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Ep. 146 Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama

Stephen J. Hadley served as deputy national security advisor, and then national security advisor to President George W. Bush. He recently edited a new book, along with Duke professor Peter Feaver and others, Hand-Off: The Foreign Policy George W. Bush Passed to Barack Obama.

The book is a collection of the national security and foreign policy memos that were prepared for the transition between the Bush and Obama administrations. The memos are now declassified and are made public in this book for the very first time, along with detailed post scripts from the original memo writers.

Stephen Hadley was on Duke’s campus for the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy Ambassador Dave and Kay Phillips Family International Lecture Series and he spoke with guest host David Schanzer. Schanzer is a professor in the Duke Sanford School of Public Policy. He also leads the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.

Conversation Highlights

Responses have been edited for clarity.

On why transition memos are needed

So my experience with transitions began in the transition from President Ford to President Carter, and my recollection of it is as follows: I was one of only three or four people asked to stay over into the Carter administration. The last day that I was serving the Ford administration, I checked out of my office and all my safes were locked and the safes had all kinds of documents in them that I’d been using over the last three or four years to manage the issues that were in my keeping.

And I closed the office door. The next morning I came in, [it was] the first day of the Carter administration; all those documents were gone and all the safes were empty because they were presidential documents and they were headed for the Gerald Ford Presidential Library. (There were only three or four of us who had been asked to stay on. All the rest of the staff was fired.) And my recollection is there were no communications between incoming and outgoing staffs and no memorandum to tell the incoming group what was going on. That did not seem to be a good way to assist the incoming administration to be able quickly to exercise their responsibilities.

On the particular vulnerability of a presidential transition

Stephen Hadley (right) with guest host David Schanzer

Transitions are vulnerable times because there is there is a temptation [with] both friends and allies to assume that during a transition, America is distracted, which makes our friends nervous and is a potential opportunity for our adversaries.

And, particularly if you’re in the middle of ongoing military operations, as we were [with] the transition from President Bush to President Obama — these are perilous times and there needs to be continuity. And that’s really what we tried to do under the direction of both President Bush and President Obama. President Bush said to Josh Bolten, his chief of staff, “I want this to be the best presidential transition in history.”

In retrospect, was some of what was done in the Bush administration a mistake? (For example, Guantanamo Bay)

Every president since and including George W Bush, has said they wanted to close Guantanamo. Even Barack Obama, who campaigned against Guantanamo. And yet, under the Bush, Obama, Trump and Biden administrations, no one’s been able to do it because there’s still 30 bad guys down there that countries do not want to take back (even though they are their citizens) and we don’t want to let free. So it’s one of the dilemmas. It’s not a badge of honor for the country. On the other hand, you had four administrations from two different parties committed to trying to get rid of it and not being able to close it down. [And] the interrogation program, look, the kinds of things that went on in Abu Ghraib were unacceptable; they stained our country and stained our administration. 

Doesn’t Iraq today have worse problems because we were there? (Ie terrorism and Iran?)

I think we’ve forgotten a lot of the history on Iraq. And obviously I was part of those decisions, so I may have a biased view, but there’s an [idea] that we we went into Iraq to spread democracy out of the barrel of a gun. It was not true. We went into Iraq because 17 U.N. Security Council resolutions said that Saddam Hussein had pursued weapons of mass destruction, supported terror, terrorized his people, invaded his neighbors, and that he had to stop. So it was national security considerations …

Where is Iraq today? You know, if you think what the Iraqi people have been through: decades of brutal rule by Saddam Hussein, the dislocation of the war in 2003, our failure to stabilize it between 2003 and 2007, the invasion of ISIS, the problems of climate change, the problems of a meddling neighbor in terms of Iran, the problems of volatility in oil prices — the remarkable thing is that the country has still hung together.

It has had now seven peaceful elections and peaceful transition of power. Admittedly, the Iraqis are getting disappointed and disillusioned with their democracy in terms of participation rates in those elections, but it is holding together. And I think that there is still a chance that Iraq will be what we had hoped it would be, and what the Iraqis in the immediate aftermath in 2003 hoped it would be, which is a place where Sunni, Shia, Kurds and other minority groups can work together for a common future in peace with their neighbors, and part of — a respected member of the international community. So I haven’t given up on Iraq. A lot of suffering, a lot of mistakes along the way, but I think there’s something there for the Iraqis to work with, and they’re trying to build their future.