Former U.S. National Security Ad​visor Brent Scowcroft at his office in Washington​, D.C., January 2001
Stuart Conway / Camera Press / Red​ux

Few officials in American history have played as influential a role in shaping U.S. foreign and national security policy over as long a time as did former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who died on August 6. Perhaps none has mentored as many young people (including me) who would go on to senior positions in government—an often overlooked dimension of Scowcroft’s rich legacy.

Scowcroft’s time as national security adviser under President George H. W. Bush, during the historic period from 1989 to 1993, is justly renowned. But to fully appreciate what he brought to what was his second stint in the job, it is important to recall his first, under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. Scowcroft became deputy to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger in January 1973 and then succeeded Kissinger in November 1975. Because Kissinger was dual-hatted as secretary of state and national security adviser from September 1973 until November 1975, Scowcroft essentially ran the National Security Council (NSC) single-handedly for more than two tumultuous years.

If the challenge facing the United States under the first President Bush was how to manage epochal opportunities created by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the challenge under Nixon and Ford was how to manage a series of historic crises and disasters. In some ways, the latter was a greater test of Scowcroft’s mettle than the former. That test both shaped his view of the national security adviser’s proper role and laid the foundation for his unmatched success in it—success that has made Scowcroft the aspirational model for every national security adviser since.

A TIME OF TESTING

Consider all that happened during Scowcroft’s first stretch at the NSC. On July 20, 1974, war broke out between two NATO allies after a Greek-sponsored coup on Cyprus provoked a Turkish invasion and the island’s subsequent partition (which has lasted to this day). Just three weeks later, the Watergate scandal culminated in Nixon’s resignation. A month after that, Ford set off a political firestorm by pardoning Nixon.

In the wake of Watergate, a far more assertive Congress was elected in November 1974, and it was determined to whittle down what it regarded as excessive presidential power. That brought both new war powers legislation and opposition to specific presidential actions—such as a refusal to support Ford’s request for materiel assistance to the South Vietnamese government. This move contributed to the chaotic scramble to evacuate Saigon, concluding on April 30, 1975, when the last helicopter took off from the roof of the U.S. embassy. Less than two weeks later, in Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge—which had taken power earlier in April—seized an American merchant ship, the Mayaguez, and its crew of 38, resulting in a U.S. military rescue operation in which 41 American service personnel were killed. In Africa, at Moscow’s behest late in 1975, 4,000 Cuban soldiers arrived in Angola to tip the balance toward the Soviet client in a civil war, and Congress, again acting to limit the president’s power, prohibited the Central Intelligence Agency from providing covert aid to the anti-Soviet faction. (By the end of the year, there were more than 36,000 Cuban troops in Angola.) Other crises in 1976 included the naval evacuation of American citizens from Lebanon in June and the murder of two American soldiers by North Korean forces, leading to a confrontation in the DMZ.

Notwithstanding the many crises during Scowcroft’s leadership of the NSC under Ford, there were at least two long-term achievements. The first was U.S.-Soviet agreement on the basic framework of a second strategic arms accord, negotiated at a summit meeting in Vladivostok in November 1974 (and ultimately signed in 1979). The second was the signing of the Helsinki Accords on August 1, 1975. Helsinki ratified the post–World War II political and military status quo in Europe, but it also, through human rights provisions agreed to by Moscow, gave legitimacy to dissidents who were seeking to implement those provisions in both Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In hindsight, it became clear that the Helsinki Accords were the most important early milestone on the path to dramatic change inside the Soviet empire.

Although Kissinger was the principal negotiator with the Soviets and other foreign governments during this period, Scowcroft was at the center of managing crises and supporting the president. In a remarkably productive partnership, Kissinger and Scowcroft not only threaded their way through the last days of Vietnam, the Cyprus crisis, the Lebanese civil war, and multiple other daily firestorms; they also kept an eye on long-term strategy and U.S. interests, laying the foundations for future strategic arms control and the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union.

Scowcroft was at the center of managing crises and supporting the president.

I saw all this firsthand because Scowcroft borrowed me from the CIA in the spring of 1974 to take over the Soviet desk at the NSC. Joining the NSC in those last months of the Nixon administration was, as I often told Brent, like signing up as a deck hand on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg. In those days, I referred to my boss as Lieutenant General Scowcroft—not Brent, as I would later—and a summons to his office in the West Wing was rarely good news. Yet, as for so many others, it gave me the chance to learn at that master’s knee: how to inform, advise, and support a president; how to manage the interagency process; and how to deal with the urgency of today while also thinking strategically about the future.

I believe those hard days during the last year of the Nixon administration and throughout the Ford presidency played a big part in shaping Scowcroft’s view of presidential decision-making and the role of the national security adviser. Abroad, the United States was seen as weakened by Vietnam and Watergate. At home, public trust in the presidency had cratered, Congress was hostile and determined to recover what it regarded as lost power, and an unelected president was running for election while burdened by the Nixon pardon and a faltering economy. Meanwhile, the Nixon-Kissinger détente policy toward the Soviet Union was coming under increasing attack from Republican conservatives such as Ronald Reagan.

The passing of time has dimmed memories of how tough those years were. But the pressures were extraordinary. Through it all, Scowcroft was unflappable, affable, and focused relentlessly on protecting the country and the presidency. I am convinced that time of testing prepared him for the time of opportunity that would come a dozen years later.

