran had at that time no or almost no centrifuges spinning? Did you make a mistake by making the precondition that Iran halt enrichment before the U.S. would engage? And what should we be doing now?

HADLEY: Yeah. Well, that's a—that's a long discussion.

A lot, I think, is forgotten about the engagement that was done with Iran during the period. When we came into office basically the Clinton administration said, "We've tried to outreach with Khatami," who was then the president of Iran, "and it hasn't worked and he does not produce."

We had some good moments with Iran, as you're well aware of—collaborated with them in terms of Afghanistan after the—the displacement of the Taliban. We made a number of efforts to reach out to get a positive cooperation on Iraq. Those—and Ryan Crocker has talked about that.

I did a piece for Robin Wright and the USIP Iran Web site that talks about all the outreach, and what people forget is we actually reached a deal with Iran that is to say that the EU-3, with our support, reached a deal with Iran to suspend enrichment—just what the U.N. resolutions required and still require—to suspend enrichment and to negotiate a final resolution of that issue.

What happened to that? One, I think we were probably a little slow on implementation. But what really happened was the election of Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, who ran on the platform that the people who had negotiated that agreement with the EU-3 were traitors and should be criminally charged and throw in jail. And he then started the elements of the program.

And we had this rather difficult situation where he would move to restart the program and we would run after him with a sweetened offer. Condi offered to sit down with him. We would have all issues on the table.

We never caught him because he had a different agenda. He politically decided he wanted to go in a different direction and make the Iran nuclear program a major element of Iranian policy.

In the end of the day we had it. The diplomacy worked but the politics did not work. And why there now may—and you've written very eloquently about this—there may be an opportunity now because the politics in Iran have changed. And the question does...

QUESTION: Have they here?

HADLEY: I think so. We're at the table. We've got the P5+1. The administration clearly wants a deal. We think that at least Rouhani wants a deal.

The question is, does the supreme leader? And that's what we need to know. And I think we've—a lot of people have said the best course is to give this our best shot. I think the administration is giving it its best shot.

I think there are other things that they need to do to make an agreement, if we get one, acceptable to a broad range of people here in the United States. And I think we have to also be thinking what our policy is going to be if we don't get one, because I think those options are not attractive.

And Bob Einhorn will answer any further questions you have about Iran.


HADLEY: Well, as President Bush said in his memoir, I was—would not have included Iran in that axis of evil, but the president did it and he did because I think—we all thought what was going to be the problem was the word "evil." And what was the problem, it turned out, was the word "axis," because it suggested that Iran, North Korea, and Iraq were somehow in—in some kind of alliance against us.

What the president said, if you read the speech, was, "We're troubled about these three regimes because they share one characteristic." It's what we talked about before. They're both pursuing WMD and they're supporting terrorism, and therefore, they're how WMD might get into the hands of terrorists.

And after 9/11 we were not prepared to take risks in that respect, so that was what the president was trying to make, and he said at the time, "These are different cases. We're going to handle them differently." The diplomacy of Iraq is twelve years in and we barely started the diplomacy of Iran and we had different policies of consequence.

So history will judge.

LABOTT: OK, we have a man with the gentleman and then this—man in the—in the end over there with the glasses, and then we're going to go to this woman in blue.

QUESTION: Bill Courtney, RAND Corporation.

Steve, great presentation. Over the years a number of people have claimed that the national security decision-making process is broken. There were reforms with the Tower Commission after Iran-Contra; there have been other reforms through the years.

Leaving aside personalities, how do you assess the state of the national security decision-making process today? Do all the—the key actors get a fair hearing?

LABOTT: Good question. There's been a lot of talk about how it's defunct.

HADLEY: You know, every—the NSC structure is, by design, flexible. Its national security advisor does not testify for Congress; the structure is not specified in statute. So every president molds the NSC system and in some sense gets the NSC system they want.

This administration has a different style, and I think the—the—the burdens of the style they have is that a lot has gotten pulled in to the White House. And when you do that there's a huge bandwidth problem at the White House. And you've only got twenty-four hours a day.

LABOTT: Right.

HADLEY: And there are only so many issues you can deal at one time.

And the problem is they get to your agenda, if you're a national security advisor, when they go critical. And when they go critical is actually the point where your options are most reduced and the military options most—bulk most large.

LABOTT: So you're saying it doesn't lend itself to quick decision making?

HADLEY: I think one of the things we have to do is think—recognize that, given the vast number of—of problems, we've got to start empowering agencies—cabinet secretaries and agencies—empowering them and give them more authority so that they can deal with some of these problems, so that only the most—the ones that are most important and have the most interagency aspects—get to the White House.

