The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security
PublicAffairs, 2015, 752 pp., $37.50
In the mid-1970s the State Department sent me to a job on the National Security Council planning staff. The name of my new office was deceiving; if plans had once been made there, such activity had long since ceased. Still, for me, career-wise, it was a great leap forward. At State I had been an assembler of briefing books and compiler of daily action reports, a virtuoso of the hole punch and Xerox machine. Suddenly, I was a member—albeit very junior—of an elite corps of bureaucrats under the leadership of a brand new National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft.
I was never formally presented at court in the West Wing. My boss, the director of the planning that was no longer done, lived in fear that someone on the other side of West Executive Avenue would discover he was still around and send him packing. Still, there were compensations. I had an office in the Old Executive Office Building with a 12-foot-high mahogany door. I could occasionally reserve the President’s box at the Kennedy Center to entertain my rowdy friends, provided it was a Tuesday night and a program of Mahler. I even had a title. All I lacked was a function, so I set about gathering bits and pieces to create one. Luckily for me, the staff was small in those days—far from the bloated impedimenta it has become—so even someone as junior as I could attend the weekly staff meetings. There I was, craning my neck from the back row, when I first heard the voice of Brent Scowcroft.
It’s the same voice that resonates through Bartholomew Sparrow’s new and comprehensive biography of Scowcroft, The Strategist. Calm and measured, it was the kind of voice that told you its owner hadn’t succumbed to the modern compulsion to “share” things not absolutely essential to the task and sometimes not even that. Sparrow had the benefit of extensive interviews with his subject, and the results give an authentic tone to this biography. Scowcroft’s voice is more reflective now some forty years on, but there is still evidence of the tremendous self-assurance that allowed him, fresh from a mid-level staff job at the Pentagon, to take his place among the foreign policy elite. It would be said later of Condoleezza Rice when she was National Security Advisor that she lacked what the British call “bottom”, the inner confidence to deal with careening egos like Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. No one has ever accused Brent Scowcroft of lacking bottom. He seems to have been born with it.
His ease with his new status was clear in those long-ago staff meetings. Scowcroft’s audience on these occasions included many future luminaries. None was to shine more brightly than Bob Gates, then barely senior to me but destined to become the most distinguished public servant of his generation. Steve Hadley, also a junior man then, would one day sit in Scowcroft’s chair as National Security Advisor under George W. Bush, and there were many others who would make their mark as leaders of foreign and economic policy: future Ambassadors Bob Oakley, Dick Solomon, and Ken Quinn, along with future Wall Street powerhouse Bob Hormats and a young Army captain who would later become Under Secretary at both State and Treasury, Bob Kimmitt. All were then in their early thirties, eager and ambitious; none suffered from a lack of self-regard. But there was no doubt in those staff meetings who was in charge. It was the small, seemingly unassuming man who sat facing us in the front of the room.
I was aware of the rumors the swirled among the staff about how Scowcroft had risen so rapidly, but Sparrow helps to fill in some blanks. Scowcroft was a product of the magisterial Department of Social Science at West Point, commissioned in the Air Force to be a fighter pilot but severely injured when his P-51 malfunctioned and crashed back in 1949. He went back to West Point to teach, to Columbia for a doctorate, then on to a professorship at the Air Force Academy. Approaching forty, he had never seen battle or commanded anyone other than a few junior professors. To all expectations, probably including his own, he was destined to continue down the well-trodden path of military intellectuals: a full professorship, perhaps a department chairmanship or a staff job in Washington, followed by retirement and obscurity. Fate, however, had other things in store.
It was possible then to live out a career as an Academy professor, but that was hardly the extent of Scowcroft’s ambitions. He returned to the Air Staff, where he impressed everyone with his competence, integrity, and prodigious appetite for work. When the job of military aide to the President opened up, the Air Force sent Scowcroft to fill it. His predecessor, Alexander Haig, had risen from military assistant to NSC deputy, and Scowcroft’s Air Force superiors, aware that Haig had worn out his welcome with Henry Kissinger, hoped that he would do the same. There were several other pretenders to Haig’s job, but Scowcroft was holding trumps. As the senior Air Force man at the White House, he determined who would travel in an Air Force plane, and what plane it would be. “I owned the airplanes”, he says now—not quite the keys to the bureaucratic kingdom, but close enough. Often he would ride along. Of course, it’s one thing to get face time in Washington and another to make good use of it. Scowcroft did both. He quickly became known as a man to count on to get the job done and shun the limelight. Kissinger has written that their skills were “complementary”, a remark reminiscent of Douglas MacArthur’s comment that Eisenhower was the best staff man he had ever had. In any case, when Haig left as Kissinger’s deputy, Scowcroft got the job.
