Few Americans have served their country as long and as well as Brent Scowcroft, who died last week at age 95. Born and raised in Utah, he graduated from the US Military Academy at West Point, earned a doctorate in international relations at Columbia University, and rose to the rank of lieutenant general before retiring from the military to become the national security adviser to Gerald R. Ford and, later, to George H.W. Bush.
The West Wing in the White House is a surprisingly compact place and those who work there come to know their colleagues well. We served together from the first day until the last in both the Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush administrations. No one had a finer friend or more generous mentor. His quiet demeanor reflected the respect he enjoyed from all those who worked with him and came to know him well.
The National Security Council and its staff were designed to oversee a systematic approach in advising the president on foreign policy matters. Brent Scowcroft led that staff for two presidents, and the way in which he did so set the standard for all who followed.
The job, as he helped to shape it, includes two challenging parts. The first is to manage an even-handed, comprehensive decision-making process that identifies priorities, defines issues, and develops and assesses the range of viable options available so that the president can make informed decisions. This role, often called the honest broker, involves ensuring that the many voices across an administration are heard and that their perspectives are reflected in decision papers and often spirited meetings before a decision is reached.
He never abused his special relationship with either Presidents Ford or Bush to exclude a point of view with which he disagreed or a consideration he viewed as less important.
The second role is to serve as a personal adviser and confidant to the president, viewing the world from the president’s vantage point. The task requires a large reservoir of trust from one’s colleagues and the confidence of the president. Brent Scowcroft earned both.
At a large dinner in Washington in 1991, I was asked to speak and present an award to Brent honoring his distinguished public service. In preparing my remarks, I solicited contributions from the three presidents with whom he worked directly — Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush — as well as five colleagues with whom he had worked for many years — Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Robert Gates, each of whom eventually served as either secretary of state or secretary of defense. All generously responded with their candid assessments. They identified, among other things, his strategic mind, his calmness in a crisis, and his honesty in conveying their views to the president. He never abused his special relationship with either Presidents Ford or Bush to exclude a point of view with which he disagreed or a consideration he viewed as less important.
His skill in managing successfully a policy-making process was buttressed by a set of firmly held views about the world and the role of the United States in it. Coalitions, if carefully constructed as in the case of dealing with the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, were preferable to unilateral action. He was a realist with a strong preference for building bridges, persuasion, and finding common ground.
He urged military action only when more peaceful paths had been exhausted and the objectives were clearly defined and carefully circumscribed. He supported expelling Iraqi troops from Kuwait and destroying the Iraqis’ offensive war-making capability. He did not urge regime change, with its uncertain stream of consequences.
When addressing a current problem, he consistently first placed it in historical context and then rigorously posed the question regarding every proposed solution: Where will this lead? He advocated and practiced building relationships with others based on trust. Integrity was his hallmark, and he kept his word at home and abroad.
Rarely has a presidential adviser worked as long and as hard at his job, often to the point of exhaustion. On more than one occasion, he was observed falling asleep in meetings. This led to the Scowcroft Award, given by President Bush to senior administration officials whose hard work led to their falling asleep in meetings. The award’s criteria: depth, duration, and strength of recovery.
America’s greatness, which Brent Scowcroft firmly believed in throughout his life, is based not merely on its ideals but is grounded in the sacrifices of those who give their lives in its service. An extremely modest man, with a passion for anonymity, he devoted his long and productive life to its service. For young Americans who seek service over self, Brent Scowcroft is a role model worth emulating.
Roger B. Porter, the IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard, served as the assistant to the president for economic and domestic policy from 1989 to 1993.