You've got an overload, you've got a bandwidth, and you've got a problem—by the time they get to the White House there's a lot of politics that plays.

LABOTT: OK, this gentleman with the glasses right here? And then over here and then right here.

QUESTION: Thank you. Scott Moore. I'm an international affairs fellow here at the—the council.

Just to broaden our regional focus a little bit, I noticed in your biography that you cite developing a strategic relationship with India as an achievement, and certainly...

HADLEY: That's not my achievement...

QUESTION: Well, an achievement of—of the—the administration and that occurred during—during your tenure. And certainly the conclusion of the Civilian Nuclear Agreement was a landmark.

So I'd just be curious in your assessment of how the U.S.-India relationship has unfolded since your tenure and its prospects going forward. Thank you.

HADLEY: Yes. I'm not sure Bob Einhorn still agrees—or agrees yet that the India Civil Nuke deal was a good—good idea, but you can—you can hear the other view here.

I think it was important less because it was civil nuke, though it would contribute to their needs on energy, but more because it was something that was very important to the Indians and visible to the Indians, and by concluding a nuclear deal, and at the same time insisting that they recognize their proliferation obligations—the nonproliferation obligations—as part of that deal, we sent a message to the Indian people that the relationship in the United States was profoundly changed. And that opened up the possibility to work more closely with India.

It's difficult. In the first half of the administration we had a very strong Indian government, which, quite frankly, got weaker by the year. And I think the—we have not realized the promise of the Civ Nuke deal since it was concluded in 2008.

I think the Modi government is a new opportunity to start again. I hope the administration will do so. But we've—we've got more work to do, and there have been problems in implementing the nuclear deal but I think the biggest problem is really not focusing and taking advantage of an opportunity to bring that relationship along...

LABOTT: But Modi...

HADLEY: And I would hope that the Obama administration will see that that's one of the real contributions they can make in their last two years, now that they have Modi in place, who is a very strong leader and I think would—would like to move forward...

LABOTT: But who also said recently, basically, you know, "We want good relations with the United States but don't ask us to criticize Russia on Ukraine; don't ask us to criticize China on the South China Sea," basically putting India up as a counterweight to the United States. And if we're going to invest so much in a relationship with India, shouldn't we hope that they'll be a more constructive world actor?

HADLEY: I think we should. The question is, where do you want the constructive actions to manifest itself? Statements on the floor of the United Nations? You know, I—I—I wouldn't put a whole lot of value on that.

Secondly, we have to understand that India has a transition. You know, they've come from this nonaligned status and this—you know, always through here was, "We want a more strategic relationship with the United States but not too close."

So I think what we have to do is be strategic of what we ask of Modi, taking into account his politics. And let's ask him of things that we think he can do and that really matter for us. Let's not ask him to come out publicly with a statement supporting us on every position that we adopt in the U.N. or—or elsewhere.


Right here, and did you have a question, sir, right here? And then we'll go back to the back.

QUESTION: Hi. Esther Lee, Council of Korean Americans.

Barbara and I were at a talk yesterday with Bob Gallucci under Clinton, Victor Cha under Bush, and Syd Seiler now in the Obama administration. They pretty much agreed that everything we've done around North Korea has failed to date and that we've tried everything.

So could you share with us—with us your thoughts on why you think we've failed, how you think this administration is handling North Korea, and what you think we should do?

LABOTT: You know, that's a great question, because when you left office things were looking pretty good and North Korea had blown up that cooling tower and there was hope that, I think, in the Obama administration they were going to be able to pick up where you left off.

HADLEY: The cycle we've had—the Clinton administration—we—is—and others, and, you know, Victor Cha is the person I learned from on this...

LABOTT: Me too.

HADLEY: ... you get a deal with them in this some kind of context, and then they go off and see if they can walk it back and split those—the pressure that produced the deal. And when they realize they can't they come back to the table. That was the—the—the pattern.

But I think that what—when the efforts we made ultimately failed and the North Koreans walked it back yet again, I think the Obama administration rightly thought they had to break the mold and break the pattern. There was too much paying the North Koreans—not usually by us, but the Chinese and sometimes the South Koreans—and we had to have a—a different arrangement that nobody was going to pay them to come back to the agreements they agreed to; they needed to decide themselves to come back.

The problem is, I think, they don't want to come back. And they basically now take the view that we—the only way they'll talk to us is if we recognize them as a nuclear power, and that's unacceptable...

LABOTT: Aren't they?

HADLEY: ... virtually...

LABOTT: Aren't they a nuclear power?

HADLEY: I would say they certainly have nuclear weapons and they've tested them.

