The Man Who Wasn't There, Still Here

Stephen J. Hadley, low-key Vulcan, next to Condoleezza Rice at a 2006 summit.
Stephen J. Hadley, low-key Vulcan, next to Condoleezza Rice at a 2006 summit. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Anybody seen Steve Hadley? Anybody seen Steve Hadley?"

Jane Purcell, part of the American entourage at yesterday's meeting of President Bush's Proliferation Security Initiative at the Washington Hilton, was trying urgently to find the national security adviser. It turned out Hadley, who arrived 15 minutes early for his speech to the group, was hiding out with his security detail in an empty hallway outside the meeting room. Aides searched for a better hideout away from the scores of diplomats who were on hand to witness a rare public appearance by the secretive Hadley.

Purcell finally found Hadley, then led him through the ballroom -- where he didn't so much as pause to greet the "senior-level" foreign officials -- to another hiding place on the other side of the room.

It was classic Hadley -- the invisible man of the Bush presidency. National security adviser for Bush's second term and No. 2 at the National Security Council for the first term, Hadley has had a leading role in the foreign-policy adventures of the past eight years -- and yet he leaves no fingerprints. Though closer to Bush longer than any other top White House official, he has been a lone noncombatant in a blame game among the likes of Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and Condi Rice.

In his new kiss-and-tell about the administration, former White House press secretary Scott McClellan writes that Bush "was terribly ill-served by his top advisers, especially those involved directly in national security." That would seem to include Hadley, identified by McClellan as a protege of Cheney and one of the "Vulcans" who formed Bush's ill-fated foreign policy. But while other Vulcans -- Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle -- went on to infamy, Hadley went for anonymity. "Most people on the outside are not familiar with Hadley," McClellan correctly observes, calling him, with understatement, "low-key."

McClellan recounts how Hadley confessed to his colleagues that he, and not CIA chief George Tenet, was to blame for Bush's unfounded claim about Iraq's nuclear ambitions in a State of the Union address. "I blew it," McClellan quotes Hadley as saying. "I think the only solution is for me to resign."

Hadley didn't quit, and Tenet's name was never fully cleared. Still, McClellan identified Hadley as an "honorable" and "selfless" man.

Of course, no matter how honorable and selfless and well-liked Hadley may be, he had a hidden hand in the decisions that the former press secretary describes. Bush and his advisers "confused the propaganda campaign with the high level of candor and honesty so fundamentally needed to build and then sustain public support during a time of war," McClellan writes.

But Hadley survives, and so does the propaganda. It was being churned out again yesterday morning before the Proliferation Security Initiative, a five-year-old counterproliferation effort by the Bush administration that Hadley hailed as "successful all over the world" in interdicting nuclear equipment.

In fact, nonproliferation has been a conspicuous failure in recent years. North Korea has tested nukes, Iran appears to be on its way, and the arms-control bureau at the State Department has been abolished. The United States went to war in Iraq to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, only to discover that Iraq had no nuclear program. Meanwhile, the Bush administration has undermined the two pillars of proliferation, the Non-Proliferation Treaty and the International Atomic Energy Agency, instead putting its emphasis on alternative, voluntary arrangements such as the Proliferation Security Initiative. Even John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, distanced himself from Bush's nonproliferation policies in a speech on Tuesday.

But Hadley parried this reality with his characteristically deft blend of the bland. He treated the diplomats to platitudes ("during the Cold War, nuclear weapons dominated our national security perspective"). He entertained them with jargon ("on-state actors are active on both ends of the supply chain"). And he numbed them with his desiccated prose. He began by listing six nonproliferation priorities, then begged the audience's indulgence to "let me go through these one at a time." But after plodding through these ("second, dismantle the facilitation networks"), he arrived at point No. 6 only to reveal that this point had a three-point subset. He then moved on to a four-point summary of actions to be taken.

The numerology, and Hadley's careful delivery from his written speech, sufficiently bored the diplomats, for they showed no agitation when Hadley delivered his criticism of the international frameworks that so many other countries prize. "The IAEA had no enforcement mandate, no ability to inspect nuclear materials in transit or take punitive measures against violators -- and only limited capacity to detect covert nuclear activities," he told them.

By contrast, the Bush administration's proliferation initiative "is not a hierarchical organization," he said. It "does not create a new enforcement mechanism," and, best of all, "cops and criminals do not coexist in the organization. PSI is a group of nations committed to be cops."

So the administration's initiative is for cops, and the IAEA and NPT are for criminals. To some ears, that might qualify as propaganda. But if the diplomats thought so, they didn't get a chance to tell the invisible man. Hadley took no questions, and he slipped out of the room as soon as the next speaker, the Italian representative, opened his mouth.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company