Hand-Off: The Evolution of U.S. Policy in Asia - Fireside Conversation with Stephen Hadley

John J. Hamre: OK, folks, let’s – welcome. I’m delighted to have all of you here. We have – I always say welcome to the physicals and welcome to the virtuals. We’ve got virtuals that are in and we’ve got physicals in the room, and it’s great to have you both. Thank you. Delighted to have you here.

This is going to be a rare opportunity for all of us to revisit history in a very unique way. When I first heard about “Hand-Off” and Steve was, you know, assembling the authors, and the concept was, I thought, unique and really important: To go back and find the – you know, the original transition memos and then ask people who authored them to now offer commentary about it. You know, I thought it was a brilliant thing. It’s probably one of the most novel and helpful contributions for all of us, you know, to be able to be sitting in that room with them as they were wrestling with things, charting a future they couldn’t see. It was really fascinating. It’s a wonderful book. And of course, I think having Steve Hadley here, who is the spark of imagination that made all of this possible, is a real privilege for us today.

David Sanger, who is also someone who doesn’t need an introduction, but David is, of course, with The New York Times and, you know, probably the premier international security affairs columnist in the world. And we’re delighted that he’s here. He’s going to lead a fascinating conversation and dialogue. Let me turn it to you, David. Thank you.

David Sanger: Well, thanks very much. And thank you all who are here and those who are joining us. 

And thanks to Steve for this really remarkable book. It’s not a quick read, Steve. (Laughter.) I should have brought my copy up here. It’s about this big, right? 

Stephen Hadley: It’s a great doorstop. (Laughter.)

Mr. Sanger: You could – you could probably crush small animals with it, it’s so heavy. But it’s got – it’s full of fascinating stuff. And what’s interesting about it is that while it is history, it is certainly not ancient history now. And usually you wouldn’t read something like this until 25, 30 years after – you know, until declassification begins to – begins to happen, and then it usually takes another five years or so for people to actually get around to declassifying. 

So, Steve, the first question I have for you about this before we delve into the substance is: How did you get away with getting this stuff declassified so fast?

 Mr. Hadley: I’ll try to answer that question. First, I want to thank CSIS for having this event this morning, Victor Cha and others for arranging it. 

I want to thank John Hamre. I get a lot of people who come to me and ask for advice, and I give them the best advice I can, and I say: But the person you really want to talk to is John Hamre because he’s the smartest man in Washington and the wisest man in Washington. And I really believe that. So thanks to him and thanks to CSIS. 

I think one of – there are a couple reasons why this went as well as it did. One is we didn’t just go to people and say will you declassify these documents, but we described what we were going to do with them and the project as a whole, what the book was going to be. And I think that helped. It helped get the president – former President Bush onboard with the project, and it helped that he wrote the letter to the National Archives asking that the transition memos and their attachments be declassified. 

But I think the National Archives people liked the concept what we were going to do with the memos and they also liked the idea of trying to declassify them and get them out in public, because the National Archives is an advocate for getting things declassified, getting them out in the public. They moved relatively quickly given the fact that, A, it’s a small staff; B, we were in COVID, so they weren’t able to go into the office, which is required to review these documents because they’re all classified; and thirdly, they were under a lot of requirements for documents associated with the January 6th commission, for example. So they had a lot going on under difficult conditions. And it’s amazing that in a spirit – period of two years, two-and-a-half years, 39 of the 40 transition memos have been declassified; and probably two-third to three-quarters of the attachments to those memos, which are quite voluminous, have been declassified as well. So they did a remarkable job. 

 Mr. Sanger: You have to tell us, what was the – what was the 40th one?

 Mr. Hadley: Fortieth one is on Turkey and the PKK. There was a lot going on on that issue. (Laughter.) And I think that one will never see the light of day. (Laughter.)

 Mr. Sanger: There’s always one and you always – 

 Mr. Hadley Always one. There’s always one.

 Mr. Sanger: Well, I particularly enjoyed these because I would have to say, as a reporter, Steve and before him Condi Rice were probably the most open and willing to engage with the press about why they were making the decisions they were making, even if there was a rare moment or two – I can only count just a few – where Steve might not have been so thrilled with my coverage.

 Mr. Hadley: (Laughs.)

