Brent Scowcroft and American Military Intervention


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.

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.

Let me illustrate: The main breakthrough in European security in the spring of 1989 was to combine a dual initiative, a major new initiative that would decisively accelerate progress toward a Europe-wide treaty limiting conventional forces, which then allowed them to put off deploying more modern short-range nuclear forces (a step that had been agreed at a NATO summit the previous year, 1988, but which had become a new pain point in the alliance). In this particular case, much of the impetus for the big deal, including on short-range nuclear forces, came from Bush and Baker, but it was Brent and his staff who then did all the heavy lifting on the conventional arms control half of it, in order to make the whole package click. In the process Bush, by the way, bluntly overruled vehement opposition from the Defense Department. And the package worked.

That example led to others where Bush, Baker, Scowcroft, Cheney, and others found how effective they could be as role-players on a team. In that context of emerging teamwork during the rest of 1989 and on into 1990, what Brent also provided, as a perfect complement to Bush himself, was a tone and sense of professional standards, and of unassailable integrity. This touched many things, including the way people related to each other, the quality of written staff work, and the follow-through.

This tone, which started of course with the president but was then personalized by Scowcroft and Gates, had intangible yet very broad effects across the whole foreign and defense side of the administration. This was immeasurably important. Again, I think it was the ideal complement to Baker’s role. No one could have managed the Pentagon or the arms control process as well as Brent did, aided by Gates and others, like the late Arnold Kanter, though Brent himself was self-critical about what he thought he was unable to do.

But Brent was not just cautious. He could be quite bold indeed. One of his important regrets was that the United States did not go far enough in overhauling its fundamental force structure in the period between 1990 and the end of 1992. We discussed some of the reasons for that. Even there, at least on nuclear force posture, and especially non-strategic weapons, what Brent orchestrated in the autumn of 1991 (with vital help from Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and — not least — Mikhail Gorbachev), a simply enormous accomplishment worldwide, is something I think no one but Brent Scowcroft could possibly have accomplished.

In the Gulf War crisis and war of 1990 to 1991, Brent, like President Bush, was an early and immediate advocate of American military intervention. This is reasonably well known, and I was an eyewitness to it, since I accompanied both men to their meeting with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, in Aspen, Colorado, on the day after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990.

The Bush-Scowcroft position at the outset (Baker was on the other side of the world when the crisis broke) does not fit into stock theoretical paradigms about realism or idealism. It was an immediate, catalytic fusion of several concerns and beliefs, distantly reminiscent of the galvanized reaction that marked President Harry Truman’s reaction to North Korea’s invasion of South Korea in June 1950.

There was the sheer brazenness of the thing, perhaps the most out and out act of international military aggression since 1950, arguably worse even than the North Korean invasion. There was the convergence of this brazen aggression with the dawn of hope that the Cold War world might yield to something better. There was the threat Iraq posed of not only adding control of Kuwait’s oil resources to its own, but also — with what was then the fourth largest army in the world — posing an imminent threat to the Saudi, Qatari, and even Emirati oil and gas resources, which are concentrated nearby, near the western shore of the Persian Gulf.

Bush and Scowcroft had not sought this challenge. But they instantly regarded it as a defining moment for the nature of the global commonwealth they hoped would replace the divided Cold War world, the divided world in which they had lived most of their lives.

Brent put it this way in his recently released oral history. After summarizing more traditional interests, he explains that:

On the top — and the president got very imbued with this — was the notion of dealing with aggression. In the background, the way we operated this whole thing was the thinking that we were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world. We wanted to behave in a way — and use the U.N. in a way — which would set a pattern for the post-Cold War world in dealing with aggression. Which is one of the reasons we worked so hard at making the U.N. work in this case, and one of the reasons why we were religiously observing the dictates of the international community.

I will not go into the details of the Gulf War story, and what Brent adds to that. Others have covered this ground, including Bush and Scowcroft themselves, in their joint memoir. Brent’s recently released oral history spends quite a lot of time on the Gulf War issues. Peter Baker’s New York Times piece called out some of this. Brent was quite candid about some of the civil-military issues in the conduct of that war.

