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Transcript: Tom Donilon and Stephen Hadley talk with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

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In this episode of "Intelligence Matters," host Michael Morell speaks with two former top White House officials – Stephen Hadley, national security adviser to President George W. Bush, and Tom Donilon, national security adviser to President Barack Obama – on the top national security and foreign policy threats likely to be faced by the next commander-in-chief. Donilon, Hadley and Morell discuss the U.S. strategy to engage with China from a diplomatic, economic, technological and military perspective. They exchange views on the way forward in nuclear talks with North Korea. They also evaluate options for dealing with Iran in the aftermath of the U.S. strike on General Qassem Soleimani. Donilon and Hadley stress the need for better communication and civic engagement among U.S. constituencies. 

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Excerpts

  • DONILON ON COUNTERING CHINA: "[W]e had moments when we thought we were actually in sort of technological competition with the Soviet Union. But we really never really were. We had an arms race, right? But in terms of the fundamentals of the society, this is a much more, much more direct challenge. And it's across a range of technologies which are going to be the technologies, the platforms, of the future, where first mover advantage will mean a lot, where really kind of taking leadership positions will mean a lot in terms of our security and our prosperity."

    HADLEY ON NORTH KOREA: "I would say to you one of the things I think the insight they had, and that President Trump had, which was right, was you're not going to solve this problem with a bottom-up, traditional arms control approach. We tried that three times. You're going to have to convince Kim Jung Un to make a strategic shift. And that's what the president was trying to do. And I think he's right about that. You can criticize the tactics all you want. But I think that insight that he's got to make a strategic shift to go in another direction if you're going to solve this problem is basically right. And the question is, 'Can we follow up on that?'"

    HADLEY ON IRAN: "The truth is you can't address effectively Iran's activities in the region at the negotiating table. You've got to address them on the ground. You have got to have strategies to check Iran. We had such a strategy in Syria late in the game, after we had allowed our position, quite frankly, to deteriorate considerably. We've had a difficulty pursuing and carrying that through. Iraq is a place, quite frankly, where the Iraqis have had enough of Iranian influence. It's time for Iran to reduce its influence in Iraq."

    DONILON ON TECHNOLOGICAL CHALLENGES: "[T]echnology needs to be constantly at the Situation Room table. We had, obviously, generations of policymakers in this country who haven't been as fluent in technology as the future policymakers are going to have to be. And if I were back reorganizing the National Security Council right now, I would have technology at the table. I'd have an Assistant to the President, Deputy National Secretary Advisor for Technology at the table every day, because we have all these issues at first impression, which are going to be really dominant going forward. You really can't manage national security, going forward, without having some more expertise and more fluency in technology than we've had to date."


INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - STEPHEN HADLEY & TOM DONILON

CORRESPONDENT: MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS, JAMIE BENSON, JON MILLER

MICHAEL MORELL:

Steve, Tom, welcome back to Intelligence Matters. It's great to have you back. It great to have you both together. I'm really looking forward to this conversation. Tom, to give credit where credit is due, it was your idea to get together some national security advisors at the start of the new year and have a conversation about national security and the challenges we face. Why did you suggest that?

TOM DONILON:

Yeah. Yeah. I suggested it because I think that the current president and the next president are going to face a really broad array of challenges in the national security and foreign policy area. You know, we're going through a period of significant change in the world. We've had a significant change in direction out of the Trump administration in terms of our approach to foreign policy.

And that the issue of the list of issues is long. The issues are, in national security, foreign policy, but also on the domestic side, I think, that affect foreign policy. So I thought it might be interesting to get together with former colleagues to talk about the full range of issues and how the next president, whether it's President Trump reelected or a Democratic president, might address those issues.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. And then Steve, I sent you a note saying Tom had this idea. And within five minutes, you came back and said, "Great idea. You know, count me in." Why did you-- so quick to say yes?

STEPHEN HADLEY:

We have a lot of discussion that is heavily politically charged and is about the political implications of whatever the issue is of the day.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

And I don't think there's enough discussion about the issues themselves, what's at stake for the country, and what we need to do if we are going to ensure the prosperity and security for the American people going forward. That's a conversation that's getting lost in all the politics. And I thought your show in particular was a way where we could showcase a bit of a more substantive discussion of what the issues are that are going to determine our future.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Great. So I have this kind of triangle concept of national security. I'm just going to run this by you guys. Which is, at one corner, you have the issues, whether it's China or Iran or North Korea, or whatever you want to put there. And there, the conversation's about objectives and strategy and tactics.

And at the other corner of the triangle are capabilities, our military capabilities, diplomatic capabilities, intelligence capabilities, to actually carry out those strategies and those tactics. And then, at the final corner of the triangle, you have sort of political will to actually do what we need to do overseas. So I want to, if it's okay, touch on each three of those corners as we go through this conversation for the next 40 minutes.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Mike, I think one of the things I would say that is new, really, in the last few years, is it's clear it's not a triangle, it's actually a four-cornered play. And the last corner is the communication and the American people and the domestic roots and domestic support for our foreign policy and national security.