LABOTT: So what about that is not a nuclear power?

HADLEY: Well, there are other countries that are also in that situation, and the question is, do you acknowledge them and do you accept it or engage with them?

LABOTT: And try to bring them into the international nuclear community.

HADLEY: Or do you say—or—or do you conclude, as most of the people in the Six-Party talks have concluded, that this is a state that is so unreliable it cannot be trusted with nuclear weapons?

And this is why we have a missile defense structure; this is why Japan is working on their own missile defense through the Aegis shops and the like; this is why China continues to say they do not want a nuclear North Korea, and—because the effects, of course, if you're China, of a recognized and accepted nuclear North Korea is what does South Korea do, what does Japan do, and do you suddenly have a proliferation of nuclear powers in Asia, which nobody wants?

LABOTT: OK. We're going to go here and then we have a few more. We're going to go to this gentleman right over there, if you can hand him a mic so he's ready, and then over here and we'll try and take a few more, OK?

With the glasses right here? Go ahead, sir. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Good evening, Steve. Ariel Cohen, Center for Energy Natural Resources and Geopolitics.

Question on Eurasia. Both the Clinton administration and the Bush administration maintained involvement in Eurasia with the countries of South Caucasus, Central Asia, Ukraine, Belarus, et cetera.

Then in the Obama administration for a variety of reasons that involvement went down and the reset presupposed that Russia will feel more secure and therefore will take more responsibility as a regional power. Instead, it was an invitation to do other things, including in Ukraine.

So a couple of questions. One, strategically the...

LABOTT: Keep it to one.

QUESTION: ... rapprochement between Russia and China—is that a long-term threat to us? And specifically, tactically, would you recommend to the president to give lethal aid to Ukraine that the Ukrainians asked? Thanks.

HADLEY: In reverse order, yes, no, and maybe.


HADLEY: So lethal aid to Ukraine, yes but quietly. Just do it; don't talk about it. Just have it start showing up. It'll have a lot more effect on the Russians.

I think Putin's movement to China and China's acceptance of it is a tactical play. I think China's getting good price for Russian resources. I think the Russian people will decide in the end of the day that their strategic partner is—still is Europe and not China.

So a prominent Russian official, Ambassador Lukin, in the mid-'90s, when we were having fights with Russia about NATO enlargements—it's in Germany, we've all had a fine lunch, and after lunch he stands up and he says, "So here's the deal. We'll all fight on NATO enlargement, we'll fight about it, but in the end of the day we'll work something out because, you know, we should be working together between Russia and Europe. But China—we have to be careful about China because China really is a strategic threat to Russia." And I think that remains to be the case.

Third, where I think our efforts to reach out—and Condi's written this in her book—where we really found it was the near abroad. We, in this strategic dialogue I talked about, worked out a piece of paper where Russia and the United States were going to cooperate to try to develop the countries that had been part of the Soviet space that bordered Russia into prosperous states that would be not a drain on Russia but would actually economically benefit them.

And we had—it was a—it was all you would have wanted as a statement of cooperation, but as it worked its way up the Russian government to Putin it got narrower and narrower and finally it disappeared. And I think the problem was the color revolutions which convinced Putin that we, through NGOs and everything we stood for, were trying to destabilize his neighbors, on the road to destabilizing him. And I think the relationship between Russia and Europe, and Russia and the United States, foundered on that principle. And it remains.

Because in the end of the day I think Putin has gotten himself to the—to the point where he is about reestablishing Russian influence in the former Soviet space, including those countries that were in the Warsaw Pact. And if you look what is happening in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary today, it is very disturbing. It is partly in response to activities by Russia, but there are parties now that are—there is a sort of a—a Soviet nostalgia going and a reach out to Russia, and it's very disturbing. I think Putin has a very ambitious agenda.

LABOTT: OK. We have this gentleman here and this lady here, and then I think that's going to have to be it, unfortunately.

QUESTION: (inadudible), Georgetown.

Steve, can you talk a little bit about the particular challenges of managing the first year of a new incoming administration? You had challenges because the—the transition phase was abbreviated, but you entered the White House and all the files have gone to the predecessor's library. Your folks aren't—aren't nominated and confirmed for months. And basically, you have to put a team together and put policies together, but with all of this, if you will, bureaucratic chaos.

So could you talk a little bit about what your advice would be to—to an incoming team in—in 2017 about how you minimize some of these—these risks?

HADLEY: You know, one of the things we tried to do in the transition from the Bush to the Obama administration was to learn from those lessons and a different kind of transition, and there's a woman named Martha Kumar at Towson State who has documented this probably better than anybody I know in a couple articles and in a book, and we tried to leave the Obama administration with a functioning team, with copies of the documents that they needed to manage the issues we handed off to them, and a lot of memos about where issues stood that I suspect were probably never read, but nonetheless, would have been useful if they had been read.