 Mr. Sanger: I can think of a few of them. We could do a completely separate session on that.

But two things struck me because – particularly because I’m working away on some things on China and Russia these days for a book, and that is how dramatically different just the tone of the relationship with both China and Russia were at the time that you left. So to the point that you could say I left you a perfectly good relationship, what did you guys do – (laughter) – but let’s start in with that. So let me start with Russia.

I have a strong memory of traveling with you to Russia one time. We had a wonderful dinner with the ambassador at the time, Bill Burns –

Mr. Hadley Yes, we did.

Mr. Sanger: – who seems to be busy away on Russia issues to this day. And I remember the president going to Russia relatively soon after 9/11 – I think it was a 2002 visit – floating down the Neva River with Putin, big dinner. They would meet students at the university at St. Petersburg. Later on, Putin came to Crawford. They met students – high school students outside Crawford. They were joking with each other. It seemed like a radically different Putin. But as you read through these notes, it's clear that by the second term all of you, and the president included, were beginning to have second thoughts about whether the Putin they thought they had in the first term was the same Putin they had in the second term. Tell us about that.

Mr. Hadley: So Putin was new to the job when President Bush came into office. He’d been president, I think, since 1999, about a year. And when they first met, he – this famous, “I looked into his eyes and saw his soul.” When they first met, Putin was a very nervous guy, so – and this was also at a time when Russia was weak. And at one point I remember Putin gave a speech and basically told the Russian people their economy on a good day was going to be the size of Italy’s. These are tough words for a president of Russia to tell his people.

Mr. Sanger: He had that right.

Mr. Hadley: He had that right.

Mr. Sanger: They were the size of Italy until they did the invasion. Now they’re smaller.

Mr. Hadley: Now they’re smaller.

Mr. Sanger: Yeah.

Mr. Hadley: But you know, if you read Russian history – and I’m no historian – but there’s a wonderful book, “The Icon and the Axe,” which tells the story of Russian history from the 13th, 14th century forward, and you see that for 400 years Russia has been struggling with its relationship with the West – as a Western ally, as a Western adversary. And we thought after the end of the Cold War there was an opportunity to bring Russia permanently into the West.

And Bush would say that to Putin, and Putin’s answer was interesting. He said: That’s what I want to do, but there are dark forces in Russia and you – and it’s important that they not be awakened, so you need to let me do it in my own time and in my own – in my own way and at my own pace.

So we thought, OK, we can do that. And in the early days, there was discussions about how to establish a two-party system, and you may remember Putin actually established two parties. Then he decided it wasn’t the Western two-party system; he wanted the Japanese model – you know, a dominant party and then a lesser party. And then after a while he decided he didn’t want two parties, actually real parties in the Western sense, at all, and he chipped away at democratic institutions.

So the dynamic in the transition memos is interesting. We are trying to build an ever-more-closer relationship with Russia. We got a lot of cooperation with Russia. It’s in the transition memo. Give you, you know, a couple examples.

One, Putin and Bush come up with their own presidential exchange program to encourage Russian students to come to the United States, U.S. students go to Russia. We had a thing called the checklist where Cabinet secretaries, the Russian and U.S. equivalent Cabinet secretary would agree on a joint project that they would pursue together and they would write quarterly reports on their progress jointly to the two presidents. It’s unheard of. So we’re trying to strengthen the relationship, bring them West.

But if you look at the transition memo, Putin is getting more and more authoritarian at home. And where we lose him is really the color revolutions of 2003, 2004, and 2005 in Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon. We thought these were good things; these were people trying to insist on accountable governments that would be prosperous and stable, good neighbors for Russia. Putin didn’t see it that way. He thought these uprisings were CIA front operations to install anti-Russian governments on his border and as a dress rehearsal for destabilizing Russia itself.

Mr. Sanger: So, Stephen –

Mr. Hadley: At that point, we lose him. And in 2008, he goes into Georgia.

Mr. Sanger: Right. So let me back you up one year from that. You had two other events. There was the Beslan tragedy, the shootings, which to some degree he blamed on U.S. support for the Chechens, in his – in his mind. And then there was his speech at the Munich Security Conference, I think it was 2007, where Bob Gates then had to stand up and say I haven’t heard anything like this since the Cold War and that’s not really where I want to head back. Tell us a little bit about those two incidents.

