/ Published April 08, 2015
Bartholomew Sparrow has written an admiring biography of an admirable man—one whose rise to power was as rapid as it was unique. In 1963 Brent Scowcroft was an obscure military professor at the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). He had been sent there from West Point in 1961, when the Air Force Academy still had some ambition to create for itself the sort of breeding ground for strategic thinkers that the social science department at West Point had become. Still a major after 16 years of service, he had never seen combat or commanded anyone other than a few junior professors. To all expectations, probably including his own, he was set on the well-trod path for military intellectuals: a few years of academy teaching and perhaps a department chairmanship or a staff job in Washington, followed by retirement and obscurity. Instead, 15 years later, he was one of the most powerful and widely respected figures in American foreign policy. Sparrow’s exhaustive biography is a record of the means and the price of that ascent.
A 1948 graduate from West Point, Scowcroft had intended to fulfill his commitment as a fighter pilot and then return to the family business in Spokane. However, a training crash caused by a faulty engine governor on his North American P-51 Mustang fighter-bomber put him in a body cast and changed the direction of his life. Although he kept his pilot qualification, Scowcroft returned to West Point and its magisterial “Sosh” department. But this meant he missed the Korean War—the conflict in which his West Point classmates would prove their mettle. In the end, he would miss the Vietnam War as well, at least as an active participant. Later in life, as a three-star general who had never seen battle, he would be criticized as lacking a key qualification for the role he played in the development of military strategy. Sparrow mentions this criticism but finds little merit in it. Nor did his lack of command experience seem to inhibit Scowcroft in criticizing battle plans of the joint chiefs, as he did in the run up to Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. The fact he had made his career outside the Pentagon meant he was under no obligation to honor Pentagon orthodoxy. He was free instead to exercise the reasoned judgment for which he was so much admired throughout the bureaucracy, even among those with far different points of view.
Some of Scowcroft’s rapid rise was the result of good fortune, but Sparrow describes as well the behind the scenes maneuvering involved. The US Air Force (USAF) had heard rumors that Alexander Haig, who had gone to the White House as a military advisor and had become deputy to Henry Kissinger at the National Security Council (NSC), had presumed too much in Kissinger’s frequent absences and had fallen into disfavor with his boss. Scowcroft’s USAF superiors hoped that once in the military assistant’s job Scowcroft would be the obvious successor to Haig as deputy national security advisor—thus, well placed to look after USAF interests at the White House. The first part of the scheme worked perfectly. Scowcroft impressed Kissinger, who saw in him the qualities of integrity and judgment that would become Scowcroft’s hallmarks. Meanwhile, Scowcroft was ingratiating himself with senior staffers by his willingness to find USAF aircraft to speed them on their travels. As often as not, he went along. Haig was duly removed and Scowcroft installed as Kissinger’s deputy. However, the USAF had overlooked another Scowcroft quality that made him invaluable to Kissinger but less useful to them: his discretion. US Navy reps on the staff were pilfering the contents of Kissinger’s burn bag for the chief of naval operations, but there is no evidence Scowcroft ever provided a back channel to the White House for the USAF. Within a year, Scowcroft had succeeded Kissinger as national security advisor. He stayed in a USAF uniform for another two years, rising in short order to the rank of lieutenant general. However, he had become and would remain a creature of the presidency.
This was the era of Pres. Gerald Ford, the Nixon pardon, and national recovery from the traumas of Vietnam and Watergate. Kissinger was now secretary of state, battling with James Schlesinger at the Department of Defense to define a new direction for US foreign and security policy. Big egos were jostling for influence with an inexperienced president, with Scowcroft as mediator. Able to control his own ego, disinterested in the spotlight, and discrete sometimes to a fault, Scowcroft turned out to be the perfect man for the job. He had inherited a decision-making structure—the national security system—of marvelous design, built to ensure real policy options reached the president and that presidential decisions were effectively implemented. One of Scowcroft’s first and best decisions was to keep that system intact but to change how it functioned. Pres. Richard Nixon and Kissinger had used it to keep the bureaucracy at bay. Now, it became a true facilitative body, trusted by the agencies to reflect their views fairly and to sharpen options for the president. In this first stint at the NSC, Scowcroft was more facilitator than policy maker, but that turned out to be exactly what the system and President Ford required.
In relating these events, Sparrow emphasizes the personal qualities that made Scowcroft effective in his new role—most of all his integrity. Scowcroft appears seldom in the Nixon White House tapes, but when he does, we never hear him truckling to the president as Kissinger and Haig often did. Scowcroft was not the sort of man for that. However, what strikes the reader is another quality that usually goes unremarked, perhaps because is it taken for granted: Scowcroft’s tremendous self-assurance. Here was a man who had lately been a staff colonel at the Pentagon, now participating as an equal with individuals who were—or, at least, considered themselves to be—world-class intellectuals and prime movers of foreign policy. Nevertheless, there is never a sense of uncertainly, tentativeness, or excessive deference in his approach, even when dealing with figures like Kissinger, who had intimidated entire bureaucracies. It would be said of Condoleezza Rice, when she served under Pres. George W. Bush, that she lacked what the British call “the bottom” to deal with the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. However, no one ever thought Scowcroft lacked bottom; rather, he seems to have been born with it.