Brent also stresses that, by December 1990, he believed that the war against Iraq had to be fought, one way or another. It had to be fought because it would be the only way to cripple the Iraqi military machine, about which the United States had now learned a lot more. It was a machine — including a weapons of mass destruction program the United States was already realizing it had underestimated — that, if left intact, would pose a constant and imminent threat to Iraq’s southern neighbors that would be very difficult to manage.

I emphasize the stridency of Brent’s views about the Gulf War (which I shared, by the way), because it offers a useful contrast to Brent’s evaluation of the two crises that followed, in the Balkans and in Somalia.

“The Yugoslav crisis was a very difficult one for the administration,” Scowcroft recalled. He and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger had both served in the country and knew it reasonably well. Bush and Baker did not.

Once the war began, with the Croatian phase:

We could never figure out a rationale for intervention along the lines of the criteria that we had developed in the Gulf War. You know, what are the ways that military force can be useful? There were humanitarian horrors starting right away — that was one thing. But it was difficult to identify American national interests — as opposed to humanitarian interests — unless it spread to Kosovo, or unless it spread outside Yugoslavia.

So, “what would force be used to accomplish?” It would not help resolve the conflict. It might help supply refugee centers, but even that was a problem given the geography.

As European forces became committed, they also became potential hostages. “Increasingly,” he explained:

We’re getting outside the Bush administration, but as the United States got more and more muscular in its rhetoric, the situation got worse and worse. Until it was brought together, really, by the Europeans saying, ‘OK, we’re going to evacuate our forces. Now, will you help us evacuate our forces?’ It was at that time that we started to use air power. That, along with the Croatian army, which had been revived, brought about the cease-fire. We simply were afraid of being drawn into an endless war. But we could not figure out how to (a) solve with the use of force, or (b) extricate our forces once we got them in there.

Among the Bush administration leaders, “Larry and I leaned farther forward than anyone else,” but even this was for very limited use of some airpower. “We would not have done much.” Or they would have done more if that was necessary to back a large-scale effort organized by the Europeans, in order to be their good ally. Brent thought the United States “made a serious mistake” in the way it subsequently handled the crisis.

In Somalia, after the collapse of the established government in 1991, the civil warfare led to a large humanitarian crisis during the summer of 1992. The United States helped airlift supplies. By the autumn of 1992 the airlift had become too dangerous. “So,” Brent recalled, “we had to quit our humanitarian aid — or do something else.” Less-developed countries complained that their concerns were never on the agenda. “Here,” Brent said, “was a Third World country, a non-Christian country, a black country, a southern hemisphere country — it fit all the criteria … for neglect.”

Brent then argued, as he recalled it, that “Each route [of humanitarian supply] we have is closed down. The U.N. can’t do it by itself. Suppose we mount an operation to clean these people out of the supply lines, reopen the supply lines, and get things flowing again. Then maybe a smaller U.N. force can keep the aid flowing.”

Colin Powell, the Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, then came in with a series of arguments against this plan. “But then he said,” Brent remembered, “after he finished his charts, ‘But if you want to do it. … ’ Then he put up the charts showing exactly how it could be done.” It was:

A pretty small, contained operation of limited duration, couple of months, we thought. Then we would lift some Marines offshore for another month as a contingency force — just to help in case people got in trouble. It was that kind of an operation. It was very short-term, very limited objective. We didn’t know if it would work over the long term or not.

Brent backed this plan. He had hoped it could be wrapped up before the Clinton administration took office in January 1993. It took longer, but by then “we had maybe 10, 20 percent of the force out.” He kept the incoming Clinton administration briefed, through Sandy Berger.

“We had trouble,” Brent explained, “with [United Nations Secretary-General Boutros] Boutros-Ghali, who wanted to turn this into a nation-building operation. He was deeply involved in Somalia. We told him no, we wouldn’t do it. No, we wouldn’t leave our forces in — we were getting out.” Berger knew about this.

The new administration, however, accepted the United Nations’ new mission, partly aided by Brent’s former deputy, Jonathan Howe. Howe had replaced Gates, and then became a United Nations employee. Brent viewed the Somalia policy adopted in 1993 as another preventable tragedy.