A TIME OF OPPORTUNITY

Much has been written about Scowcroft’s role in the momentous events that took place from 1989 to 1992.  Because the outcome was so positive for the United States, it is easy to forget just how dangerous those developments were as they unfolded. (During that period, I served as Brent’s deputy at the NSC and then as director of Central Intelligence.) Bush did not celebrate as the Berlin Wall came down because we recognized Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s perilous situation at home. Had Gorbachev faced a coup attempt by the KGB, the Soviet army, and the Communist Party in November 1989, when the wall came down, rather than nearly two years later, the attempt might well have succeeded—likely with bloody consequences for Eastern Europe.

Another worry was what might happen as the Soviet Union began to collapse. Would there be civil war? Would the military split and support one faction or another? What about the fate of 40,000 nuclear weapons? There is no precedent in history of a major empire collapsing without a major war. Only recently has Bush (along with Scowcroft, Secretary of State James Baker, Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell) begun to receive due recognition of his role in managing that outcome. That the national security apparatus maintained its cohesion, discipline, and focus during those dangerous times was due primarily, of course, to Bush himself but also crucially to Scowcroft.

Scowcroft also played a key role in the Gulf War, orchestrating and coordinating the work of state, defense, and the CIA while also providing sound military advice. By the fall of 1990, we had well over 200,000 troops in Saudi Arabia, but there didn’t seem to be much enthusiasm in the Pentagon for launching an attack to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein. Bush became impatient and insisted on an offensive plan to achieve that goal. Scowcroft warned him that the military would come in with a request for forces so large it would make his eyes water—but he advised the president to listen and then to agree to everything that the military wanted, since it would be the only way to get them off the dime. Sure enough, the military briefer requested heavy armored units moved from Germany to the Gulf; multiple aircraft carrier strike groups; and activation of both the National Guard and the Reserves (days before the mid-term elections). Following Scowcroft’s advice, Bush listened to the request and then stood up and said, “You’ve got it. Let me know if you need more.” He then promptly walked out of the room, leaving everyone but Scowcroft stunned.

That the national security apparatus maintained its cohesion, discipline, and focus was due primarily, of course, to Bush himself but also crucially to Scowcroft.

Scowcroft also weighed in on the military’s battle plan. The commander’s original proposal was for a frontal assault on the Iraqi army. Scowcroft thought that “ill-advised” and suggested an alternative strategy, a hooking offensive that would sweep around the Iraqis’ flank and encircle them. He discussed this with the president and then quietly urged Cheney to take a closer look. Cheney agreed, and the plan was changed along the lines Scowcroft had suggested.

Bush and Scowcroft were very close personally. As things began to change in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union in the spring of 1989, it became apparent how they complemented one another. Both wanted to act boldly in response to those developments, far more boldly than the rest of the team. Bush especially wanted to respond to Gorbachev’s force structure changes in Eastern Europe with similarly far-reaching changes in U.S. forces in Europe. His instincts told him he needed to make significant moves, and although Bush was never impulsive, his biggest decisions began with his instincts. In long private conversations, he would tell Scowcroft what he thought the United States should do in a given situation, and Scowcroft would then provide specific proposals for translating the president’s instincts into actions that made strategic sense in both the short and the long term. It was an extraordinary relationship. Bush and Scowcroft first met during the time of testing in the 1970s. How lucky for the world that they came together at a time of historic opportunity.

SCOWCROFT THE MAN

In a capital city replete with oversized egos and undersized backbones, Brent’s low-key, self-effacing demeanor, his steadfast integrity and common decency, but also his resolve and moral and political courage set him apart. He had self-confidence, but the not the chest-thumping, strutting egotism we see all too often. Rather, he had the quiet self-assurance that allows a leader to give others real responsibility and real credit for success, to avoid casting such a large shadow that no one else can grow. Among those who grew and matured, who became wiser and more effective policymakers as a result of being in Scowcroft’s orbit, were future secretaries of state and defense, national security advisers, assistant and deputy secretaries, ambassadors, and heads of think tanks.

Brent’s personal modesty extended to his view of statecraft. In a commencement address at the College of William and Mary at the end of the 1990s, he lamented the hubris and triumphalism that followed the U.S. victory in the Cold War, especially talk of “the end of history.” He warned against preaching rather than teaching American values to the rest of the world. Yet his pragmatic sensibility coexisted with a willingness to take a stand on what he believed, even when doing so went against the conventional wisdom of his party. Above all, Scowcroft was an advocate and protector of U.S. global leadership—which he considered truly indispensable.

We should all be concerned about the decline of the values associated with Brent when it comes to how we govern and relate to one another at home—civility and mutual respect, putting country before self and party, listening to and learning from one another, not pretending to have all the answers nor demonizing those with whom we differ. Fortunately, we don’t need to look far for inspiration on how to act, how to work, how to live, and how best to serve the American people. We have the example of the extraordinary career, the brilliant mind, and the beautiful soul of Brent Scowcroft.

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  • ROBERT M. GATES was U.S. Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011 and is the author of Exercise of Power: American Failures, Successes, and a New Path Forward in the Post–Cold War Period.
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