I think there's an appreciation among national security types that the domestic element of having the support of the American people and whether we're addressing the problems here at home sufficiently so people feel comfortable playing the role that the United States has traditionally played in the world, that's another element that has to be addressed I think now, more urgently in a way that 10, 15 years ago probably it was a triangle, if you will, or a tripod. I think now we have to recognize there's a new fourth pillar to all of this.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Well, maybe this is where we should start, right?

TOM DONILON:

I think Steve's right about that. Because on the capability side, it's not just-- you know, we talk about the traditional capabilities, what are our military capabilities, what are our intelligence capabilities, what are our diplomatic capabilities. But I think it's also very important given the specific challenges we face, you have to talk about what our domestic capabilities are. Indeed, I think some of the most important things that we're going to be discussing in national security--

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Right.

TOM DONILON:

--in the next period is going to be what kind of investments are we making, for example, in meeting the China challenge in terms of research and development and our technology capabilities, what kind of investments are we making in terms of our infrastructure and our human capital? These are really pretty critical.

And most importantly, I think, what are we doing to make our system work better? So I agree with Steve, I think that it's kind of a new landscape here, and these domestic capabilities that give us the strength to project our values and interests into the world are really important.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

And I would say we need to start with those.

TOM DONILON:

Right.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Because if we step back and we've sort of been on a holiday for the last couple decades in many ways about the national security challenges we face, and really figure out what we need to do to get our economy going, to get our innovation cycle going, to, in some sense, get back to what-- put America in its preeminent position after the end of the Cold War.

If we get back to those things and have a robust domestic agenda, it will establish a platform, which will allow us to deal with whatever comes in, in the national security, foreign policy, whether it's China, whether it's Russia, whether it's something we haven't foreseen. Really, I think we have to understand that national security and foreign policy, your tripod, in some sense, is going to start with the platform on which that tripod rests, which is our domestic capabilities, political, economic, technological, you name it, and social cohesion.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Let me take both of those, all right? The communications piece to the American people, and then the foundation piece of everything that happens here domestically. And the communications question is how do we talk to the American people about the importance of the U.S. being engaged in the world?

When I travel around the country, people say to me things like, "Michael, why does it matter to me in Akron, Ohio, what Vladimir Putin does in Eastern Ukraine? Or why does it matter to me, Michael, in Des Moines, Iowa, what the Chinese are doing in the South China Sea?" How do we do a better job talking to the American people about why its so important for us to play a leadership role in the world?

TOM DONILON:

You've put your finger on a very important point. I think it's not just the communication problems. I think the elites, up until the election of President Trump, thought it was all just a communication problems. We're just not explaining to the American people well enough what is the-- why it redounds to America's prosperity and security to be active in the world.

I think after the Trump election, we realized that the problem was more fundamental. And I think there have been accumulated grievances over the ten years that led to the election of President Trump in 2016. People that feel victimized by globalization, threatened by immigration, abandoned by their politicians, betrayed by the elites.

I think you won't be able to have a successful conversation with Americans about America's role in the world unless you address these underlying grievances. Once you do that, once people get some confidence that the American dream still is real, that their children are going to have a more secure and prosperous life than they are, then you can begin to reengage the conversation about why the United States needs to be engaged in the world, and what values and principles we need to stand up for. I think, until you address these underlying grievances, I think that argument is going to be an uphill argument with the American people.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

I think we should engage in it, but I think we have to recognize that the platform has some cracks, and they need to be addressed. And then you can start your communications effort.

TOM DONILON:

You know, there are certainly obviously domestic challenges that have to be addressed. And it's a complicated thing, given the fast pace of change that the society and the world is facing. But I actually think that the American people, and if you look at the data, it shows this, really do understand the importance of United States' engagement in the world, really do want to have the United States have strong relationship with its allies, do understand that what happens in trade talks and dynamics around the world, actually impacts on their lives. And they for sure want to see the United States admired in the world.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So in terms of shoring up the domestic piece, is there investments that we need to make in AI or whatever it is? Is there a historical parallel to this? Or is this new territory?

TOM DONILON:

I think there's historical parallel. I think that, basically, there's kind of a-- in some ways, we've had a bit of amnesia about how we've gone about this in the past.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Right.

TOM DONILON:

You know, if you think about, for example, China, front page of the papers, the president's entering into a phase one trade agreement with China, we've been involved in this very difficult back and forth with China over the last couple of years on trade, but also, including broader issues, including technology and defense issues and geopolitical issues.

But what is the real way we can have an impact? Right? It basically would be investments here, and revitalizing our own ability to compete. There is a historical parallel to that. And it's in the period after World War II with the United States, led by the government, but in another triangle, right in kind of a triangle there, was the government and universities and private sector companies engaged in a determined effort to lead in technology.

And we were the beneficiaries of that for almost three quarters of a century. We have obviously a famous moment, right, the Sputnik moment, which is almost a cliché. But it had a really big impact in this country. And we haven't had a similar kind of moment in the fact of the Chinese challenge that we had in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Just for ten seconds. What happened?