What you really hope, and this is something I got from my daughter, Kate, who said, you know, what you really want to hope is that you don't have any major crises in your first year, because the record of administrations—any administrations—Republican or Democrat—dealing with crises in the first year is a tough on. It's not so good. You're not ready and you don't have your team in place.

And of course, we had the EP-3 with China, which was a major problem. And then, of course, we had 9/11, which is the mother of all difficult challenges. And you're never ready, and the delay in getting your people in place is severe, and we tried to help the Obama administration get their people in place sooner.

HADLEY: You know, I had my first deputies meeting in either I think May, maybe early June of 2001, and Paul Wolfowitz had just gotten confirmed, and I think Rich Armitage, so you know, I had two of what would be five. You know, that's way—way too late.

One of the things I admire President Bush about—lot of things I admire about President Bush, but I remember when, after all the things he had went through and all the beating up he was taking in the polls and—and his approval ratings and all the rest, he gets the financial crisis. So I said to him, you know, simply, "Mr. President, it's really too bad, after all you've been through, you have to deal with the financial crisis."

His answer was very interesting. He said, "Actually, I'm glad it came now. I'm glad it came now because we have a team that's been through—it's an experienced team; we've been through crises together. We're in the best position to manage it."

Can you imagine if you're a new administration coming in and you have
to face the biggest financial and economic crisis since the depression in your first months of office? That is a nightmare for the administration, it's a nightmare for the country. So, you know, what—part of it is hope in the first year you don't have major crisis. You'll do a lot better.


LABOTT: We're going to take one last quick one. I'm sorry we can't do more questions. But just a reminder to everybody that this meeting has been on the record.

QUESTION: Hi. Ashika Singh from the State Department.

Going back to the issue of Iraq, I'm curious what you think about if the U.S. had not gone into Iraq and Saddam Hussein had still been in power when the Arab Spring began, would there have been an Arab Spring in Iraq and how do you think that would have unfolded? Would it have turned into a civil war, like Syria? And what would the U.S. response have been then at that point?

HADLEY: It's very interesting, and I don't know the answer. What is interesting is with all the Arab Spring there were very minimal demonstrations in Iraq even though there was a lot of disaffection with the Maliki government at that point.

There were almost no demonstrations in Iraq because in some sense they had what a lot of other people in the Arab Spring were rising up for. They did have a government, imperfect though it was, in which they participated and which, unique in the Arab world, Sunni, Shia, and Kurds were all participating in developing a common future.

Whether there would have been an uprising it's—it's hard to know. There is a record—remember, after the first Gulf War, in the year after that both the Shia in the South and the Kurds in the North revolted against Saddam and they were brutally put down. So I don't know.

Jim Jeffrey, who's sitting behind you, is a good source on that. You can talk with him in the break—in the break.

(UNKNOWN): Syria on steroids.

HADLEY: Syria on steroids? That's the word.

LABOTT: Well, on that happy note, I want to thank Steve Hadley for his candor and his time, and I want to thank everyone for coming. If you're joining us for the dinner afterwards, we're going to try and get up, start as soon as we can.

Thank you, everybody, and thank you again to HBO for this History Maker series.



"…what the intelligence reform was designed to do was to try to break down the barriers between the various intelligence agencies and provide an information network so you could share information in real time, so you could get out of all the background noise tactical warning in advance so you can disrupt the plot. …the predictions…that 9/11 would be the first of a series of mass casualty reports did not come about and it didn't come about not because they weren't trying, but that we were able to detect and disrupt."
- Stephen J. Hadley
"…[it] was less an intelligence failure as a failure of imagination. …No one came to the president of the United States or to me or anybody else and said, "What if Saddam Hussein has actually destroyed his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction but he doesn't want to tell anybody, particularly the Iranians, who he's concluded a ten-year war with, because he doesn't want them to take advantage." And some of the debriefing reports reported in the press by the FBI suggest that's what happened. …it's an intelligence challenge, challenge for the intelligence community and for all of us not just to think outside the box, but think as if there's no box, and systematically build into our process—somebody says, "OK, here's all the evidence we have. Let's go off and think about alternative explanations."
- Stephen J. Hadley
"I think it was not a war of choice, as some people say; it was a war of last resort. We ran out of options. And if we don't get a nuclear deal with Iran this administration's going to find itself very much in the same place we were with respect [to Iraq]...having to make that devil's choice."
- Stephen J. Hadley
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