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Brent Scowcroft RIP: He Risked A Friend To Reject the Iraq War

While he had a mixed record himself, he knew that George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2002 would prove a disaster.

First lady Barbara Bush presenting NSC Adviser Brent Scowcroft with the Medal of Freedom in 1991. (Photo by Terry Ashe/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Among the important documents elucidating America’s post-Cold War descent into humanitarian interventionism and Neocon hegemonic thinking, we must include a ​Wall Street Journal​ op-ed piece that appeared on August 15, 2002. Entitled “Don’t Attack Saddam.” It laid out the most salient arguments for why then-President George W. Bush should not send an expeditionary force to conquer Iraq, upend its noxious leader, and remake the country.

It was written by Brent Scowcroft, who had served two presidents as national security adviser and had distinguished himself for decades as a sound and adroit thinker in the realm of American foreign policy. An Iraq invasion, wrote Scowcroft, would end up as a fool’s errand that likely would destabilize the Arab world, distract America from it’s premier foreign policy imperative of countering Islamist terrorism, probably exacerbate that terrorism threat, and isolate America in the world. Besides, the rationale for war included the notion, clearly false, that Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had ties to terrorist organizations targeting the United States. America, said Scowcroft, shouldn’t fight wars based on false notions.

When Scowcroft died August 6 at age 95, obituary writers inevitably noted his August 2002 op-ed piece. But few captured the full significance or the drama of the man’s editorial pronouncement. First, it was a direct assault on the emergent foreign policy bellicosity of George W. Bush and an implicit defense of the more measured foreign policy thinking of Bush’s father, George H. W. Bush, whom Scowcroft served through his four-year presidency and who was one of Scowcroft’s closest friends.

That friendship raised questions over whether the elder Bush agreed with Scowcroft’s critique of his son’s emergent war policy. And in fact Scowcroft told associates at the time that the father did indeed harbor serious concerns about his son’s resolve for war. Not surprisingly, Scowcroft’s op-ed earned him a frosty response from the people of the second Bush presidency. But the fact that he would seek to undermine this budding foreign policy departure of his good friend’s son gave his words an added appearance of conviction.

More significantly, though, that conviction can be seen as representing a critical turning point in American foreign policy—away from a particular brand of realism in international relations and toward the concept of America as a unipolar global force capable of having its way as it embraced the grand plan of remaking the world in the American image. As a man standing athwart this foolish vision at a crucial historical juncture, even unsuccessfully, Scowcroft emerges as a pivotal figure in America’s post-Cold War history. As such, he deserves the respectful attention he has received at his passing from the nation’s major publications.

Although Scowcroft’s record is not altogether unmixed, the foreign policy precepts that animated him coalesced into a largely coherent and sound foreign policy philosophy. During the Cold War, when he served as national security adviser to President Gerald Ford, he embraced the search for “detente” with the Soviet Union engineered by Ford’s predecessor, Richard Nixon, and Nixon’s foreign policy architect, Henry Kissinger, a Scowcroft mentor. This reflected Scowcroft’s tendency toward a certain moderation of action in those tense days.

But when Ronald Reagan became president four years after Ford’s White House tenure, he rejected that inclination toward moderation as too one-sided, with America making too many concessions and the Soviet Union reaping too many rewards. Reagan sought to break the Soviet Union altogether by forcing it into an arms race and an economic competition that it couldn’t withstand. It worked, and the Soviet empire collapsed during the presidency of the first President Bush, with Brent Scowcroft as national security adviser.

In a remarkably candid piece in ​The National Interest​ magazine published in 2012 (part of a special issue with the prescient title, “Crisis of the Old Order”), Scowcroft laid out the difficulties and challenges posed by this seminal event in world history, the end of an era that had dominated the globe for nearly half a century. “When that system crumbled with the end of the Soviet Union and its empire,” he wrote, “we in the Bush administration may have realized the end of the Cold War marked the end of a period of history, but we did not completely visualize what the emerging new era would look like.”

Bush, he noted, spoke of a “new world order,” and administration officials clearly perceived the need for “some kind of new global vision. But we were essentially feeling our way in the dark.”

What emerged was a loosely constructed concept that included a fealty to balance of power thinking, a commitment to working with supranational organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations, and the retention of America’s global leadership role through deft diplomacy and strong coalitions. “We sought,” he wrote, “to empower the UN Security Council’s operations in the manner its founders had visualized and to organize an international coalition of forces to implement Security Council resolutions.”

Two major Bush initiatives reflected this measured approach. First was Bush’s 1991 decision to send half a million troops halfway around the world to expel the invading Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein from the tiny oil sheikhdom of Kuwait. Many foreign policy thinkers who consider themselves “realists” have criticized that action in terms similar to their criticism of the younger Bush’s later Iraq invasion. But there’s a distinction worth noting. Saddam seemed bent on regional hegemony, a complete upending of the regional balance of power. After his Kuwait invasion, he controlled 20 percent of the world’s oil supplies, and now he was poised to take Saudia Arabia and another 20 percent. Jordan and Yemen would probably soon have to tilt toward this new power, and other Arab states would start cutting deals. Iran would be at Iraq’s feet. Israel would be threatened.

