The Security Adviser Who Wants the Role, Not the Stage

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley confer with White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen J. Hadley confer with White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. (Pool Photo By Ron Sach)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

It's an old Washington story: The president's national security adviser struggles with the secretary of state for preeminence. Zbigniew Brzezinski jousted with Cyrus R. Vance. George P. Shultz objected to attending any meetings chaired by Frank C. Carlucci. Henry A. Kissinger got around the problem by occupying both jobs simultaneously.

Not Stephen J. Hadley. In his year as President Bush's right hand on foreign policy, Hadley has deliberately let his predecessor and former boss, Condoleezza Rice, take the lead now that she is secretary of state. He has lunch with her in the West Wing every Saturday and slips her policy ideas to propose herself. Even now, many in Washington joke that Rice has two deputies -- the deputy secretary of state and Hadley.

"My approach is going to be more offstage," he said. "Condi has established herself as an articulator of the president's policies. . . . It's very important that she carry that out and there not be competing voices or any sense of possible competition. And as long as we're both in these two jobs, there won't be."

Hadley is a modest man in an immodest job. In a town populated by people nursing grandiose views of their own importance and scheming for greater glory, Hadley still thinks of himself as a staff man. He sits at the pinnacle of power, but articulates no sweeping personal vision of the world and has made a point of staying in the shadows. Occupying a post defined by figures such as Kissinger, Brzezinski, Colin L. Powell and Brent Scowcroft, Hadley may be the lowest-profile national security adviser in decades.

Some think that makes him less of a player, one who invariably winds up overpowered by strong-willed officials such as Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at a time when Iraq, Iran, the Middle East and other flashpoints are at the top of the president's agenda. Rather than directing policy, the National Security Council now seems to be subordinate to Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon.

That's fine with Hadley. Tall, thin and bespectacled, the soft-spoken lawyer carefully chooses every word and cultivates the notion that he merely serves his client, not his own agenda. In a series of long interviews, he described his job as facilitator for the president and "the principals," the term for top figures such as Cheney, Rice and Rumsfeld, never mind that Hadley is now a principal and actually chairs "the principals committee" that vets national security decisions.

"Steve is very much an inside man," said Robert J. Einhorn, a former assistant secretary of state and a Hadley friend since college. "Steve sees his mission to get the various power centers to work well together. In the first term, the power centers obviously didn't get along very well, and that led to some incoherent policy. . . . He's trying very hard to remedy that."

If that is his mission, Hadley has had some success. Although Rice became a public star when she was national security adviser, many foreign policy professionals criticized her for not refereeing grudge-match battles over Iraq between the Cheney-Rumsfeld faction and then-Secretary Powell's State Department. Under Hadley, such struggles have been tamped down, or at least kept out of view. In part, that stems from Powell's departure, leaving fewer dissenters. And in part, it stems from Hadley's penchant for a tidy process. "He likes to have things knit up," one aide said. "I've heard him say that many times."

Rice Ascendant

In an era of global warfare, though, some wonder if Hadley's staff-oriented view matches contemporary demands. "I don't know if it's completely realistic in the context of the modern White House," said David J. Rothkopf, author of "Running the World," a history of the NSC. "So many things require such a short decision cycle, and proximity to the president means that person is often called upon to play the role of a principal."

In the architecture of the second-term war cabinet, Cheney and Rumsfeld remain power players but appear less dominant than in the first term. Rice has emerged as a more potent voice, presiding over the sort of multilateral diplomacy on hot issues such as Iran and North Korea that Cheney and Rumsfeld rejected before the invasion of Iraq.

Hadley is an executor rather than author of that policy shift. But his soft edges and instinctual modesty have proved of some value for the White House. When Cheney's hard-nosed lobbying did not pressure Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and other Republican senators to drop legislation banning torture of detainees, Hadley was sent in to clean up the political mess and negotiate a face-saving way for the president to surrender.

Hadley's professionalism impresses even those who dislike the purposes it serves. "He's a very level-headed, responsible, balanced person -- not a demagogue, not a neocon," said Brzezinski, who was Jimmy Carter's national security adviser and has been a vigorous critic of Bush's foreign policy. "I don't think strategizing is necessarily his forte, but on the other hand, he is much more orderly and much more capable of supervising a complex process."

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