General Brent Scowcroft, who served as national-security adviser to presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, died this week at the age of 95. Quiet and unassuming, but ruthlessly effective in accomplishing his goals, Scowcroft was a key figure in many of the international crises and presidential decisions that shaped the world we live in today, for better or worse.
This is from my 2015 NR review of an authoritative biography by Bartholomew Sparrow (The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security):
[After Saddam’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait], 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. . . .
It’s possible to disagree with Scowcroft and 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.
Read the rest here.