Sparrow gives only brief mention to the 12 years of the Carter and Reagan administrations that separated Scowcroft’s first stint as national security advisor from his second. When Scowcroft left the White House following the Ford administration, he had become a lobbyist—perhaps less rapacious and with more sense of civic responsibility than most of that breed. He set up shop first with Kissinger and eventually with some of his protégés, and—as is the Washington custom in such matters—got rich.
Pres. Ronald Reagan’s approach, for all its mistakes and excesses, tended to highlight a weakness of the realist perspective that Scowcroft represented. Like many other Cold War warriors of his generation, Scowcroft initially failed to see the decisive impact of moral indignation as a driver in foreign policy. The détente policies he helped Kissinger formulate were implicitly a bargain: acceptance of the legitimacy of Soviet rule in return for reductions in military tensions between the superpowers and some steps toward bringing limits to the nuclear arms race. From this point of view, President Reagan’s moral denunciation of Soviet rule, with its echoes of the McCarthy-era “rollback” policies, seemed to be self-indulgent posturing that would undermine the tentative progress Scowcroft had helped to achieve in ending the Cold War. However, Reagan was on to something. The Soviet Union was precisely as he often portrayed it: an oppressive, intellectually bankrupt, and stultified gerontocracy ruled by fear and lacking any but the barest pretense of legitimacy—in short, an evil empire. For Scowcroft and those of his realist generation, this was simply a fact of life to be managed. However, Reagan saw it, correctly, as a fatal weakness and—with his gift for phrase making—was just the man to exploit it.
All this paved the way for the first presidency of George H. W. Bush, and it was now that Scowcroft really came into his own. What the Bush administration achieved in its four years, as Sparrow reminds us, is perhaps without parallel in any similar period of our history: the peaceful demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of independent states from what had been its empire, the reunification of Germany and its integration within NATO, and the creation of a broad coalition that expelled Iraqi forces from Kuwait and crippled Iraq as a disruptive force in the Middle East. None of this was preordained, and much might have gone wrong without the adept diplomacy and level-headed policy of President Bush and his aides. There were lesser but still significant achievements as well: the restoration of relations with China after Tiananmen Square, the thwarting of a coup against the democratic regime of Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, the establishment of a framework for nuclear reductions between the superpowers, and the invasion of Panama and capture of Manuel Noriega. Much credit for all this must go to the team of foreign policy professionals the president had assembled. Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft, Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Larry Eagleburger, and Bob Gates were fully the equal of the generation of “wise men” who had structured a new world order after World War II—in short, a foreign policy team for the ages. At the center of it all was Scowcroft, directing traffic, coordinating discussions, assuaging egos, sharpening options, and ensuring that the administration—in spite of sometimes heated internal disagreements—presented a unified face to the world.
Scowcroft appears now as both a facilitator and a substantive force in policy. He was not always on the winning side, partly because he had difficulty shaking the Cold War perspective that had shaped him. So he was skeptical about Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the Soviet Union, too dismissive of arms control as an instrument of policy, in favor of a more measured pace to German reunification, against NATO enlargement, and perhaps overly eager to forgive the excesses of the Chinese leadership’s suppression of the democratic movement. In his interviews with Sparrow, Scowcroft also faults himself for taking his eye off Afghanistan as it tumbled into anarchy. Sparrow points to policy exhaustion at the end of the Bush administration, compounded by a nagging presidential illness.
The personal cost of all this was profound. Workaholism is a chronic disease in Washington, where no one will admit to watching television for pleasure and many will claim to have given up sleep. However, even among all the sallow-faced drudges, Scowcroft stood out. He seemed to have no personal life, and even someone like Bob Gates, Scowcroft’s close collaborator for two decades, tells Sparrow that he never met Jeanne Scowcroft, Scowcroft’s wife. Her long decline in health corresponded with her husband’s most successful and therefore busiest period at the White House, and he was her sole caregiver. No one at the White House seems to have realized what was happening, and Scowcroft himself apparently never mentioned the personal strain he was under. Sparrow does not dwell on this aspect of Scowcroft’s life, but he has done a service by documenting it, giving us a fuller picture of the man.
Still, this first full-scale biography of Scowcroft is not without its faults. As previous chroniclers of this period have underestimated Scowcroft’s role, so the present author tends to exaggerate it. Moreover, Sparrow brushes by errors in Scowcroft’s judgment that turned out to be nearly as consequential as the administration’s successes. Some of the claims for Scowcroft are more egregious than others, none more so than credit for the “left hook” ground war attack strategy in the first Gulf War. Claimants to that credit are many: Vice President Cheney and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz most prominent among them. It is true that all of President Bush’s advisors, including Scowcroft, reacted negatively to the initial “frontal assault” plan presented by Gen Norman Schwarzkopf. Cheney rushed off to devise an alternative, but Scowcroft seems to have left it at that. Sure enough, a few pages after giving credit to Scowcroft, Sparrow admits the obvious: Scowcroft never submitted a detailed plan, Cheney’s ideas proved impractical, and the credit properly belongs to Schwarzkopf’s staff, which planned the maneuver in detail, and to Schwarzkopf himself, who commanded the battle.