I asked him, “Sure you aren’t being too optimistic about that? You don’t think you would have sunk your feet into the quagmire and had difficulty extricating yourselves?”

“No,” he answered, “we’d have had no difficulty extricating. The real question was, how long would it have been before the thugs really moved back in? I don’t know the answer to that.” That was a possibility, but the drought had ended. “So it was not necessarily the case that it would have reverted to the pre-invasion thing — although there’s a good chance that it might have.”

Brent conceded that it was a “very tough thing to do — to hand off a war like this” to the incoming Clinton administration. But he felt, correctly in my view, “they didn’t give it the analysis we had given it before we went in. This was in the full flush of assertive multilateralism. My guess is they thought, We can turn this into a real showcase.

The Clinton administration’s National Security Council staff transition was led by Madeleine Albright and Rick Inderfurth (though that staff would end up being led by Tony Lake and Sandy Berger). Brent believed, “they didn’t sit down and analyze where they were and where they wanted to go. They inherited an operation, which was succeeding in goals as we described it. As I say, there had been nominal withdrawals already. We had a schedule of withdrawals that we left for them. It was somewhere around the end of March that we figured we would be out.”

“I think they simply took that on,” he explained:

And then their attention was drawn to the tribal leaders and the trouble they were making. They made trouble for us too. Then there was a big conference held — U.N. conference, I think — and it was heavily on, ‘What’ll you do about Somalia and nation building?’ I think they just migrated to it, without really thinking about what they were doing and how that changed the character of what they had to do in Somalia.

In August 2000, Brent believed the situation in Iraq was bad, but manageable:

Ten years after the war, if you look, Saddam is still there. Iraq is nowhere near as powerful as they were before the war. Saddam is a nuisance, he’s a pain in the neck — but as long as we are alert to the problem and keep him from doing what he would otherwise do, which is not an enormous task, he’s not a threat to the region. And that’s what it’s all about. It would be satisfying to get rid of him — but we still have forces in Korea! Fifty years after the war in Korea. In many cases, in foreign affairs, you can’t solve problems. You manage them, you reduce them to the point where they don’t get to be crises, and I think this is one of them.

Two years later, in August 2002, this was still Brent’s basic view about Iraq, as he told me at the time, before he published his op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, “Don’t Attack Saddam.” Brent’s view was not far from Jim Baker’s view at the time.

To be fair to President George W. Bush, at the time, neither Brent nor Jim Baker had been bombarded every morning, in person, with the worries about terror threats and/or Iraq that were featured in the President’s Daily Brief during the previous 300 days. If and when these items are declassified, I suspect they will, cumulatively, shed a good deal more light on the environment in which choices were made about Iraq than anything else that has come out so far.

But the wariness of Brent, and of Baker, is noteworthy. These men were a bit like the George Marshall and Dean Acheson of the creation of the global commonwealth between 1989 and 1992. So, as outsiders generalize about the supposedly blob-like attitudes about intervention among the U.S. foreign policy elite, their views have to be considered too.

In the mid-1960s, few argued that any policy of containing communism was bound to produce the Vietnam tragedy. Marshall had, in fact, gone to some lengths to limit U.S. intervention in the vastly more consequential civil war in China. Vietnam was not the necessary outgrowth of the grand strategy he and others had devised more than ten years earlier. Nor was Iraq predestined by the grand strategy that Bush, Baker, Scowcroft and others had devised more than ten years earlier.

As experts debate what should come in 2021, it is a great time to reflect on Brent Scowcroft. For me anyway, perhaps the most eloquent tribute to Scowcroft was written by Janan Ganesh, in the Financial Times. His essay is titled, “The lost virtue of doubt.” In the 1970s and 1980s, historians like Ernest May thought it was time to recall Marshall’s example, very much including the China story. Perhaps today, at the beginning of the 2020s, there is fresh inspiration from recalling both the virtues in Brent’s beliefs, and the virtues in his doubts.



Philip Zelikow is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History and J. Wilson Newman Professor of Governance at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, both at the University of Virginia. He was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission and, before that, directed the Carter-Ford commission on federal election reform. He has worked on international policy in each of the five administrations from Reagan through Obama.

Image: Department of Defense (Photo by Cherie Cullen)