Even now, fate was not done smiling on the new NSC deputy. Under Richard Nixon, Kissinger had been dual-hatted as both Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. President Ford soon removed Kissinger’s NSC hat and promoted Scowcroft to be his replacement as National Security Advisor. Scowcroft’s Air Force superiors were delighted. They would have their man at the center of power. Others in Washington assumed Scowcroft would be Kissinger’s man. But Scowcroft surprised everyone by moving quickly and effectively to make the NSC staff his own. He had become, and would remain, a creature of the presidency.
The national security system Scowcroft oversaw had a marvelous facility for identifying high priority items and then concentrating the full force of bureaucratic genius upon them. Among the first decisions he made was to keep the system in place, but change how it functioned. All decision memoranda, condensed by the staff from voluminous submissions by various departments and agencies, passed to the President through the National Security Advisor. His memo, a summary of agency positions and his own recommendation, topped the stack. For the system to work properly, agencies had to trust that their views would get a fair hearing. This had not been the case under Kissinger, but inspiring trust was precisely what Scowcroft did best. It made him by common consent the model of a National Security Advisor, the one against whom all his successors have been judged.
The Ford Administration will not be remembered for foreign policy triumphs. Preparations for the 1976 election dominated almost from the outset, and that tended to curb foreign policy ambitions. Scowcroft did play a crucial role in helping nurture the budding Helsinki process against hardline cold warriors who considered it a surrender to Soviet interests. They were wrong; it gave rise to the Helsinki Groups of human rights advocates who fatally undermined Soviet legitimacy in the East and Central European satellite countries. Still, the White House was mostly playing defense, dealing with the aftermath of Vietnam and planning for greater things once Ford had safely been elected in his own right. That, of course, was not to be.
On the NSC staff, the day after the election, it was as if someone had thrown a giant switch. Two days earlier, the halls had bustled and the telephones had rung; now, all was silence. It was like a funeral, but without the covert sense of self-congratulation. Scowcroft convened the staff and issued two edicts: None of us was to use the period before Carter’s inauguration to lobby for jobs, and all the policy studies we were overseeing were to be finished. Both were ignored. I dutifully called my contacts around the bureaucracy and told them to press on with the various policy studies the NSC had commissioned. That elicited an indulgent chuckle. After Jimmy Carter took office, his people twisted the knife by scheduling what turned out to be pro forma job interviews with each of us. Then the axe fell.
Scowcroft went on to be a lobbyist at Kissinger Associates. Hegel (or perhaps it was Francis Fukuyama) once said that periods of happiness are blank pages in history. The same might be said for intervals of lobbying in biographies of political figures, but Sparrow does his best to enliven his account of these years. Scowcroft was on the bench for four years of Carter and eight years of Reagan. I met him once during those years. I had been sent in summer 1983 by the U.S. Embassy in London to escort Henry Kissinger from Heathrow to his hotel. When the little jet rolled to a stop, the first one off was Scowcroft. He greeted me warmly and then turned to Kissinger: “Look, Henry”, he said: “It’s Roger. He worked for you at the White House.” Kissinger managed to contain his excitement. He was gracious on our ride into London, asking questions about British politics and listening politely to my answers. When we parted in the foyer of Claridge’s, he shook my hand. “Thank you for whatever it was you did for me all those years ago”, he said. I had my perfect Kissinger moment.
Kissinger never returned to government, but Scowcroft’s glory years were yet to come. Once again he became National Security Advisor, this time under a man very much of his own mind, George H.W. Bush. The achievements of that first Bush presidency shine all the more brightly seen against the wreckage left by the second, and Scowcroft was at the center of it all: the peaceful dissolution of the old Soviet empire and the rise of democracies in Eastern Europe; the creation of a broad coalition of nations to expel Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army from Kuwait; the reunification of Germany and its integration into NATO; and the extension of President Reagan’s campaign to reduce strategic nuclear weapons. Any one of these would have been achievement enough for an administration. In the context of these world historic events, the thwarting of a coup against the democratic government of the Philippines could be (as it was) the work of an afternoon.
Sparrow does an admirable job of untangling the complexities of this era in readable prose. He’s good, too, at describing the policy exhaustion that set in near the end of Bush’s Administration, which helps account for one rare but consequential instance—Afghanistan—where Scowcroft failed to keep all the threads in his hands, allowing State, the CIA, and Congress each to run its own policy, with disastrous results. There were also personal hardships. Gates, who worked intimately with Scowcroft for twenty years, told Sparrow that he never met Scowcroft’s wife Jeanne. Her long decline corresponded with her husband’s busiest years at the White House, and Scowcroft was her principal caregiver. He never seems to have mentioned it, and nobody seems to have asked.