We created, in a year after Sputnik, we created NASA. We have the Defense Education Act. We created ARPA, the forerunner of DARPA. We made investments in technology here that we basically lived off for a long time. And we haven't had that same kind of focus and a joint public/private effort that we had during the Sputnik period. So I do think there are historical parallels.

We have an American system, that triangle I described, I think which has been very successful. And we've let it languish, to some extent, including, by the way, serious reductions in the amount of money the government invests in basic R and D.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

We've also had, though, a political disaffection between the three pieces of the triangle.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

The U.S. government is not popular on university campuses these days. So that close connection between universities and government research is strained. We've had whole industries come of age. Initially, the telecommunications industry, and the computer industry, now in terms of social media and internet companies.

And they have all had to learn that, while they start in divine isolation where the United States government is the enemy, when they get to the point that they become critical infrastructure for this country, they suddenly become, whether they like it or not, national security players and national security assets. And they have responsibilities to the American people to work with the government, to work with universities, in that triangle.

Silicon Valley is learning that lesson. I think they went to the point of "the government is the enemy." I think you've seen some recent statements, for example, by Jeff Bezos, for example. And I think the head of Microsoft, said, "Of course we need to be working with the U.S. government. And if employees don't like it, they need to understand that's part of our responsibilities."

We need to move in that direction. We need to knit back that relationship between government, universities and business. Because it is innovation, in the end of the day, that is going to determine the American position, that platform with which we are going to deal with the problems of the 21st century.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So this is, you know, getting the platform right is a huge issue.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Huge.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right? Huge. It's going to be extraordinarily challenging to accomplish what you guys just walked through. Is it going to require a Sputnik-like moment? Or is it possible to get there a different way?

TOM DONILON:

Well, we should have the Sputnik moment, I think. I mean if you look, we've never really had-- Steve, you probably agree with this, we've never really had kind of the competitor we have in China right now.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

That's it. This is our Sputnik moment is China.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah. Yeah. And it's very different from the Soviet Union.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Right.

TOM DONILON:

Now, we had moments when we thought we were actually in sort of technological competition with the Soviet Union. But we really never really were. We had an arms race, right? But in terms of the fundamentals of the society, this is a much more, much more direct challenge. And it's across a range of technologies which are going to be the technologies, the platforms, of the future, where first mover advantage will mean a lot, where really kind of taking leadership positions will mean a lot in terms of our security and our prosperity. So we have that moment right now.

There really isn't any reason, Mike, I don't know what Steve would say to this, beyond political will, that we can't move forward. We can afford it. Indeed, I think that history will look back on this moment and ask us why, given the cost of money, which has been exceedingly low, right, for a long period of time, and continues to be quite low, why you haven't made investments in things that you know are going to have positive returns going forward?

So we have the resources. We should have the motivation. But we don't, at this point, have really kind of gotten ourselves organized around having the political will. And that's the thing that really is most concerning to me, which is this kind of system breakdown, this inability to do things which are really quite obviously in the national interest.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

I agree with Tom.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

We've known that we need to make infrastructure investments. We've known, actually, that we have a problem with Social Security. We've actually really known what to do about it. We know what we really need to do on immigration, seal the border, and then address the immigration issues at home.

We've known the solutions for these things for about 20 years. Our politics is broken and not producing those kind of outcomes, not solving problems. That's what we've got to do. We've been sort of on holiday. And the interesting thing about China is we've never faced a competitor that is as robust as China is politically, economically, diplomatically, soon, militarily, but also, a competitor with whom we are also intertwined in a series of relationships.

And I've said that the issue is: Can we be both strategic competitors and strategic cooperators with China at the same time? I don't think there are many historical parallels for something like that.

TOM DONILON:

No.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

That is the challenge about how we get to a peaceful and prosperous world for our people and for the Chinese people.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So what do you think our objectives should be with regards to our relationship with China? And then, the strategy that you would put together to achieve that?

STEPHEN HADLEY:

I think we have to figure out, for example, I'll give you just an example. In terms of the global infrastructure and technologies in which China clearly wants a dominant role, in which we want to also be players, because these artificial intelligence, quantum computing, autonomy, these are the technologies that are going to define how our societies are structured, how our militaries are structured.

MICHAEL MORELL: How our intelligence is structured.

STEPHEN HADLEY: How our intelligence is structured.

TOM DONILON: Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

So how are we going to manage this competition? I think one of the things we have to do is, one, get our own house in order. We need to get ourselves in a position so that we can compete. Two, I think we have to prioritize. We have to figure out those areas where we not only have to compete, but we have to win.

For example, digital infrastructure. We cannot permit China and Huawei to lay the digital infrastructure for the 21st century. There are too many vulnerabilities associated with that. So second, find out areas, prioritize areas where we really have to succeed.

Third, work with China and try and get it to embrace positive, global standards. Where they do, for example, an infrastructure, if they adopt global standards, build infrastructure that is fiscally, environmentally sustainable that benefits the countries in which it's built, let them have at it.

We should support them. We should cooperate with them.