Mr. Hadley: So David Ignatius picked up on this from a session we did at Brookings, and if you want you ought to pull up his column. It’s very interesting. His take – and I think Tom Graham, who wrote the postscript in the book, agrees with this – that America was trying to make a distinction between terrorists and those Chechens who just wanted greater freedom. And for Putin, there was no distinction between the two. So he thought we were basically supporting terrorists, and supporting terrorists that were trying to secede from Russia, which was not to his liking.

The Munich speech many people say is a harbinger that we didn’t pay enough attention to it. Bush sent me to go see Putin after the speech and find out what was on his mind. So I went to see him and it was very Putinesque. He had himself on a high platform, about six –

Mr. Sanger: This is in his office at the Kremlin?

Mr. Hadley: In a – in a room in the Kremlin, a large room. And he had himself on a desk on a dais, and I was about six feet down below him, you know, a staff person talking to the president of Russia. And he had a stack of three-by-five cards, and each one was a separate grievance against the United States and against the West. And he went through them one by one, one by one. And I would try respectfully to answer as best I could, but I’m at a little bit disadvantage. So it’s not particularly productive, and at the end of about an hour and a quarter he stops and comes down and says: Thanks for coming. I’ll see you any time you come to Russia.

So you know, it’s not clear what’s going on in this man’s mind. And a lot of people will say: Well, he – Putin was the Putin we have today all along. It was always about restoring Russian power. He thought initially he could do that in alliance with the West. That went south, it went sour, so he decided he had to do it in Russia’s own individual way as a sort of a separate civilization between East and West. I think over 20 years, you know, you learn – most people learn over 20 years. I think Putin evolved over this period of time. And I think particularly during COVID, when he was very isolated, buried away in the Soviet archives, learning history, and he came up with this notion that what Russia needs to do it reestablish not the Soviet empire, but the Russian empire – reestablish control over traditional Russian lands, which unfortunately includes the Baltic states, Moldova, Poland, a lot of other territory.

And this is what Ukraine is all about. It is basically ending Ukrainian sovereignty, ending its independence, bringing it within Russia(’s) fold, because with Ukraine Russia can be an empire and without Ukraine Russia can’t.

Mr. Sanger: So one last question for you on Russia and then we’ll move on to China, Steve. So you’ve heard in the past two or three years as this has gotten bad, and particularly since the invasion, a lot of Cold War analogies with Russia and China. I’ll get to the China ones in a moment. With China, I don’t think they apply because of the economic – the nature of the economic relationship. But with Russia, well, if you think about what we are doing now to isolate them, cut off their exports, cut them out of SWIFT, so forth, there is a lot of resemblance to Kennan-era containment. What’s different?

Mr. Hadley: Maybe. You know, when Russia went into Ukraine a second time in February of 2022, I was trying to figure this out and I didn’t react as quickly as I should have. But one night I woke up at three in the morning and I was thinking: Sudetenland and Hitler. And I think the analogy is less the Cold War and more this is a war of aggression and a war of expansion and a war of empire. And we’re doing things that are appropriate to try to respond to that.

Secondly, I think another thing that people haven’t written about, you know, Putin’s crusade against Ukraine is in some sense in the name of de-Nazification of Ukraine. Well, if you look at the tactics Putin is pursuing both domestically and overseas, it’s very Hitlerian. It’s very Hitlerian. I think this is a war of aggression apropos of sort of the 20th century and less a sort of Cold War analogy, even though some of the tools are the same.

Mr. Sanger: So let’s turn to China for a moment. So when you’re reading the Russia section of your book, you see all these warning signs, right? There are all these little elements, whether it’s Beslan or the color revolutions or the speech at Munich, you getting sent there. When you look at China, you get the reverse. You see two leaders who are trying to move China much more into economic integration. You took over just as China had gotten into the WTO in the very last days of the Clinton administration. You built on that along the way. And really, the turn with China doesn’t come, it seems to me, until long after you’re out of office –

Mr. Hadley: Right. 

Mr. Sanger: – and Xi Jinping takes over. So tell us a little bit about China as you left it in this – in these memos.

