WASHINGTON — In his career, Stephen Hadley has served as national security advisor for president George. W. Bush, an assistant secretary of defense for international security policy under president George. H. W. Bush, and part of the National Security Council under president Gerald Ford. He is also one of the most prominent names Washington insiders have floated for a potential Donald Trump administration position.
And if Hadley does join the new administration, he has some thoughts on how it should be organized.
At this point, it is unclear how much fire there is with the smoke around Hadley. He has not been reported as one of the individuals to meet with the president-elect, and the ouster of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie from the Trump transition team has thrown into doubt whether anyone not from the Trump inner circle will find themselves in positions of power come January.
One potential landing spot for Hadley had been with the CIA, but that avenue is now closed with Friday's announcement that Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas) has been selected for the role. Defense secretary is also open, although sources say the current front-runner for the top Pentagon job is former senator Jim Talent.
Still, establishment Republicans continue to hold out hope that Hadley will find his way into the administration, with the idea that he could help bring some real-world experience to the Trump team.
According to a source who has advised the Trump transition team, Hadley had been a strong candidate for a spot in part because his experience, gravitas, familiarity and mainstream Republican views will be reassuring to foreign allies—and in part because he has never publicly repudiated Trump.
"He’s been in the building," the source said of Hadley. "Another thing that puts him a notch above is that he is an internationally known figure. Every leader across the world knows who Steve Hadley is and has dealt with Steve Hadley. He is a notch above any other candidate."
In October, the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) hosted a forum on how the transition process for a new administration should work. At the time, the focus was on Hadley’s fellow panelist, CNAS head Michele Flournoy, widely agreed to be Hillary Clinton’s choice for Secretary of Defense.
Hadley, however, had interesting things to say, starting with the interagency process. Drawing from his own experiences as national security advisor, Hadley warned that the current process, developed in the 1960s, is "not adequate" for the challenges of today.
"There are so many issues, and there are only so many hours in the day and days of the week for that group of people, who are at the senior level interagency process, to deal with them," Hadley said. "Things tend to get on the agenda when you are elate in the crisis, and when you are late in the crisis, most of the long term options that really take a long time- some of your diplomatic options, your economic options – are in the rear view mirror. There’s not enough time. So there is a tendency to get caught in a situation where you either do nothing or sending troops."
To try and fix that, Hadley recommended that the senior level individuals need to delegate the implementation and execution aspects to empowered officials at the senior diplomat or assistant secretary of defense level. That is in line with broad criticisms from former State and DoD officials that the Obama administration has seen too much control centralized at the National Security Council level.
To make sure the interagency principals have a broad view, Hadley recommended that a cell be created at the White House to focus just on policy planning. He also recommended that a group of two or three historians be brought in to advise decision makers.
"I think that and the strategy focus would really enrich the deliberations and get the senior people out of the weeds thinking about tactics," Hadley told the audience. "I’ve been in too many interagency meetings on the docket for 50 minutes and they start in the tactics, and about 40 minutes in somebody says ‘wait what are we trying to do here?’ That the question you need to start with."
Learn From the Past
The former Bush official also pleaded with the next administration to listen to those who came before.
"Every new administration comes in thinking that they have been vindicated, the folks going out have been discredited, and they are going to write history on a blank sheet of paper," Hadley said. "A little reminder there will be a lot more continuity in the policies and you’ll be building own what was left before, done before, is an importent reminder."
In line with that, Hadley believes a new administration should consider keeping at least one of the key national security officials from the previous administration, in order to ensure some continuity of policies as the next president gets to his feet.
"And future president-elect ought to think about whether they want to extend a secretary of defense, particularly in the middle of active military operations. And I think they also want to think about extending either their director of national intelligence or, more appropriate, your director of central intelligence," Hadley said. "At a time when we have an awful lot of operations, I think there is a case to be made for continuity for a matter of time."
One key thread of continuity between administrations has always come from the military, whose officers are supposed to operate outside the political realm to provide clear, unbiased opinion to the president.
In that realm, Hadley expressed serious concerns about the increasing politicization of uniformed officials, including the increasingly common tactic of having retired general officers endorse a candidate. Hadley also raised alarms over comments made by then-candidate Trump that he would consider firing generals who had prosecuted the war against the Islamic State group under the Obama administration.
"If you suddenly said that a new president comes in [and] suddenly reviewed the military, you’re very quickly going to end up with political generals. And you’re also going to have, quite frankly, people under the old administration covering up and positioning themselves to have a higher position in the new demonstration," Hadley explained. "I think it’s been a very important principal that promotions in the military are basically run by the military, with approval of the secretary of defense based, on experience and professionalism and competence.
"And boy, I think that is terribly important. And i would worry the more you align this with the political election cycle, the more you politicize your military."
Eric Edelman, who spent four years under the Bush administration as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and has been a staunch anti-Trump voice from the Republican community, was also on the panel with Hadley. He, too raised alarms over Trump’s comments on the possibility of removing generals, calling it "incredibly destructive," and concurred with Hadley that the politicization of generals on the campaign is bad for the country.
"I’ve seen what happens as a result, which is there is a lot of hostility towards the uniformed military in the [George H.W. Bush] to Clinton transition," Edelman said. "I heard a lot of discussion about ‘Clinton generals,’ I heard a lot of that in 2009 with ‘Bush generals,’ this is very, very dangerous bad trend."
Then Edelman took a swipe at retired Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn, reportedly Trump’s pick for national security advisor who generated controversy at the Republican National Convention when he joined a crowd in calling for the arrest of Clinton.
"And we get a retired general in front of a national political convention leading people in a chant of ‘let’s lock up our political opponents’ -- I used to be an ambassador of a country where they are locking up their political opponents, and it’s not a place you want to go," Edelman said.
Joe Gould in Washington contributed to this report.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.