WALL STREET JOURNAL REVIEWS "THE STRATEGIST," BIOGRAPHY OF GENERAL SCOWCROFT

January 27, 2015

by HAL BRANDS

The Wall Street Journal, published January 23, 2015

 

Grand Strategy in the Real World

When the Cold War order broke down, and Iraq invaded Kuwait, Brent Scowcroft served as an ‘honest broker’ among factions, though his own cautious realism often won the day.

Strategy is where vision and action come together. In the realm of foreign policy, a good strategy demands clear thinking about long-term goals and objectives—about what a country ultimately seeks to achieve in the world. Yet it also requires an ability to translate that vision into the concrete, day-to-day initiatives that move the ship of state progressively closer to its destination. Strategy is therefore about implementation no less than conception. It is operational as well as aspirational.

As Bartholomew Sparrow, a professor at the University of Texas, notes in his excellent authorized biography “The Strategist,” Brent Scowcroft has never been viewed as a grand visionary in the mold of Henry Kissinger , Dean Acheson or George Kennan. He has certainly never attained their level of celebrity (or notoriety) with the general public.


THE STRATEGIST

By Bartholomew Sparrow 
PublicAffairs, 716 pages, $37.50

Yet Mr. Scowcroft has been among the most important and talented American strategists of the postwar period. Few American officials have done the operational part of strategy as well, over as long a period of time. His service at the highest levels of government began in the early 1970s, amid the Cold War and superpower détente, and ended in the early 1990s, at the dawn of the post-Cold War era. He was national security adviser—in essence, the nation’s chief strategic officer—under both Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush and served as an influential aide or consultant to several other presidents. Throughout his long career, Mr. Scowcroft won respect on both sides of the aisle, not just for his ability to think strategically about American power but even more for his ability to turn ideas into workable policies and to get those policies implemented successfully.


THE STRATEGIST AND THE OPERATOR

Andrew Marshall: Watching the World 
Brent Scowcroft: Working the White House

Drawing on interviews with the subject and his contemporaries, as well as archival materials, Mr. Sparrow presents a textured portrait of Mr. Scowcroft in his myriad roles: fast-rising Air Force officer stationed everywhere from the Pentagon to Tito’s Yugoslavia; military assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser under Nixon; national security adviser to Ford during the tumultuous post-Vietnam and post-Watergate years; key player in presidential commissions on strategic nuclear forces and the Iran-Contra scandal under Reagan; national security adviser once again during theBush years; and finally elder statesman—and constructive critic of U.S. policy. The book also interweaves descriptions of the key events, contexts and institutions that shaped Mr. Scowcroft’s career, from the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War to the rise of the National Security Council as the dominant forum for foreign-policy decision making.

Mr. Sparrow’s biography, however, focuses on the watershed years of the first Bush presidency, when Mr. Scowcroft’s contributions to policy were most crucial and his influence was greatest, thanks to his warm and productive relationship with Mr. Bush. “No one, with the exception of Barbara [Bush], had better access to the president—and Bush probably spent more time with Scowcroft,” Mr. Sparrow writes. The two men had worked closely together when Mr. Bush was CIA director and Mr. Scowcroft was national security adviser under Ford. Between 1989 and 1993, they formed a strong partnership during a period when strategic thought and action were at a premium, because the world was undergoing profound changes that destroyed the Cold War order and presented the administration with both alluring opportunities and considerable dangers.

Mr. Scowcroft played a leading role during a series of crises that followed hard upon one another: the Tiananmen Square massacre; the fall of the Berlin Wall and the reunification of Germany; the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the subsequent Persian Gulf War; the collapse of the Soviet Union. He provided a guiding and steadying influence on U.S. policy in many of these cases, working with Mr. Bush to control instability, to strengthen America’s geopolitical position and to shepherd a generally successful transition from the Cold War to a new era. Historians are increasingly coming to see the Bush years as a time of highly competent management of global change.
Mr. Scowcroft possessed two notable attributes, which Mr. Sparrow emphasizes. The first was his mastery of the day-to-day process of formulating strategy. During the 1970s, Mr. Scowcroft cleaned up the institutional wreckage left by his mentor Mr. Kissinger’s brilliant but personalized leadership of the National Security Council; he delegated authority more effectively and restored a degree of collegiality to the interagency process. Mr. Sparrow reports that Mr. Kissinger had even barred some NSC aides from dining at the White House Mess, in order to limit fraternization.