Mr. Hadley: Well, there’s a terrific panel that is going to follow this conversation David and I are having with real experts on China, and I hope you all will stay tuned for that because they will elaborate on a lot of this. But I’ll give you my view and they can – Dennis and Victor can amend and revise my remarks – (laughter) – in the follow-up panel. 

The China we faced was a China that wanted a benign international environment so they could focus on their own domestic development. It was a China that did not want to overturn the international system but wanted to be a part of that system and made that very clear. It was a China that wanted a constructive relationship with the United States, and we tried to build that. 

And it were – it was actually also – as Dennis Wilder reminded me, it was a China that was willing to hear Bush out on human rights and particularly religious freedom. When he first met Jiang Zemin, Bush said to him: I’m going to raise religious freedom every time we meet. I just want to let you know that up front. I have to do it. It’s part of who I am. And so, you know, get ready. Now, that doesn’t mean we’re not going to talk about other issues, but I’m going to raise it every time. And we did. And they were willing to talk about it in a way that the current regime would never do it. I remember we had a session with Wen Jiabao, the premier in China, and he at one point went out of his way to tell Bush how much religious freedom there was in China and how many Bibles there were in China. I mean, this is unheard of today. 

But that’s what – that’s the leadership we had. And we thought there’s a reasonable chance and every reason why it’s in Americans’ interest to try to bring China into the international system so they would be supportive of the international system; they would accept its values – underlying values – which were very much our values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law; and they wouldn’t act contrary to our interests. 

Mr. Sanger: But you also saw them, once they came in – they’re such a large player in the system – begin to try to change the system some, move those rules more in their direction.

Mr. Hadley: They did. It’s not surprising. Look, a lot of that system was designed before China was the China we have today. And it is fair to say not just for China, but for India and a lot of countries in the Global South the system was designed by the great powers that emerged after the end of World War II and the world is vastly different now, and that international system needs to be revised and adapted to the new geopolitical realities – one is which the emergence of China, but that is not the only one.

We thought it was a reasonable bet that we could succeed in bringing China to – into the international system. But as you – there are two memos, actually, transition memos in the book on China. One is on China and the other is on East Asia security alliances. We hedged. We did a lot to strengthen our relationship and resolve differences with Seoul, with South Korea; with Japan; with Australia; with the Philippines, even. We established a strategic relationship with India, which as it turns out has been very important in giving the Biden administration a platform with which to deal with a China that decided in 2012 and thereafter, when Xi Jinping came to power, that it wanted to go in a different direction.

Mr. Sanger: So I have a memory, Steve, of coming in to see you toward the end of the administration one day, and it was like the day or two after the Chinese had just done their first ASAT test, their anti-satellite test – a fairly crude test, but it was relatively successful in blowing up, I think, one of their own satellites and then, as I recall, spreading debris all over lower-Earth orbit. It wasn’t, perhaps, the most gracefully done. I think the same people who designed that must have done the balloon incident. But did that give you a different view of what China was looking like?

Mr. Hadley: I don’t have a great – I never had a great memory and it hasn’t improved with age. (Laughter.) So you can talk to Dennis and Victor about that.

My recollection is this. One, what they did was a direct-ascent assault on a satellite, which was not new and innovative technology. The Russians had had that capability for probably a decade. So technologically, it wasn’t a wakeup call.

Mr. Sanger: The wakeup call was that it was them doing it.

Mr. Hadley: Second, there was always a question under Hu Jintao is how much he knew what the military was doing, and so there was a question about whether they were surprised. So we decided – our response was to be – to really shine a spotlight on it, in some sense rally international opinion against what China had done because of the debris it put into the low-Earth orbit and because of the threat that debris represented to the global satellite system. And our thought was if we do that and if we make the point to the Chinese that they have stepped outside the bounds of the international system, it will be a lesson learned for them and they won’t do it again.

Mr. Sanger: How did that work out? (Laughs.)

Mr. Hadley: Well, it worked out actually pretty well because it didn’t disrupt the relationship. But what’s different now is here, 13, 14 years later, the Chinese have continued to work on anti-satellite capability, and the kinds of techniques they have developed now are cutting edge, state of the art, and a real threat to the system in a way that direct-ascent satellite interception really was not.

