In March 1999, John Hillen testified before the House of Representatives' Committee on Armed Services. "It is well worth thinking now about how to handle an Iraq on the brink of developing nuclear weapons," said Hillen, then a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "A pre-emptive invasion of Iraq might then be our least-worst course of action."
However, he cautioned, "We would be stuck with a basket case of a country."
"I supported taking action and still do," Hillen said by phone from his office at American Management Systems in Fairfax, Virginia. He is now senior vice president for the information-technology company's defense and intelligence unit.
Hillen is "one of the leading younger defense policy intellectuals in the Republican camp," says Duke political scientist Peter Feaver. "If Bush were to win in 2004, you'd expect he would be positioned to take a post."
"It's possible, it's possible," admits Hillen, who says he has long aspired to become assistant secretary of defense. "I certainly intend to serve again in my career as a public servant."
A self-described "true-blue conservative," with a contributing-editor position at the National Review to prove it, Hillen insists he's also a "committed internationalist" who could work in a Democratic or Republican administration.
His credentials could certainly cross the aisle: a Bronze Star from the Army for bravery in the Battle of 73 Easting in the Gulf War; a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of Oxford; a pair of defense policy books (Blue Helmets and Future Visions for U.S. Defense Policy); an appointment on the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission, charged by Congress with examining national security in the twenty-first century; a stint as a campaign speechwriter for then-governor George W. Bush; a short list of think-tank positions; and a long list of media appearances--ABC, PBS, NPR, The New York Times, and Foreign Affairs, to name a few.
American defense has been more than an intellectual exercise for Hillen, who also earned a master's degree at the University of London. Aside from his combat experience in the Gulf War, he also served four years in the Army Reserve as a civil-affairs officer, deploying with Special Operations units on confidential missions in developing countries. As a member (the youngest) of the Hart-Rudman Commission, he traveled to politically unstable parts of the world to interview prime ministers, scholars, and dissidents about "those things that were changing the national security, [and the] economic and political calculuses of societies in the world."
The first conclusion in the commission's 1999 report read, "America will become increasingly vulnerable to hostile attack on our homeland, and our military superiority will not entirely protect us." Two years later on September 11, Hillen was evacuated by ferry from his lower Manhattan office. He says he recalls, "Looking at the ruins of the World Trade Center, and the whole place covered in soot and everything, and just thinking, 'Boy, this is the world we had talked about.' "
His decision not to pursue a government position in 2000 was strategic, says Hillen, a husband and a father of two young boys. "I decided if I wanted to be a good and honest public servant down the road and be able to walk away on my terms, then I would need the financial wherewithal to be independent," he says.
"Wherewithal" came pouring in after he joined the Island ECN electronic brokerage firm as chief operating officer, then took a buyout when the company was sold in 2001.
In considering a move into government, Hillen says that he's less concerned with a job's title than with who his boss would be. "Colin Powell is still the most impressive person I've ever met," he says. Richard Armitage, Robert Zoellick, and Paul Wolfowitz are among others in government who command his confidence.
It's Wolfowitz's job--assistant secretary of defense--that Hillen ultimately wants. "I've trained my whole life for it," he says. "I've trained my whole life, body and soul."