How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
George H. W. Bush entered the presidency better prepared to lead the United States’ relations with the world than any U.S. president before or since. Like Richard Nixon, Bush had served in Congress and as vice president for two full terms. But he had also been the United States’ envoy to China and director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
That experience allowed him to reimagine the way the U.S. government created and implemented its foreign policy. Together with his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, Bush fashioned a national security process that maximized internal cooperation and avoided the kind of conflict among senior officials that had tarnished the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administrations.
That process has stood the test of time. Every president after Bush has embraced the formal process that Bush set out in a memorandum on his first day in office, and every national security adviser has explicitly sought to model his or her tenure on Scowcroft’s example. None, however, has lived up to the brilliance of Bush and Scowcroft.
Bush’s long service in government meant that when he was elected president, he knew a lot about the world and, crucially, how important it was to appoint the right people to deal with it. He knew he wanted James Baker, his close friend and political partner in Texas, in a senior role. Baker had brought order to the Reagan White House and, as Treasury secretary, defused a major crisis in trade policy. The day after the 1988 election, Bush named Baker as his secretary of state.
He knew he didn’t want Donald Rumsfeld, President Gerald Ford’s brilliant but irascible defense secretary, who had fought with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and would later help get Bush’s son George into deep trouble by mismanaging the Iraq war. Bush avoided appointing Rumsfeld to anything.
Above all, Bush wanted team players who would respect one another and work together to manage a fast-changing world. He knew that cooperation would not come automatically; it would have to be nurtured. To make that happen, he knew he needed to craft an effective process for managing national security policy. And he knew whom he wanted to help him do it: Brent Scowcroft, Ford’s quietly effective national security adviser.
Bush knew from firsthand experience that a bad process could kill even good policies. For much of the Reagan administration, feuds between top advisers, especially between Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, stymied effective policymaking. A string of national security advisers proved unable to bring the two giants together and decided that the best way to serve the often inattentive Reagan was to make policy on their own. The result was the disastrous Iran-contra affair, the attempt to trade arms for hostages that nearly brought down Reagan’s presidency.
Bush learned from this debacle. In Scowcroft, he found the right man to lead a national security process that would avoid the excesses of prior administrations. Scowcroft had served on the Tower Commission, which investigated the Iran-contra affair. He had drafted the commission’s recommendations on how to establish a well-functioning National Security Council (NSC) and decision-making process. The key was to empower the national security adviser as an honest broker who would bring well-developed options to the president for him to consider and decide on. He would still advise the president, but, Scowcroft wrote in the Tower Report, he “should generally operate offstage” and not “try to compete with the Secretary of State or the Secretary of Defense as the articulator of public policy.”
Bush and Scowcroft turned those words into reality. They proved that an administration could have a strong secretary of state and a strong national security adviser—and a president clearly in charge of both. As the familiar Cold War world of the past 40 years began to disintegrate, they found they needed just that kind of cooperative process.
After the Berlin Wall fell in autumn 1989, the future of Germany became the central European question. It had long been said, only half in jest, that the role of NATO was, as Lord Ismay, the institution’s first secretary-general, once quipped, “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Now, fears of a unified Germany reemerged. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand were particularly anxious. In 1990, realizing that reunification was inevitable, the Bush administration set out to maximize confidence and minimize fears. The first task was to deal with the serious tensions within West Germany between Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher. Bush worked with Kohl, and Baker with Genscher, in a “four plus two” negotiating process (four occupying powers plus two Germanys). The result was a German republic within, and constrained by, NATO, an outcome Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev accepted as the least bad option available. Throughout the year, with Bush and Baker doing the public diplomacy, Scowcroft drew on NSC staffers and and a collegial interagency process to develop policy ideas to achieve the overriding goal of winding down the Cold War with a reunited Germany anchored in the West.
Then, in the summer of 1990, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein shocked the world by invading Kuwait. “This will not stand,” Bush declared at Scowcroft’s urging. Baker traveled the world, building an unprecedented coalition to reverse Saddam’s actions. He won military and diplomatic support and extracted funds to help finance the U.S. war effort. Once again, Bush’s cooperative policy process triumphed as international sanctions were followed by military action and the liberation of Kuwait. Options were examined and debated; all views, including those opposed to military action, got a full and fair hearing. Scowcroft managed the process from the inside, while key cabinet members and officials acted on the outside.
Bush was met with thunderous applause in Congress when he reported the coalition’s success in March 1991. His approval rating hit 89 percent in a Gallup opinion poll. It was not to last. Burdened by a weakened economy and a perceived failure to address it, Bush experienced a steady decline in support throughout that year and into the next. He lost reelection to a foreign policy neophyte, Bill Clinton, and departed office as a one-term president. But the changes Bush brought would endure.
Every president since has adopted the Bush-Scowcroft model for cabinet-level and interagency foreign-policy making. That model includes committees at multiple governmental levels, from the Principals Committee, which is made up of cabinet secretaries and chaired by the national security adviser, down to a large number of interagency committees made up of assistant secretaries addressing regional and functional issues. The membership of the committees has evolved, as have the issues that the different interagency groups address, and different administrations have followed the formal process in their own ways. But the essential system has endured for nearly 30 years and stands as a grand testament to Bush and Scowcroft’s wisdom and foresight.