With his oversize tortoise-shell glasses and lawyerly manner, Stephen Hadley, the Bush administration's new national security adviser, seems to be studying for the role of Clark Kent, not Superman. And it's a measure of the man who now sits in the chair once occupied by Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski that Hadley would much rather talk about the president than himself.
But Hadley has some clear ideas about how to improve the management of national security policy during the Bush administration's second term. And his comments, in his first lengthy interview since taking over from Condoleezza Rice, provide an unusual window on the sometimes opaque process of decision-making in the Bush White House.
Hadley starts with the enormous advantage that, even after four years as deputy national security adviser, he seems to have almost no enemies. "He's just one of the nicest human beings I ever met," says Brent Scowcroft, who hired Hadley on the NSC staff in the Ford administration. "He's incredibly smart, works just all the time, is meticulous almost to a fault." You hear similar comments from other Washington insiders, from both parties.
Hadley starts off the interview by stressing that Bush's policy is, above all, a product of the president's own convictions, principles and life experience. That may sound self-effacing from a national security adviser, but in this case it's clearly true. As Hadley says, Bush is his own strategist. He cites three examples -- the administration's policy toward states that harbor terrorists, its focus on reform of Palestinian institutions and its decision to work with Asian countries to contain North Korea -- that reflected the president's own intuition rather than any NSC process.
"All three of the examples went against the conventional wisdom of the experts," Hadley argues, "and that's who the president is -- he's bold, he's a change agent and he's very strategic."
Hadley argues that analysts are wrong to see a tension in this administration between idealists and realists. "Our interests are reflected in our principles, and a world that increasingly reflects our principles is going to be a world which is increasingly in our interests." Still, he says, part of his job is to apply a pragmatic test that weighs costs and unintended consequences of policy. "What you do for a president," he explains, "is make sure that when he looks at an action and sees the options, he has a clear understanding of what are the consequences, what are the trade-offs we will be making."
Yet he returns, repeatedly, to the idea that policy must be rooted in the president's values, not in the bloodless bargaining of interagency debate. He cites a dictum of former NSC colleague Bob Blackwill: "In any interagency meeting, what often gets lost is what we're trying to accomplish."
Many outsiders faulted the Bush NSC operation during the first term for failing to tee up critical issues for clean presidential decisions so that a single policy could then be imposed on State, Defense and the CIA. Hadley rejects the premise: On Iran, for example, he says that the Bush administration reached consensus several years ago on a tough approach, but that when details of bickering over a formal National Security Presidential Decision leaked to the press, "we decided to shelve the NSPD and go ahead and implement the policy."
Even so, Hadley says he wants to improve the way the process works. When the president decides on a policy, Hadley wants to have ready a communications, legislative and diplomatic strategy. He wants to monitor how agencies carry out policy and to measure their performance. "We need to be systematic and rigorous in improving implementation and execution within the government," he says.
Hadley also wants to create a new team within the NSC that will think about U.S. strategic interests three to five years out -- and make sure that current policies are working to advance those interests. And he appears confident that he can manage an NSC process that coordinates the sometimes-fractious views of Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "I think that execution and implementation are undervalued, and we need to do better," he says.
Not Superman, but Clark Kent. Meticulous, well-organized, self-effacing; a man, as the British like to say, "without side." An "honest broker" in the tradition of Scowcroft, rather than a Kissingerian visionary. Those are the qualities Hadley will bring to his new job. But I suspect his most important task will be to provide a reality check for a risk-taking president -- to help Bush to look carefully before he leaps.