More central to the theme of this biography is the claim that Scowcroft “almost single-handedly” determined the nature of the US response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. This is part of a general tendency in Sparrow’s account to treat President Bush almost as a bit player in his own administration. Sparrow often speaks of a Bush, Baker, and Scowcroft “team” in charge of foreign policy. This is especially true when he is describing a foreign policy triumph; however, he most often simply attributes mistakes to “the administration.” Nevertheless, anyone who has worked in Washington knows the president is not part of any “team.” Other officials, no matter how exalted their titles, are staffers, while the president—in Pres. George W. Bush’s awkward but accurate phrase—is “the decider.” In this case, even after a military response was decided upon, the nature of it was far from clear. That was ultimately determined by President Bush, and to him—as Scowcroft himself would be the first to admit—must go the credit.
The Gulf War was a splendid military victory bookended by diplomatic disasters. After the war, as the victory glow faded, a scapegoat was needed for the bungling that had failed to deter Saddam Hussein before the invasion and left him in power afterward. Assistant Secretary of State John H. Kelly, whose testimony to Congress left an impression of US indifference about the outcome of the Iraq-Kuwait border dispute, largely exonerates himself in his oral biography for the Department of State. He points the finger at April Glaspie, US ambassador to Iraq. He also excuses himself for approving Glaspie’s absence from Baghdad on the day of the invasion, claiming she was a “weak” ambassador and her presence would have made no difference.
Glaspie made a convenient scapegoat for the White House as well. However, it is unreasonable to suppose that Saddam’s decision to invade was based on a 45-minute meeting with Ambassador Glaspie and not on a decade of temporizing signals from Washington, where the prevailing view had been that the Iraqi dictator, for all his sins, had his uses. That view began to change as Iraqi artillery moved toward the Kuwait border in late July 1990—but not quickly enough. Sparrow seems to notice this point but brushes by it. Perhaps it was too late by the afternoon of 1 August, when I sat in the Oval Office with President Bush and Scowcroft as they discussed the prospects of the Iraqi invasion. The first of Saddam’s forces crossed the Kuwaiti border three hours later. However, there had been time in the previous two weeks, as the intelligence assessments darkened, for the president, or perhaps even Scowcroft, to send an unambiguous warning to Saddam. Instead, Kelly’s statement to Congress of US disinterest in the border question and his hint that Kuwait (or at least its northern provinces) was outside any military redline of the United States were allowed to stand. Scowcroft surely bears a greater share of responsibility for this and for the subsequent consequences than our ambassador in Baghdad does.
Much the same might be said of the botched aftermath of victory, when General Schwarzkopf allowed Saddam’s forces to keep the helicopters that would be decisive in putting down the uprising that Scowcroft and others in Washington had assumed would bring Saddam down. Conspiracy theorists (a group which, in the Middle East, includes virtually every sentient adult) are convinced this was part of a conscious plot to keep Saddam in power as a buffer against Iran and to send the gulf sheikdoms scurrying under the military umbrella of the United States. It seems, on the contrary, to have resulted from a fit of absentmindedness. Still, the Schwarzkopf incident begs a question: what was this military commander—not known for the diplomatic subtlety of his mind—doing on his own in the desert without instructions determining the political aftermath of the victory just won? Here again, Scowcroft must bear some—even the major—responsibility. He has said by way of explanation that the tendency was to “defer to the military,” but it was precisely his job to ensure that all points of view were taken into account. In this case, he failed.
He was brought back by Pres. George W. Bush to head the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, but his suggestions for reform of the intelligence community were ignored. It was by then clear that Scowcroft’s school of moderate realism was in eclipse, replaced by an ambitious, bellicose generation of neoconservatives, including some whom Scowcroft had nurtured early in their careers. Scowcroft saw what was coming, especially in Iraq. Ever the backroom operator, he now went resoundingly public, sounding a remarkably prescient warning about the disasters to come and criticizing his protégé, Condoleezza Rice, for losing control of the decision-making process. As Sparrow points out, Rice was Scowcroft’s creation. It was he who transformed her from a slightly affected White House intern into a national security advisor in even less time than a similar transition had occurred for him. Now she and the new establishment turned on Scowcroft, who had committed the unpardonable sin of being right when most of the establishment, including the president, was wrong.
Scowcroft, of course, is still with us and still active. The honors that escaped him earlier in life are now being bestowed in abundance. Almost as many pages are required to list them as the author used for the first 35 years of Scowcroft’s life. This first, full-scale biography is a useful addendum to other accounts of the period, including Pres. George H. W. Bush’s and Scowcroft’s own accounts in A World Transformed. Still, one would do well to wait for Scowcroft’s autobiography, due out later this year. In the meantime, Sparrow’s book should be on the list of any serious student of realist perspective in foreign policy, especially as personified by Scowcroft during the presidency of the first President Bush.
Former Ambassador to Jordan, United States Air Force Academy
"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."