During the late 1980s, Mr. Scowcroft had studied the bureaucratic failures that enabled the disastrous Iran-Contra scandal. In the Bush years, he drew on these experiences to establish a decision-making system that featured inclusive and transparent consultation, sharp discouragement of leaking and other bureaucratic intrigues, and a strong role for Mr. Scowcroft himself as presidential adviser but also as an “honest broker” between other contending views. Aided by Mr. Scowcroft’s smooth manner—“abrasive as a silk scarf,” in the words of a Bush staffer interviewed by Mr. Sparrow—this “Scowcroft system” generally ensured robust, genuine debate while minimizing infighting and encouraging faithful implementation of decisions. More often than not, it thereby enabled the Bush administration to turn good instincts into good policy, and Mr. Scowcroft’s tenure remains the gold standard for management of the national security apparatus even today.

Mr. Scowcroft’s second essential attribute was his ability to balance the need to use power assertively, on the one hand, and to temper that assertiveness with prudence, on the other. He was hardly averse to acting boldly when opportunity beckoned or when vital interests were at stake. During the Gulf crisis, for instance, he arguably did more than any other individual to catalyze a decisive U.S. military response to Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Yet Mr. Scowcroft grasped that some ugly realities simply were not amenable to near-term American solutions. He thus counseled against pushing on to Baghdad after U.S. forces had liberated Kuwait in February 1991—just as, two years earlier, he had helped Mr. Bush resist calls to derail the entire relationship with China after Tiananmen Square. Both of these policies were heavily criticized at the time and after, but both were reasonable and probably better than the alternatives. Ambition had to be tempered with realism and restraint; this belief made Mr. Scowcroft a good match for Mr. Bush, who shared similar views.

To be sure, Mr. Scowcroft’s record was hardly spotless, and Mr. Sparrow catalogs his failures and blind spots as well as his successes. The decision not to oust Saddam in 1991 was probably the right one, but Mr. Scowcroft’s NSC failed to plan for the litany of problems that leaving Saddam atop the Iraqi regime would present. (Over a decade later, Mr. Scowcroft would earn the enmity of many officials in the George W. Bush administration for warning, in a 2002 op-ed for the Journal, that seeking to topple the Iraqi dictator might disrupt the post-9/11 war on terror.) Mr. Scowcroft disregarded CIA warnings in 1990-91 that Yugoslavia might soon explode into civil war, a failure that probably lessened the already slim chances of averting war. Nor did he push the administration to do anything meaningful to address the growing instability and extremism in Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal in late 1988, a missed opportunity that would later take on tragic proportions. Mr. Scowcroft, then, was not a strategic virtuoso. As Mr. Sparrow recognizes, he was a talented and accomplished strategist who got numerous things wrong even as he helped the Bush administration get most of the biggest things right.

For the most part, Mr. Sparrow’s book is a top-notch guide to understanding and appreciating its subject’s role in American strategy. The author conveys Mr. Scowcroft’s importance without unduly inflating it. He blends the personal and professional aspects of Mr. Scowcroft’s life, describing, for instance, the strains imposed by his wife’s chronic ill health. Mr. Sparrow also shows how the very qualities that led so many people initially to underestimate Mr. Scowcroft—his willingness to work behind the scenes and leave the credit and publicity to others—were integral to his success in the policy realm.

“The Strategist” does have limitations, however. The treatment of German reunification is surprisingly brief, given how utterly it transformed the geopolitical environment in Europe and beyond, and how quickly the Bush administration moved to support an initiative that engendered wariness or outright hostility from so many other nations. In a book about strategy, Mr. Sparrow might also have done more to discuss the George H.W. Bush administration’s efforts to articulate a post-Cold War global strategy for America. He does include a concise discussion of the ill-fated “New World Order” put forward by Messrs. Bush and Scowcroft during the Gulf crisis (and then promptly abandoned). But he does not go into any depth on the more formalized post-Cold War planning processes, particularly the drafting of three separate National Security Strategy reports, that Mr. Scowcroft and his staff oversaw. These reports actually outlined many of the key premises of U.S. strategy in the post-Cold War era, even though they were little noticed at the time or after.

Finally, because the declassification of Bush-era documents is far from complete, it seems likely that our understanding of Mr. Scowcroft and his contributions will evolve over time. Yet Mr. Sparrow has given us a very useful and informative account of a man who ranks as one of America’s most underappreciated foreign-policy practitioners. It should be read by all those who aspire to shape American strategy today and into the future.

—Mr. Brands is an assistant professor of public policy and history at Duke University.