Mr. Sanger: Steve, since we will have Victor and Dennis up later on, there’s one other thing that the Chinese have done that’s radically different from your time. Obviously, you spent much of your career dealing with nuclear issues. During the entirety of the Bush administration, they were happy to sit with a minimum deterrent. Now, by the Pentagon’s own unclassified estimate, they’ll have roughly the number of deployed nuclear weapons that we have in 2035. I think their estimate is 1,500, probably have a thousand by the end of this decade. What do you think is behind this? What is it that makes Xi Jinping think that the strategy that worked pretty well from 1964, when they did their first test, until a few years ago now needs to be radically revised?

Mr. Hadley: I think it’s embedded in his overall view of the world, which is – has been, I think, for a while that the West is in decline, the United States is in terminal decline; as a Marxist would say, the correlation of forces favored China; and this is the moment for China to abandon Deng Xiaoping’s hide and bide, which isn’t really a reassuring idea if you think about it – it’s just building their power but hiding it for a while. Xi was prepared to put his power center stage and then to use it to intimidate his neighbors and others abroad with his enhanced diplomacy, economic strength, and military capability, and basically to put China at the center of the international stage. And part of being at the center of the international stage is having a big-time nuclear force comparable to the United States and Russia, and that’s what he’s decided to build.

A lot of these programs, as you know, were proceeding very slowly under prior presidents. He has accelerated them, he’s expanded them, and he’s clearly moved off of minimum deterrence.

Mr. Sanger: So there’s a moment at the end of the China memos where you’re sort of doing an assessment and you say: We don’t know what this is going to look like in 15 years, but we could have a very aggressive China –

Mr. Hadley: Right.

Mr. Sanger: – as one option. As you left office, what did you think the chances of that – if you had to put percentage chances on it, what did you think the chances were that they would move in the aggressive direction that we have since seen?

Mr. Hadley: Based on the presidents that we dealt with, I think that we would – we would – now, Dennis can answer for himself. I did not anticipate what Xi Jinping represents in terms of a shift in Chinese policy.

You know, a lot of people say, well, the roots of that shift were present during the Bush administration. And they would cite the fact that the Communist Party was still existent, the Communist Party was still writing these documents – very Cold War sort of style documents. But what we were seeing was a Chinese Communist Party that was very much in eclipse, that governmental institutions were taking more and more authority, that the ideology of the Communist Party really had no traction within the population particularly. And my view now – I’m not sure what it was at the time – is, you know, who leads countries really matters. And I think if China decided in 2012 for a Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao type leader, and we had had that leader for 2012 to 2022, I think China would be in a very different place today and America’s relationship with China would be very different today.

And I’d say one other thing. If we had not tried – while we did hedge our bet by strengthening alliances, if we had not tried to bring China into the international system – and as I say, I think for the reasons I described we thought it was a reasonable shot – we’d be having a debate right now about who lost China. And some people would be arguing, and I would be defending up here against David Sanger saying to me it was you aggressive Cold War Bush administration that did not see the opportunity presented by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and forced China into an adversarial relationship with the United States. That can’t be said.

Mr. Sanger: One last on this and then I’ll have a few other quick topics we want to hit before we turn it over to the panel. The opening foreign policy crisis for the Bush administration was the downing of the P-3. And my overwhelming memory of this period if your trying to get the Chinese government on the phone, Colin Powell tearing his hair out because no one would answer the phone. He had some vivid words on that later on.

Mr. Hadley: (Laughs.)

Mr. Sanger: And then you established – that led to some establishment or sort of hotline kind of communications things. Along comes the balloon incident that I referred to the other day, or as President Biden said to us in Japan on Sunday the silly sending of the balloon. I thought that was an interesting phrase to use for it. And again, they try all of these communications systems that really have their roots in what you set up, and no one answers the phone. And we are at that point, nearly 20 years out – more than 20 years out from the original incident, actually. What’s going on there? 

Mr. Hadley: So a couple things.

One, this was a collision between a hotdogging China fighter pilot and a U.S. surveillance aircraft that forced the aircraft down on Hainan Island, and the Chinese held the crew and held the airplane. And the question is, we wanted them both back in reverse order – crew first, airplane later.

Mr. Sanger: You got the airplane back. It was in a box about this big, as I recall. (Laughter.)

