Brent Scowcroft and American military intervention
No one could have managed the Pentagon or the arms control process as well as the late national security advisor
The passing of Brent Scowcroft is an opportunity for a bit of reflection about the U.S. foreign policy elite and its attitude toward American military intervention in world affairs. There is a tendency, here and there, to think of such an elite as a “blob” with common views. There is no meaningful definition of the U.S. foreign policy elite between, say, 1980 and at least 2010, that would not have included Brent Scowcroft. Nor was he a marginal figure in that group.
While a foreign service officer, I worked for Brent Scowcroft on the National Security Council staff (1989 to 1991). Then, having left full-time government service, I worked again for him as the deputy director and then director of the Aspen Strategy Group that he co-chaired back then with Joseph Nye (1997 to 2003). I worked for Brent again on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during part of the time while he was chairing that too (2001 to 2003). At the beginning of 2003 I went back into full-time government service for about the next four years.
In addition to the material in the fine biography of Brent by Bartholomew Sparrow, Brent left a sort of memoir. I conducted two lengthy oral history sessions with Brent. Joined by Ernest May, Fareed Zakaria, and James McCall, I did one in 1999 that was released in 2011.
The next year, joined only by McCall, I did another two-day session with Brent, in August 2000. In this session I delved more deeply into professional and some more sensitive details. He asked that this interview be closed until his death. Therefore now, twenty years later, it has just been released. Peter Baker wrote up a few of his takeaways for the New York Times. Let’s explore what Brent had to say about some critical choices in American military intervention.
To start with, here is some brief context. Brent’s core expertise was in U.S. defense policy and what related to that, including arms control. Walter Pincus recently noticed what Brent had to say about arms control in his recently opened oral history.
Brent had also acquired some strong views, some of them quite negative, of the way the national security process was managed during the Reagan years
Bob Gates has also done a good job in calling out how, during the Nixon/Ford years, Brent had to extend his experience in crisis management and, he could have added, with intelligence issues. Because of his experience with investigating the Iran-Contra scandal, Brent had also acquired some strong views, some of them quite negative, of the way the national security process was managed during the Reagan years.
Brent was not America’s lead diplomatic strategist in the four years between 1989 and 1992. Jim Baker was. At all times, from start to finish, the Bush-Baker combination was the core steering mechanism. Brent understood this from the start. Indeed, Bush first offered the job of Brent’s deputy to Dennis Ross (Bush already knew and had worked with Ross), but Ross preferred to serve the core team from Baker’s 7th floor perch, as did Bob Zoellick (who was also offered a senior White House post).
Beyond Brent’s stance on the specific issues, on which people may judge him right or wrong, the point I wish to stress is that he was really the ideal national security advisor in an administration with such an activist secretary of state. When they argued on policy, Baker usually won the arguments. That doesn’t mean the president didn’t wisely choose someone to provide the cautionary ballast for the Bush-Baker core. This was especially important on issues involving America’s armed forces.
During 1989, as Brent settled into his role, what then began happening was a fusion of talents. All the relationships evolved.