The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security

By Bat Sparrow

Hours after Iraqi armed forces invaded Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990, Brent Scowcroft, who was national security advisor at the time, decided that the United States could not let Iraq occupy Kuwait. Scowcroft came to this conclusion before President George H.W. Bush did, before Defense Secretary Cheney had made a decision, and before Secretary of State James Baker realized that it would take the use of force to evict Iraq from Kuwait. Scowcroft persuaded President Bush of what had to be done, over the objections of others in the White House, the resistance of some in the military — still recovering from Vietnam — the opposition of many in Congress, and reservations on the part of much of the public. But Scowcroft’s and the President’s views prevailed, and the rest is history.

Months after Sept. 11, 2001, as the younger President Bush, the Vice President, and the rest of his administration were gearing up for war against Iraq, as most members of Congress and almost all Republicans were calling for war, and as the media and much of the American public favored attack- ing Iraq, there was one prominent dissenting voice. In an op- ed piece in the Wall Street Journal of Aug. 15, 2002, entitled “Don’t Attack Iraq,” Scowcroft protested the administration’s plans for war. An invasion would be costly, disastrous for a number of reasons, and premature; the United States should wait for definitive proof of Saddam’s wrongdoing before taking action. The op-ed piece made Scowcroft, a respected and prominent foreign policy expert, a persona non grata in the Bush White House and estranged him from his former friends, Vice President Cheney and Condoleezza Rice among them.

Years after the invasion of Iraq, Scowcroft testified in the Senate on Feb. 1, 2007, in sup- port of the proposed “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq. Scowcroft’s support for the surge, which would supplement existing forces in Iraq by tens of thousands of additional troops, did little to repair his broken ties with President Bush (43), Cheney, or other top White House officials, while it disappointed those opposed to the war and who had welcomed Scowcroft’s earlier dissent.

These three examples reveal key things about Scowcroft. They point to his courage, his independence of mind, his pragmatism, and his patriotism — acting what he believes is in the United States’ long-term interest, no matter the cost. They further suggest Scowcroft’s continued impact on U.S. foreign policy. Whereas Scowcroft started his career as a policymaker, being Henry Kissinger’s deputy national security advisor, and national security advisor in his own right under President Gerald Ford and then under the elder George Bush, Scowcroft continues to participate in and influence the central, important debates over U.S. foreign policy and national security, notwithstanding the fact that he is no longer in public office and now 84 years of age. He writes, gives speeches, consents to media appearances, runs conferences, heads task forces and presidential commissions, and advises policymakers of both parties–including persons in the current Obama administration. In fact, that there is no one more central to the history of U.S. national security policy over the last 45 years, it is fair to say, than the modest, cordial, and mild-mannered Scowcroft. He is probably the most respected voice in U.S. national security policy — one of Washington’s few “wise men” — and he stands at the center of the United States’ foreign policy establishment. Most importantly, he is trusted — a rare commodity in Washington.

Bat Sparrow received his M.A. in government in 1984, a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, and is professor of government. He just completed a year as a Woodrow Wilson Center Fellow and is writing a biogra-phy of Brent Scowcroft.