When Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, democracy faced a test: Had we learned the lesson of World War II and the Holocaust? Would we sit idly by while devils armed for genocide, or act quickly and decisively to prevent catastrophe? President George H. W. Bush and his advisers defied all expectations by assembling a massive military coalition to defeat Saddam.
At the nerve center of the administration’s response was a calm, unassuming, and thoughtful national-security adviser, Air Force general Brent Scowcroft. In a comprehensive new biography, University of Texas professor Bartholomew Sparrow shows why Scowcroft is now widely considered the model national-security adviser.
Born into a family of Mormon émigrés from Europe, Scowcroft grew up in Ogden, Utah, and he enrolled at West Point shortly after the start of World War II, graduating into the Army Air Forces too late to see any fighting in that war. In fact, his studies and his public service would intervene to keep him from ever serving in combat. Having been badly injured in a P-51 crash during a training flight in 1949, he started his Ph.D. at Columbia during the Korean War, and — after several years teaching at West Point — spent the Vietnam War teaching at the Air Force Academy and finishing his doctorate. Helping reform the curriculum at both West Point and the Air Force Academy to include significantly more social and political science, Scowcroft was present at the creation of the modern American scholar-soldier, and indeed was himself an early example of the type.
His military-academy connections soon introduced him to Nixon’s national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger, who made Scowcroft his deputy. Scowcroft went on to replace Kissinger during the Ford administration. During this period, Scowcroft was charged with implementing the policy of Vietnamization — of making sure that South Vietnam could defend itself and govern itself by itself. The success of that policy can be judged by Scowcroft’s next assignment, namely, the evacuation of U.S. forces and tens of thousands of Vietnamese partners at risk of reprisals as the North Vietnamese Army overran Saigon.
Scowcroft’s allegiance to Ford, against whom Ronald Reagan had fought a bruising primary battle in 1976, kept him out of the Reagan administration, along with other senior Ford officials, including Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Scowcroft was, however, well liked and, even more, well respected, and Reagan put him in charge of a nuclear-posture review, an assignment followed by the Tower Commission, in which Scowcroft helped sort out the mess of the Iran-Contra scandal and recommended refinements to the National Security Council staff process, particularly its exclusion from “operations.”
By the time President George H. W. Bush asked him to serve once again as national-security adviser, Scowcroft was one of the best-prepared foreign-policy professionals in the United States. Under Bush the father, Scowcroft set the standard for an efficient interagency process. If the tumultuous interagency debates of the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations were a more fertile source of ideas, Scowcroft oversaw a process that was much more unified, in which officials spoke with one voice and implemented the president’s policies loyally and effectively.
The result was one of the most effective foreign-policy teams of all time: Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and the president himself. The president had known them all personally, and their loyalty was beyond question, which gave the administration a rare and compelling unity. There was “an element of trust that made it a delight to go to work every day,” Cheney has said. “There was the concept that it was a team.” As Sparrow says, “It is often possible to write about the thinking of ‘Scowcroft, Bush, and Baker’ or ‘Scowcroft and Bush’ without distinguishing among the president, the secretary of state, and the national-security adviser.” From that foundation, Bush and his advisers exuded statesmanship.
The team would need it, for it faced historic challenges early on. The Tiananmen Square massacre happened in its first summer. The long experience that Bush and Scowcroft had dealing with Chinese leaders helped them pursue a policy of cooperation and stability, but, out of concern for Chinese sensibilities, they also too often ignored human rights.
With Saddam, the administration resolved early on that the risks of inaction vastly outweighed the risks of action. It defined a simple goal — the humiliating unconditional withdrawal of the Iraqi army from Kuwait — and pursued it with single-minded purpose. Scowcroft coordinated the overall strategy, congressional outreach, and messaging. He was wary of Baker’s efforts to resolve the crisis diplomatically. An ambiguous conclusion was out of the question. Absent the specter of superpower confrontation, the end of the Cold War might revive regional wars of territorial conquest — by far the greatest source of bloodshed in human history. Saddam’s defeat had to be unambiguous, pour encourager les autres.