Mr. Hadley: Mini box. They gave it a good going over, as we would say. (Laughter.)

So there wasn’t really an established – we would coordinate that crisis every morning at 3:00 in the morning our time. Condi and Powell and Rumsfeld and I would get on the phone and talk about what we were going to do, and we would have the ambassador. And the ambassador who was a wonderful guy at the time, former Navy admiral, was working it in Beijing but not getting much traction. We decided the president needed to speak to Jiang Zemin, so we tried to get Jiang Zemin on the phone. Jiang Zemin was in Africa and refused to take the call for four or five days.

So what’s going on here? Well, one, we don’t have established channels that everybody recognizes if there is a confrontation this is the channel and this is the phone line that you use. So we got those.

But secondly, the Chinese government – and I think this changes under Hu Jintao and under Xi Jinping in one sense – it’s not internally organized to get prompt decisions in response to this. And part of the delay is they don’t know what to say. For example, I am told – and Dennis may know better – I’m told that one of the reasons why the U.S. secretary of defense couldn’t get in touch with his counterpart over the balloon incident was because if the minister of defense for China were to take Lloyd Austin’s call, it would be an admission that it was a military incident. And the Chinese view was it’s a civilian incident; it’s a weather balloon. Indeed, our intelligence, I’m told – I think we’ve said this publicly – that Xi Jinping still thinks it was a weather balloon and his people – (laughs) – don’t want to tell him otherwise. So part of the problem is there isn’t a good decision-making process within the Chinese government that is based on real, reliable, real-time information.

There is a third problem, which is why we don’t have protocols for de-escalation crises if U.S. aircraft and Chinese aircraft or ships get into it in the South China Sea, East China Sea, or the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese view is we shouldn’t be with our military forces in the East China Sea, South China Sea, and Taiwan Strait. And if they agree to communications channels and de-escalation protocols for how to avoid an incidence there, it in some sense acknowledges and justifies American military presence that they don’t think should be there at all.

So I thought that was a pretty good argument. So I talked to my colleague Condi Rice and I said: They make this argument. What should I say? (Laughs.) And she said, in a way that Condi would: Tell them the reason to have those things is if we don’t have them there’s a risk of the U.S. and China going to war, and that would be bad for China. I think that’s a pretty good answer.

Mr. Sanger: Last one, since I know we are getting close here on time. Or, actually, last two.

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff about where you left the relationship with Africa. The president, of course, had done a lot along the way – Millennium Challenge, which – Millennium Challenge, which I think may be one of the – one of the proudest foreign policy legacies of the Bush administration. When you go back and you read those today, you have a little bit of a sense of momentum lost across administrations; not just the Obama administration that followed, but the Trump administration and maybe you could even say the Biden administration. Why is that? Am I reading it right?

Mr. Hadley: Yes and no. Interestingly enough, there were three things that the Bush administration did. One, we resolved – helped the – helped the countries and regional organizations in Africa resolve six regional conference – conflicts that had killed hundreds of thousands and really ravaged economies; to set up, then, a new approach to development reflected in the Millennium Challenge Account, which was one of partnership rather than donor-donee relationship; and then, three, dealing with diseases – HIV/AIDS, malaria, and neglected tropical diseases that really threatened development and the middle class in Africa, and programs that have together saved more than 35 million lives. All of those programs have been continued under subsequent administrations despite all the tumult that has occurred during those administrations. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that America and Americans are pulling back from a global leadership role because there are a lot of problems and grievances they have here at home that need to be addressed, and they do need to be addressed. But I think the thing is the Americans are naturally isolationist; that is to say, their priority is things here at home, as well it should be. And so in that sense, America first isn’t nuts; it’s where Americans are.

If America is going to engage abroad and take major burdens abroad, whether it’s war or whether it’s something like HIV/AIDS, the president of the United States needs to explain why we should do it and why it benefits America here at home and makes America safer and more prosperous. That’s the job of the president, and President Bush did it over and over again. I think more recent presidents, for whatever reason, aren’t doing that.