I think that's the kind of analysis we have to get through. Put ourselves in a position to compete, figure out those areas of priority where we have to succeed, figure out terms by which we can cooperate with China and other areas. Because we have to recognize that a lot of the problems the world faces, whether it's environmental, management technology, whether it's proliferation, whether it's financial stability, an awful lot of problems cannot be solved if the United States and China, with the rest of the world, do not cooperate together.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah. You know, I think it's interesting. And just a comment just a minute on that. You know, D. Chollet had a phrase called "Situations of Strength," right? That you wanted to deal from when you're dealing with these problems. And that's essentially what we're talking about on the first instance, which is really building up the strength, the platforms we talked about at home, and making determinations about which areas are we going to lead in terms of technologies and the industries of the future going forward. The second thing is that we don't really have a strategic dialogue with the Chinese right now. We have a trade negotiation. And that's just not responsible, frankly--

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Right.

TOM DONILON:

--for the two most important countries in the world, who are going to be the most important countries for this century, not to have a broad discussion, to understand each other's intentions, to understand where each other's kind of concerns are, where their red lines are, and how you might engage in cooperative as well as competitive aspects.

The third piece of it, from my perspective, is allies. And I think we have really underplayed the role of allies in all these situations we've talked about, whether it be China or North Korea or Russia. Not investing more in allied Iran, investing more in allied approaches, has really, I think, hurt us badly. And if I were the next president, I think it needs to be a really important focus.

And last is the importance of values. This is a strength for the United States around the world, right? It has been one of the reasons where we've been seen as a kind of attractive power that we've been seeing for the last 75 years. And we've lost the bead, I think, on this values leadership.

So those kind of situations of strength kind of in a strategic way, along with a strategic dialogue with China, I think is the way to go. But we have to-- this can't just be a trade negotiation, right, between the United States and China. That's not a responsible. It's important. It's a necessary thing to do. We need to protect ourselves in the economic world. We need to protect our workers and businesses. We need to get fair play. But that's not the whole story. It's not even near the whole story.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

And recently there's been press reports that we are going to open a resumption of what was called "the strategic economic dialogue," and that Treasury Secretary Mnuchin's going to lead it. And that's a good development. But at least in the Bush administration and even more so in the Obama administration, it was broadened.

It was not just economic. And under the Bush administration, co-chaired by the Secretary of State and Secretary Defense, to do both diplomacy and economic. And in the Obama administration, they added explicitly a security leg, as well, and a security aspect to that dialogue. That's the kind of robust, full-spectrum conversation we need to have with the Chinese. That's what Tom's talking about.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

And he's absolutely right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Underscore Tom's point about allies.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Because history's pretty clear that the Chinese do respond when a coalition of nations says something clearly to them.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And that's missing at the moment.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And I think that's the way you ultimately get them to play by the set of rules that we all want to get them to play by.

TOM DONILON:

I think that's right. And in almost all these areas, including China, Mike, I think you're right. And that is the history, that when you have an opportunity to present kind of a set of factors to the Chinese, where they-- a unified global approach, you have a much better chance, I think, at getting a better result. We had that with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, I think, for example.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

There's a book that Bob Blackwell and Graham Allison wrote about some conversations they had with Lee Kuan Yew, as the founder of Singapore. And they asked him whether Chinese wants to displace the United States at the top of the world order. And I'm going to get this wrong, but the gist of it is right. And Lee Kuan Yew said, "Sure. Why not?"

And they asked him, "Well, do you think they'll succeed?" And Lee Kuan Yew thought about it for a while, apparently said, "No, but they'll give you a run for your money." And why won't they succeed? And he said, "Well, because they will draw from a population of 1.3 million and you will draw from the rest of the world."

And that's an important, you know, message, about allies. It's an important message about immigration. It's important a message about values. That's our strength. And what Tom is saying is, right now we're not playing to our strengths. And that's what we need to get back to.

TOM DONILON:

Step back, Mike, and think about, kind of look at the globe kind of geo-strategically, and think about the potential platform, both economically and politically, that the United States can muster, right, in order to pursue the goals it has for how we think a fair international political and economic order should run. And we're just not taking advantage of that, the platform that we have access to on that we

could lead.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So let's stay in the same neighborhood but move on to North Korea. We discovered the North Korea nuclear weapons program in the early 1990s. And not a single administration since then has figured out a way to stop the program or even to slow it down. So how do we deal with North Korea? What approach makes sense to you guys?

TOM DONILON:

Well, Steve, go first, because I'm going to disagree with your premise. But why don't you go ahead.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Okay. I would say we've had--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Not the first time.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

We've had three administrations: Clinton, Bush, 43 and Obama, that got deals with North Korea in which they agreed to give up all or a portion of their nuclear program. And none of the three administrations were able to keep the North Koreans in the deal. And there are all kinds of reasons, all a lot of blame to go around. But that's the reality.

And I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that they're not going to give up their nuclear program in the short run. And what we really need to do is we need to be prepared not to accept the legitimacy of that program, but we have to, with our allies in the region, prepare to be able to deter their use of that program and to defend against it if it's used, and not just defend the homeland the United States, but to defend our friends and allies.

And if we take that position and make it absolutely clear to the North Koreans that they get no leverage out of their program, and instead, will live in splendid isolation in what is really one of the most backward regimes in the world, it may be, at some point, they will begin to try to move in a different direction.