When this was outlined by Director of Central Intelligence William Webster at a White House meeting, Scowcroft interjected, “We’ve got to make a response, and accommodating Saddam is not an option.” This reflected the perceived imperative of maintaining a balance of power in a strategic corner of the world, whose oil reserves fueled the Western economies, made possible the commerce that fed, clothed, and housed the peoples of the West, and propelled the U.S. military in its aim of preserving international stability.

Thus can we see that H.W. Bush’s “Desert Storm” expedition fit into the budding concept of his “new world order,” however vague it may have been. This brand of realism took seriously the imperative of maintaining power balances in key strategic locations—through diplomatic “offshore balancing” where possible but through force if necessary. But Bush’s measured approach foreclosed the notion of actually invading Iraq and upending Saddam Hussein, a caution that the second Bush casually tossed aside.

The other key policy illuminating H.W. Bush’s measured foreign policy was his treatment of Russia after the Soviet collapse. In exchange for Russian acceptance of German reunification, a huge victory for the West, Bush promised Russia that the West would not seek to push NATO eastward toward the Russian border. Again, this reflected a fealty to the concept of balance of power, allowing Russia to play its traditional role as a regional state and core nation of the Orthodox Civilization. It also recognized Russia’s historical fear—a very well-founded one, based on history—of invasion from the West.

But Bush’s successor, Bill Clinton, reneged on that promise, with ominous consequences for U.S.-Russian relations and prospects for any eased tensions in Eurasia. During the Cold War, a result of Soviet aggression into the West, Russia had no Western enemies within a thousand miles of St. Petersburg (called Leningrad then) or 1,200 miles of Moscow. That was untenable for the West, for it was only possible through subjugation of Eastern European nations. But now NATO military forces are dug in within a hundred miles of St. Petersburg and two-hundred miles of Moscow. That is untenable for Russia and a constant source of tensions between Russia and the West.

Bush and Scowcroft had it right on this. Clinton’s policy has turned out to be a diplomatic disaster.

But Bush and Scorcroft made one huge mistake at the very end of their tenure, when the president ordered 18,000 troops into Somalia, a war-crushed basket-case country in East Africa. The idea was to save the starving people of that country and then get out. But of course that was naive in the extreme. The humanitarian mission required doing battle with various warlords, and that meant American casualties. On October 3, 1993, after Clinton had expanded the mission, Somali warriors shot down three Blackhawk helicopters, damaged three others, and ambushed a unit of rangers in downtown Mogadishu. With eighteen Americans killed and another 78 wounded, Clinton promptly called off the mission.

The debacle was one thing. More significant was the precedent of sending American troops into faraway and possibly hostile territory on a strictly humanitarian mission, with no pretense at all that American national interests were at stake. The ​Washington Post’​ s Don Oberdorfer reported at the time that Scowcroft was an “early advocate for military action” in Somalia.

Humanitarian interventionists promptly seized upon the precedent as solid grounds for other such missions–first in the Balkans and then in the Middle East. Indeed, this humanitarian vision lay at the heart of George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and Barack Obama’s military actions to overthrow Muammar Qaddafi in Libya. Both are widely seen now as having been foolhardy missions.

Time​ magazine embraced the underlying rationale of the Somalia adventure at the beginning of the Clinton presidency with a zesty cover headline: “Clinton’s first foreign challenge: If SOMALIA, why not BOSNIA?” The power of this concept, unleashed by the H.W. Bush administration in its final lameduck weeks, can’t be overstated. It essentially unleashed the interventionist-hegemonic rationale that has undergirded American foreign policy ever since. It does not reflect well on either Bush or Scowcroft.

It isn’t clear if Scowcroft ever perceived any connection between the Somali misadventure and the subsequent foreign policy ideas and actions that he ultimately lamented with his characteristic unadorned eloquence. In his 2012 ​National Interest​ piece, he suggested that America’s thrashing about following the September 11, 2001, Islamist attacks on America rendered “an anomalous decade that has changed how we think about the world and altered our image in the world.”

Once, he wrote, America was viewed as trying to do what was best for everybody, whereas after 9/11 we increasingly have been seen as preoccupied with our own narrow interests. “We have appeared sometimes to be seeking to dominate rather than to lead,” he wrote. “As a result, it is not as easy as it used to be to get nations to mobilize in the same direction. And that retards our ability to navigate through this time of chaos and transition.”

Scowcroft closed the piece with the obligatory hope that all will be well in the end, that a new kind of geopolitical thinking will emerge to accommodate the new realities of a globalized world. But he said he was loath to put that in the form of a prognostication. “I just hope,” he added, “it isn’t merely a case of wishful thinking.”

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C., journalist and publishing executive, is the author of five books on American history and foreign policy. 


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