This biography has its faults. Perhaps to compensate for the neglect of previous authors Sparrow sometimes goes overboard in describing Scowcroft’s influence. It is too much, for example, to claim that Scowcroft “almost single-handedly” determined the U.S. response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, or that he was the author of the “left hook” strategy against Saddam’s forces in the first Gulf War; there are several more credible claimants in both cases. In Sparrow’s telling, George H.W. Bush can sometimes seem like a bit player in his own Administration, just another member of the “team.” But there can be no doubt that Scowcroft was the linchpin of a group of policymakers to rival the postwar wise men of World War II: James Baker, Lawrence Eagleburger, Colin Powell, Robert Gates, and, yes, Dick Cheney. Sparrow is good at describing the importance of the personal relationships between these men, who had known and respected each other for many years. It was not to last, but while it did, it brought forth great things.
Fukuyama (or perhaps it was Hegel) speaks of a “world historic individual” who impels world history forward from a dying era into the future. Reagan enthusiasts see him in this light. But Reagan was no more than an opening act. It was Bush and his team who dragged us, for better or worse, into the contemporary world. These were able men of great ego. There could be sharp disagreements among them, and Scowcroft was not always on the winning side. He was more skeptical of Gorbachev than Baker was, more cautious than the President about German reunification, and opposed the operation in Panama (although once it was decided, he pitched in with full force). He was also perhaps too eager to reconcile with the Chinese after Tiananmen Square, although on that issue he was very much in concert with his President.
Other things did not go so well. The 1991 victory in the Gulf has been justly celebrated, but the prelude and aftermath were thoroughly botched—in particular, the failure to send a stronger message to Saddam Hussein when intelligence estimates darkened in the last days of July 1990. The legend has grown that our Ambassador in Iraq, April Glaspie, was to blame for this, but the failure lay in Washington. Was it an intentional trap to snare Saddam? I’ve seldom met an Arab who didn’t think so.
It is also generally assumed in the Arab world that sending General Norman Schwarzkopf without instructions to negotiate a ceasefire that would structure the peace was not the mistake it seemed, but part of the overall plot to keep Saddam (who by then was no longer a threat to Israel) as a buffer against the imams to his east. Scowcroft says now that in the run-up to invasion, he and Bush trusted the reassurances of King Hussein and Hosni Mubarak; he claims that, in the aftermath of victory, they decided to leave arrangements to the military. Sparrow offers no better explanation of these events, so the definitive history of this period and Scowcroft’s role remains to be written, perhaps when the archives are finally declassified.
In his long life after government Scowcroft returned again to lobbying and doing good works. His legacy of pragmatic realism in foreign policy meanwhile came under siege by a younger generation filled with a passionate intensity, for whom realists like him were anachronisms and reality itself no more than an inconvenience. In George W. Bush, the movement met the man. Scowcroft saw what was coming in Iraq and warned strongly of the consequences. Supposedly serious people were talking complete nonsense about Iraq in those years, but never Scowcroft. Privately, and then publicly, he criticized his protégé, Condoleezza Rice, for losing control of the policymaking process. He didn’t recognize the new Dick Cheney, he often said. Rice, Cheney, and the right-wing nomenklatura were on him instantly at full bay. Old friendships—or at least the liaisons of convenience that often pass for friendships in Washington—were destroyed. New ones with former adversaries, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, emerged. When the surge came in Iraq, Scowcroft told confidants he hoped merely that it would serve to create a decent interval for our withdrawal, as eventually it did.
Scowcroft is still with us, of course, and still active. There are rumors that his advice is often sought by the current President; if so Scowcroft has been characteristically discreet about it. The laurels he has long deserved are now being heaped upon him; Sparrow requires nearly as many pages to list them as were needed in this biography for the first 30 years of Scowcroft’s life. Aside from his interviews with Scowcroft, Sparrow seems to have spoken to, or read accounts written by, nearly everyone who dealt with Scowcroft in his glory years in the 1970s and 1980s—all detailed in 130 pages of endnotes. The serious student would do well to read this biography in tandem with the long interview Scowcroft gave in 2011 to the Miller Center at the University of Virginia. He was more revealing in some respects there than he seems to have been with Sparrow. Perhaps Scowcroft will be more revealing still in his autobiography, due out later this year.
As for me, when Ford lost in 1976, I went back to my hole punch at the State Department. Eventually I made my way to the Air Force Academy, where I sit writing these words not twenty feet from the office where Scowcroft spent his brief time at the Academy 52 years ago. On the wall to my right is a framed picture of me with President George H.W. Bush. It was taken on the afternoon of August 1, 1990, and I was in the Oval Office to receive final instructions before my departure to Jordan as U.S. Ambassador. Scowcroft sits just outside the frame. Iraqi forces would cross into Kuwait three hours later, so by happenstance I was with a great world leader and his chief counselor at the very end of one era in the Middle East and the beginning of another. There’s a note with the picture, inscribed in beautiful handwriting, the faded ink now just barely visible: “I’m proud of you”, signed “Brent.” Thank you, general. For my part, I’m proud to have done whatever it was I did for you all those years ago.