But I think one of the things the Trump administration got right is, unless the North Koreans make a strategic decision to move in a different direction, to really give up this reliance on the military, on the nuclear weapon, an to reform their system, to become part of the international community, to open up the way China opened up 40, 45 years ago, I just don't see we're going to make any progress on this issue.

So I don't think we concede it. I think we have our objective over the long term for a denuclearized North Korea. We have to recognize it's going to be a long way and take the necessary measures to both defend and protect our friends and allies in the interim, and put the kind of framework in place that, at some point, may cause North Korea to make that kind of strategic decision.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So does that mean you would not negotiate an arms control agreement with them?

STEPHEN HADLEY:

I don't think--

MICHAEL MORELL:

That's accepting the program, to some extent.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

If you could get some kind of agreement that could show it was a step towards and progress towards capping or beginning to wind down that program, I would consider it. But at this point, that's not on offer.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

The administration has made, I've talked to the folks even, Steve Biegun in particular. They have a very sensible approach. North Koreans are not playing. They're not playing.

TOM DONILON:

It's interesting. I think, I mean if you could achieve an arms control cap at some point during the pendency of negotiations, that's a step. I think that will be a positive thing to do. Why do I think that? A couple points.

One is I think that the administration, at the outset, was on the right track in terms of the maximum pressure campaign. I do. And I think that they gave it up too early for the Singapore Summit in June of 2018, without getting enough in terms of the protections, in terms of growing the program during the pendency of the negotiations. I think that was a mistake.

Of course that summit, and we're trying not to be political here, but I mean it's a fair assessment, I think, analytically, that summit was agreed to impulsively when you had, in March of that year, a South Korea delegation at the White House, suggesting to the president that Kim Jung Un may be willing to meet with him. So I think that we took our foot off the pedal, I think, too early, and didn't get enough for it.

The second thing is that there's a dangerous analytical mistake I think we're making here. Steve alluded to it. Which is that, you know, the president has said on a number of occasions, "I'm not worried about time. You know, I'm not in a hurry." Right? That's analytically incorrect. Right?

Why is it in incorrect? Because although there really hasn't been an ICDM test or a nuclear test during the pendency of these on and off conversations, the program is proceeding apace. And it proceeds in, of course, a range of dimensions in which outside experts, right, indicates that they really could be building up enough material for additional weapons.

Why do the numbers matter? The numbers matter from a perspective of proliferation, protection of our allies, and a matter in terms of missile defense. So I think that's an analytical error. So if there's going to be negotiations, they need to take place during a period where you have some sort of interim agreement on capping, on capping activity. I think that's been a mistake here. Now, in history, you said that you didn't think that--

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah, right?

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Yeah, yeah.

TOM DONILON:

You said that you didn't. And Steve and I are going to disagree on this. But I'll-- we did have a period from 1994 until the early 2000s, and under the agreed framework, where, in fact, at least the plutonium aspects of the program in North Korea were frozen. And then the Bush administration discovered that there were other activities going on, and the agreed framework fell part, we walked away from it, they walked away from it.

The question presented is a really interesting kind of-- it's a broader question. And the broader question is: If you find violations of an agreement, do you keep the core agreement and move on to try to adjust the additional violations or do you pull back from the whole thing? We faced a similar thing in Iran, I think, that we're going through right now. It's an interesting-- it's a statecraft question.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Yeah.

TOM DONILON:

And it's an interesting question.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

The problem is, it's one thing if you get a half a loaf and they don't want to give you the other half, do you accept the half a loaf? The problem with North Korea in that situation is they committed to giving up all of their nuclear programs, only disclose the reprocessing, which is one path to a nuclear weapon, failed to disclose that they were pursuing an enrichment program, which is another path to a nuclear weapon.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right, right.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

And so what is the penalty when a person denies to you, and how credibly can you continue to deal with them?

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. What they did in that case is they tore down the old Yankee Stadium only after they built the new Yankee Stadium.

TOM DONILON:

Exactly.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Yeah. I think one of the things we have to say, Tom and I represent now, between us, three administrations which failed to be able to keep North Korea in a nuclear agreement.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

And it has to make us a little bit, I think, chastened before we criticize the Trump administration. I would say to you one of the things I think the insight they had, and that President Trump had, which was right, was you're not going to solve this problem with a bottom-up, traditional arms control approach. We tried that three times.

You're going to have to convince Kim Jung Un to make a strategic shift. And that's what the president was trying to do. And I think he's right about that. You can criticize the tactics all you want. But I think that insight that he's got to make a strategic shift to go in another direction if you're going to solve this problem is basically right. And the question is, "Can we follow up on that?"

TOM DONILON:

That's fair. And he hasn't made that decision.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

He hasn't.

TOM DONILON:

He has not. There has not been a strategic-- and Steve Biegun has spoken about that, and the president's special representative now, Deputy Secretary of State, has been clear about that, they haven't made the strategic decision. But I do think it's an-- I do think that the pressure campaign was pulled back too quickly. I think you couldn't have gotten to it, put a lot more pressure on them.