The Bush administration’s single most virtuosic performance, and most lasting legacy, was undoubtedly the brilliant liquidation of the Soviet empire and the reunification of Germany within a significantly strengthened NATO — all without firing a shot. The achievement showed the Bush team at its best: Scowcroft’s expertise in strategic nuclear forces allowed Bush to preserve American deterrence while diminishing the Russian threat; Baker was perhaps the best negotiator (with Kissinger and Dean Acheson) ever to serve as secretary of state, and he was also a master at the art of communicating to multiple audiences; and Bush had just the right experience and temperament to impart overall guidance while building trust with foreign leaders.
In these areas and more, the Bush administration pursued maximalist, transformative goals with the right mix of power and political support (both at home and abroad) to see the process through to fruition. In coordinating these efforts, Scowcroft proved himself a model fixer and counselor.
The one thing Scowcroft was not, however, is what the title of this biography suggests he was: a strategist. The Bush-Scowcroft penchant for “prudence” often amounted to an intelligent and historically informed version of Barack Obama’s “Don’t do stupid stuff,” and hardly brought us closer to a grand strategy for the post–Cold War era. As Sparrow recounts, administration officials used the term “new world order” some 325 times in one year after the liberation of Kuwait, but they were unable to explain what it meant, or that it meant anything at all. “I wish I’d never thought of it,” Scowcroft now admits.
Perhaps inevitably, given the world-transforming turbulence through which it served, the administration made plenty of foreign-policy mistakes. Its decidedly Arabist orientation led it to rebuke Israel often, publicly and unfairly. The Panama intervention was initially botched when the administration first incited and then failed to support an internal coup against Manuel Noriega. And Bush angered conservatives with his willingness to ignore China’s human-rights violations in the interest of maintaining friendly relations in the aftermath of Tiananmen.
Perhaps worst of all, Bush had repeated in the Mideast the mistake Truman had made in Korea: He decided to defend Kuwait only after it was attacked, rather than moving decisively to forestall an attack that was clearly in the offing for weeks. Indeed, far from communicating a U.S. commitment to Kuwait’s defense, administration officials publicly declared in the final days before Saddam’s invasion that the U.S. had no commitment at all, an even clearer invitation to attack than the one delivered by Dean Acheson in his much-maligned “perimeter speech” prior to the Korean War.
That mistake, however, highlights a congenital weakness of the democratic form of government, which is notoriously bad at taking preventive action when necessary to remove threats to the peace. The only administration ever to attempt a grand strategy of prevention, that of George W. Bush, was badly burned by the experience. It didn’t help Scowcroft’s relations with the Bush family that, in August 2002, as a new confrontation with Saddam was looming, he penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed warning that an attack on Iraq would distract attention and divert support from the War on Terror. The op-ed had major flaws; as Kissinger pointed out, Scowcroft failed to demonstrate that the administration was wrong to link Saddam’s Iraq to the War on Terror. (Both Kissinger and Baker strongly supported the March 2003 invasion.) Still, the op-ed allowed Scowcroft to be able to say I told you so, though he never did so with relish.
Sparrow mars his otherwise fine book at the end, with a chapter on the George W. Bush administration based more on popular misconceptions than on scholarship. For example, with respect to Iraq, Sparrow explains that the CIA and the State Department were “excluded from the decision process” on de-Baathification and the dissolution of the Iraqi army. If Sparrow had bothered to consult Douglas Feith’s War and Decision (2008) — the only account of the events based on exhaustive archival research — he would have learned the truth, which is that the de-Baathification policy was extensively coordinated with CIA and State, while the dissolution of the Iraqi army by the Coalition Provisional Authority, operating under White House imprimatur, wasn’t extensively coordinated with anybody. Meanwhile, the Pentagon’s extensively coordinated plan to quickly hand political power over to Iraqis was canceled by CPA dictate, a move celebrated by the State Department. “Victory wasn’t a realistic outcome” by the time Robert Gates became secretary of defense in late 2006, Sparrow tells us, so “Gates had to find a way to pull out U.S. forces.” In fact, Gates managed a victorious surge, and opposed Obama’s reckless abandonment of Iraq.
It’s possible to disagree with Scowcroft and with the presidents he served. But it’s impossible to deny the diligence and intelligence with which George H. W. Bush’s foreign-policy team pursued its goals, the number of things large and small that it got right, and the number of mistakes avoided. Scowcroft was an essential piece in an administration that accomplished something we haven’t seen since: They gave people the general impression that they knew what they were doing, and that the world was safer in their hands.