And if I would make one suggestion to the Biden administration about your effort in Ukraine, I would say that President Biden has been very good about showing that we’re going to be steadfast in standing by Ukraine as long as it takes. But Ukraine doesn’t have as long as it takes in standing up against Russia. And what the president, I think, needs to do more of is explain to the American people why it is important to the American people, and to our safety and security here at home, for Ukraine to succeed against Russia in this terrible war.

Mr. Sanger: One last thing. Victor wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t ask you about this. But there’s a lot in the book about proliferation, and particularly about North Korea and Iran, two topics we talked about when you were in office. In both cases, you’d have to say, I think, that 15 years later we’re in dramatically worse place than we were then. And it didn’t look so hot at the time. I mean, just to remind, at the time when you were getting toward the end of the Bush administration, North Korea had, what, probably half a dozen or a dozen nuclear weapons. We didn’t know exactly the number. Today the low end of the estimates is probably 60. The South Koreans believe it may be up to 100.

You had done some things to set back the Iranian program. I wrote about a few of them, you may recall.

Mr. Hadley: We’re not going to talk about those things.

Mr. Sanger: Yeah. I suspect we won’t. We never have. (Laughs.) But today we’re in a position where the Iranians, just based on open source, have produced enough 60 percent enriched uranium that, by the administration’s public accounting, they would have enough for a crude weapon, not something that you could fit into a missile, within a matter of weeks, if they decided to go for it.

When you look back at where you left things, anything different that you feel now that you needed to do? Anything that you felt the Obama administration or the Trump administration that followed you missed a major opportunity for?

Mr. Hadley: So this is an area where, with respect to North Korea and Iran – and we have, I think, a good story to tell, which is told in the book, about counterproliferation more generally. But with respect to North Korea and Iran, this is a case where efforts by one, two, three, four, five administrations, across parties, are unblemished by sustainable success. It’s been a remarkable failure. I’ll talk about the Bush administration and explain why I think we ended up where we are. And Victor can comment on this.

So go back to 2001, ’2, and ’3. We go into Afghanistan with a few – 1,500 or so U.S. intelligence officers and special operations folks in the military to topple the Taliban government. March, April 2003, we toppled the Iraqi government in short order. Both of those wars were justified, in part, by preventing al-Qaida on one hand and Saddam Hussein on the other, from getting weapons of mass destruction. I would say, because of that, in that same timeframe, 2003, Gadhafi voluntarily comes forward and gives up his weapons of mass destruction program. And the Iranians, we know from intelligence, suspend their covert enrichment program and their covert weaponization program. Why? Because they thought they were going to be next with U.S. military power, which we put on display in Afghanistan, Iraq, with great effect.

They actually – North Korea gets the message. We enter into the six-party talks, of which Victor was a big part. And in September 2005, they enter into agreement where they give up their nuclear program altogether – both weaponization and their domestic nuclear program. And the EU-3 – Germany, France, and the U.K. – in 2004 get an agreement with the Iranians where they give up their nuclear program, both weapons and peaceful as well. So it looks like we’re on a roll and we’re going to roll up global proliferation and nuclear weapons.

What happens? I would say, my view, we get bogged down in Iraq. We get bogged down in Afghanistan. And the Iranians and the North Koreans decide that we have neither the capability nor the will to enforce the writ against proliferation. So Ahmadinejad –

Mr. Sanger: An accurate read of the room at that time.

Mr. Hadley: Ahmadinejad in 2005 becomes president in Iran. Says those people who negotiated the deal with the EU-3 are traitors, ought to be in jail, and gets Iran back in the nuclear program and the North Koreans over time walk away from the September 2005 deal. We lost our leverage and both fish got off the hook. I think that’s the grim tale of what happened. And, you know, President Bush, in a bold decision for the surge in Iraq, actually succeeds in turning around the war in Iraq, defeating al-Qaida in Iraq, and puts Iraq on a path for moving towards stability. But it comes too late. It comes too late. We’ve already lost the game with both the North Koreans and the Iranians. That’s how I see it.

Mr. Sanger: Well, we could do this all morning, and well into the afternoon. And have, at times. But we’ve got a great panel coming next. So, Steve, want to thank you for writing the book, for pushing through the declassification. For those of us who covered this, followed this history, are still writing about it, it’s an incredible contribution. And thank you all for joining the conversation.

Mr. Hadley: Thank you very much. (Applause.)