And I do think that we should be careful about our assessments and our statements saying that we don't worry about time progressing here. Because time is not our friend here. Now, we may have to get to the point where Steve said, which is basically that we've got to be able to, and we should be doing this anyway--

STEPHEN HADLEY:

We should.

TOM DONILON:

--be able to address whether a program here, which is a real threat, and build up our defenses for ourselves and our allies. But I just think that analytical error is a serious one, and not one the president should continue to repeat.

MICHAEL MORELL:

As unorthodox as it was, the one aspect of the president's approach that I liked, and I get the strategic point, was, I don't know if there was an understanding or not, but it is hard to overstate the degree of distrust, on the North Korean side, of us.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And it's impossible, I think, for them to make a strategic decision without a building up of trust. And in that society, it is impossible for that to happen at lower levels. It's got to happen at the top.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Exactly right. Exactly right.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So Steve, Tom, you mentioned proliferation.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And I want to ask: How do we deter North Korea selling a nuclear weapon? They have sold everything they have ever made, including nuclear technology, to the Syrians. They've sold everything they ever made. It's pretty easy to see how we deter use. How do we deter a sale of a nuclear device?

STEPHEN HADLEY:

It's tough.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

If you read Vice President Cheney's memoir of his time in the administration, probably the whole last third of it is devoted to this issue. And he was of the view that that is the central problem, and that because North Korea actually worked with the Syrians to build a reactor, which was in Syria, which was to provide nuclear material for Syria for, ultimately, a bomb, we should have retaliated against North Korea to make the point that you cannot sell.

The counterargument was: We didn't only want North Korea not to sell, we wanted North Korea to give it up. And we were in the process, in the middle of a process, that we thought offered that prospect. Because the only way our friends and allies are going to be comfortable in the region is not if North Korea just doesn't sell. They're only going to be comfortable if North Korea, in the end of the day, doesn't have it in the first place.

So this is a difficult issue. And I think one you deter by denial. That is to say you have your intelligence. When you have an opportunity to show that they've sold, you whack the person who's bought, you destroy the capability, and you hold them up to sanction. I think you do sanction. I think that would be a good grounds to return to the maximum pressure campaign.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

In some sense, you almost wish North Korea would make that mistake. Because it would allow the international community then to come back together to further isolated, diplomatically impose sanctions, which is an element, I think, of what our policy needs to be.

So I think that's where I would go. Rallying the world in the event there is proliferation, rallying the world to re-impose isolation and sanctions on North Korea. It's a much trickier proposition to threaten use of military force in retaliation for a proliferation incident.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah, would be a basis for global maximum pressure campaign. And I think we need to make that clear to our partners in this process, meaning the Chinese.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Right.

TOM DONILON:

But that would be a basis on which we would engage in global sanctions to the point of embargo, including sanctioning Chinese participation in North Korean economic activity.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Okay, so let's shift west to Iran. And I don't want get into the details of this Soleimani strike and the aftermath. I really want to try to keep this in kind of the 20,000, 25,000-foot level. But two fundamental issues here, right? Nuclear weapons, malign behavior in the region. What's the best approach to dealing with them, given where we are now, right? We've pulled out of the JCPOA. Let's not debate that. Let's talk about where we go from here, what makes the most sense.

TOM DONILON:

Well, I can start, if you want.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Sure.

TOM DONILON:

I think I'd add a couple, Mike, to the core interests that the United States has, I think. Obviously, you know, a central concern of the United States over the course of both the administration Steve worked in and the administration I worked in, was Iran's nuclear program. And we worked our way to the point where we froze it and rolled it back through the nuclear deal. Remember, and this was the overwhelming focus of U.S. policy in terms of our interest and the threat that it presented to the United States. That's the first point.

The second point, obviously, Iran's malign behavior in the region. But I'd add to that ISIS, as well. That's a core concern for the United States. It begin, again, over the last two administrations, the Obama administration into the Trump administration. And that's been damaged, I think, in the last couple of weeks.

I mean the model that was put together initially in the Obama administration, and then carried over by Secretary Mattis into the Trump administration, was a very effective model in terms of kind of disestablishing the caliphate and putting continued pressure on ISIS, with, by the way, kind of a modicum of U.S. forces, right? Not a mass force, but a very effective and well-conceived force.

And I do worry that that core interest, that, second core interest, in additional to the nuclear program, has been diminished here. So we'll see if we can that reestablished. I hope we can. That was also, by the way, harmed, to some extent, by the pullout from northeastern Syria, as well.

So I'd look at this by trying to keep an eye on our core interests, which, in my view, are, really in terms of U.S. interests, are the nuclear program, the threat from ISIS, and then the stability of Iraq, which I do think we have an interest in. That would be the list that I would have and keep in mind if I were developing policy.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

People have forgotten, but the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement negotiated during the Obama administration, was the second agreement, nuclear agreement, with Iran. There was an agreement negotiated by the EU3, which was Britain, France and Germany.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

In 2004 and 2005. In which Iran agreed to give up enrichment, to give up reprocessing, which would have insured that they did not have a route to a nuclear weapon at all. And politics got in the way. Ahmadinejad was a candidate for president in 2005. He campaigned on a platform that the nuclear agreement that had been entered into by Iran was a mistake, that it gave up the birthright of Iran for nuclear weapons, that the place, the Iranians, who negotiated that, were traitors who should go to prison. And when he was elected president, through the intervention of the Supreme Leader, I might add, he took Iran out of that agreement and resumed their nuclear program.

The complaints against the JCPOA really, in my view, were twofold. One, it did not involve the kind of comprehensive giving up of reprocessing enrichment and therefore, could not assure that Iran would not get a nuclear weapon. You can argue whether half a loaf, again, half a loaf was better than the whole loaf.

What I pleaded with Obama administration officials, not Tom, I would point out, was, "Don't just do the nuclear deal, have a parallel negotiation where you address the ballistic missiles and Iranian activity in the region. And when you roll out your nuclear deal, make it part of an overall strategy for dealing with all three aspects of Iranian behavior."

That, without that, it was going to make it very difficult to maintain the nuclear agreement. Unfortunately, that is what happened. I think the Trump administration is genuine in its desire to return to negotiations at some point, and try to address not only improving the nuclear deal, but address the ballistic missile program, and Iran's activity in the region.

The truth is you can't address effectively Iran's activities in the region at the negotiating table. You've got to address them on the ground. You have got to have strategies to check Iran. We had such a strategy in Syria late in the game, after we had allowed our position, quite frankly, to deteriorate considerably. We've had a difficulty pursuing and carrying that through.

Iraq is a place, quite frankly, where the Iraqis have had enough of Iranian influence. It's time for Iran to reduce its influence in Iraq.

That's the effort we need to make. We need to make efforts on the ground to help countries and help people resist external influence, which, in this case, is Iran, and which is not benefiting them but it benefiting only Iran.

TOM DONILON:

You know, it's interesting. But it does go back to your point earlier, Michael, about allies and partners. I think the right approach here, and Steve and I talked about it many times, the right approach from my perspective would have been to keep the JCPOA in place, and then to immediately move to a set of follow-on negotiations.

Why is that? One, because you did have, for some period of time, a freeze and a rollback of the program number one. But number two, we had in place at that point an anti-Iran or a counter-Iran coalition which could have been used in a negotiation, I think, to more effectively deal with some of the problems.

And I think that essentially I think what the Trump administration would want to get back to, ultimately, which would be to have a baseline agreement with respect to the nuclear program and then move on to a negotiation around these activities. Unfortunately, we've paid a price with respect to the European allies, for sure. I think that's analytically correct. And we've paid a price with respect to other partners who could have been on the other side of the table in pushing those negotiations going forward.

But I'll go back where I started. It is really important for us, though, to keep in mind core interests and not get distracted. And the core interests are the nuclear program and its progress and the ISIS threat.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Did the Bush administration or the Obama administration ever consider taking out Soleimani? I don't remember.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

I don't remember any formal consideration of taking out Soleimani. And I noticed that Stan McChrystal wrote an articles in the winter issue of Foreign Policy saying that, in January of 2007, he was tracking a convoy heading towards Erbil in which Soleimani was a passenger. And he thought about whether to take him out at that point, decided not to. I don't remember that incident. I may be wrong. Others of my colleagues may remember it. I don't remember that.

TOM DONILON:

I don't remember it, either.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Coming to the White House, either, before, during or after he was considering that. I think it was a ground level activity.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

We were worried about what Iran was doing. We wanted to send Iran a message to knock it off in terms of their attacks on our men and women in uniform in Iraq. We were able to, you may remember, arrest --

MICHAEL MORELL:

We did.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

--and detail some Quds Force members.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Not very long, right?

STEPHEN HADLEY:

To send that message that, "WE know who you are. We know where you are. And we can reach you." I hope that message, I think that message had some effect. Unfortunately, the Iraqi Prime Minister intervened and forced us to let them go.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

But that's the kind of thing I remember doing. I don't remember formal contemplation about going after Soleimani.

TOM DONILON:

We had, obviously, during the latter years of the Iraq War, had a lot of back and forth with the Shia militias. And-- really kind of vicious back and forth with the Shia militias and inside Iraq. I don't recall a project along the lines that you're talking about.

But it is interesting, though that, I don't know that there was any serious attacks on U.S. forces inside Iraq from around the end of 2011 until this past fall. It's an interesting-- and we can discuss the reasons why. But it's interesting.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Interesting.

TOM DONILON:

It's a very interesting point. And there's a lot of reasons for it. But I do think that that was that period where you didn't have those kinds of sharp attacks from Iranian-backed and directed Shia militias inside Iraq for that period.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

And that's a terribly important point. Because what's really going on, and what I think a lot of people have missed, is that, in the fall, there were demonstrations in Iraq by even Shia Iraqis, against Iran, saying, "Out, out, Iran." And it's pretty clear that Soleimani, working with Kataib Hezbollah, which is one of the Iranian-backed militias, decided it was time to change the subject.

And so they started attacked bases in which U.S. personnel were present. And it happened over a period of two months and finally resulted in a U.S. contractor being killed and four American service people being wounded. And that began the process of action and reaction between the United States and Iran. But it was a calculated effort to try to change the conversation.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

People would say, "Well, by striking Kaitab Hezbollah, by killing Soleimani, we played into their hand." That may be true, but you can't stand by and let them resume killing our people on the ground.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah. Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

And so what the administration, I think, tried to do, in a bold move by killing Soleimani, was to up the stakes and send a message to reestablish deterrence that we are prepared to, "If you kill Americans, you are going to pay a heavy price."

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

And I think that's what the administration was trying to do. You can argue about the consequences and all the rest.

MICHAEL MORELL:

We went right to the top of the escalatory ladder there.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah. But it was a--

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Well, we did not hit targets in Iran. There is a lot left on that escalatory ladder.

TOM DONILON:

Although this was a near run thing.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

And it's very interesting that Pompeo made the comment that, "If the Iranians do retaliate in a way that kills Americans, we won't just hit them in Iraq, we will be looking at targets in Iran." So I think was an effort precisely for the reason Tom said, in a calculated way, they started going after our people again. And the administration was trying to reestablish deterrence and get the Iranians to knock it off. 

TOM DONILON:

Yeah. It's an interesting point, though. Because I chose a couple things. Number one, there was a period from really January of 2012 until October of 2019, where you didn't have those kinds of Shia militia attacks on U.S. interests. It also shows, by the way, the direct control that Iran has over these Shia militias, which was basically part of their response to the maximum pressure campaign.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Right.

TOM DONILON:

And they had direct control over the tactics and the targets that these militia groups undertook.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So let me ask one more question. We're running short on time. What should we have talked about that we didn't?

STEPHEN HADLEY:

I think it's hard to overstate the potential impact that technology is going to have on all these issues. On the domestic platform we talked about, on which our foreign policy is going to be based, on the military competition that you're going to see between the United States, China and Russia, on the capacities of non-state actors like terrorist groups, and I think also on state to state relations.

So I think one of the great areas where the new administration or the continuation of the Trump administration, one of the issues for the 2020s is going to be the issue of technology. And interestingly enough, the consequences of it domestically in terms of our own economies and our workforce and all the rest, are going to be both the negative and the potentials for artificial intelligence to improve everything from medical exams to how you hail a cab. There are positives and downsides.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

And these are an area where even the United States and China, despite their disagreements in other sectors, this is an area where we should be working with China and other countries to try to identify how we're going to manage the diseconomies of technological change. And how are we going to exploit the opportunities they present? So this is one of these examples where China is a problem we have to manage, but also an opportunity to help us deal with problems that we face in common.

TOM DONILON:

You know Michael, technology needs to be constantly at the Situation Room table. We had, obviously, generations of policymakers in this country who haven't been as fluent in technology as the future policymakers are going to have to be. And if I were back reorganizing the National Security Council right now, I would have technology at the table. I'd have an Assistant to the President, Deputy National Secretary Advisor for Technology at the table every day, because we have all these issues at first impression, which are going to be really dominant going forward. You really can't manage national security, going forward, without having some more expertise and more fluency in technology than we've had to date.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

One other issue, we talk about a whole of government, how do you mobilize the government pursuant to a common strategy to achieve a common objective. A lot of these problems you need not just government, you need whole of society.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

You need the business community. You need the NGO community. You need the universities. One of the real challenges for the National Secretary Advisor of the 2020s is how do you have not only a whole-of-government strategy, hard enough, how do you mobilize a whole-of-society strategy in dealing with some of these problems?

TOM DONILON:

Yeah. You know, Michael, we haven't talked about the private companies, right, in this conversation? And I just conclude with a couple of things from my perspective. There really needs to be a serious conversation about the responsibility of the private sector companies and the technologies they've brought to bear. 

You know, we talked earlier about past eras, right? The most important advocates with respect to arms control and understanding the impact of the atomic weaponry were the developers of atomic weaponry, where they took responsibility for the societal impact of the technologies that they had brought to bear. That's a really important point going forward.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Yep.

TOM DONILON:

Last is cyber. I'm concerned going into this year about cyber for a few reasons. We're going to have an impact on the 2020 election. We know that the Russians and others are going to come and try to disrupt again. Second, we know that we are now increasing tensions with cyber capable adversaries, not just Russia, but including North Korea and Iran.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Yeah.

TOM DONILON:

We have technologies that are developing, we're moving towards a revolution in deception in terms of technologies. We've seen a rise in ransomware against weak links of states and local areas. We saw stories recently about the vulnerabilities of cloud services. And we have a massive expansion of IOT devices, which are going to--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Internet of Things.

TOM DONILON:

Internet of Things, which are going to present challenges. We have really not even come close to having the all-of-government focus we need, I think, on cyber security and on technology.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Much less all of society.

TOM DONILON:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Thank you both very much. Tom Donilon, National Security Advisor to President Obama, Steve Hadley, National Security Advisor to George W. Bush, thank you both.

TOM DONILON:

Thanks, Michael.

STEPHEN HADLEY:

Thank you.

* * *END OF TRANSCRIPT* * *

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