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Brent Scowcroft, key national security adviser to two presidents, dies at 95

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/7/2020 Jerrold L. Schecter

Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served at the right hand of power as national security adviser for presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush and played instrumental roles in shaping nuclear warfare strategy, dealing with the end of the Cold War and restoring relations with China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, died Aug. 7 at age 95.

The death was announced by a spokesman, Jim McGrath. Complete details were not immediately available.

Gen. Scowcroft did not command the public recognition of Alexander M. Haig Jr., whom he replaced as deputy national security adviser in 1973, or Henry A. Kissinger, whom he succeeded as national security adviser in 1975. Nor did Gen. Scowcroft draw or encourage the media attention (and scrutiny) that made household names of those he closely mentored, including future secretaries of state Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice and national security adviser Stephen Hadley.

Austere in his personal habits and utterly averse to publicity, Gen. Scowcroft kept his focus on discretion and private counsel, leaving him willingly overshadowed by more flamboyant personalities in the military and political establishment. His strength came from resolving interagency turf battles and exerting policy influence during an era when the Soviet Union was collapsing and China rising.

“I don’t have a quick, innovative mind,” Gen. Scowcroft once told Time magazine. “I don’t automatically think of good new ideas. What I do is pick out good ideas from bad ideas.”

Gen. Scowcroft fully came into his own as a strategic coach when President George H.W. Bush tapped him in 1989 as assistant to the president for national security affairs. In that job, he helped call the tactical plays for Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney as part of Bush’s policy of caution and moderation concerning the fall of the Soviet empire.

That strategy drew strong criticism from hard-liners in Congress and anti-Communists who said Bush should have been a triumphalist and taken credit for the fall of the Soviet Union. Bush feared a backlash that might have forced Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev from power with a military takeover, and thus sought to avoid weakening Gorbachev further.

In their jointly written 1998 memoir of their White House years together, “A World Transformed,” Gen. Scowcroft and Bush made the case that by not humiliating Gorbachev, but supporting him, the president made it possible for Moscow to withdraw its forces from Eastern Europe and bring a reunified Germany into NATO. It was a feat that most European participants believed impossible.

Former deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott, a former president of the Brookings Institution policy center in Washington, said, “Scowcroft played a vital role in the peaceful demolition of the Soviet empire with President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker. They had a firm set of strategic goals, and they were the ground control officers who brought the crumbling Soviet colossus in for a soft landing.”

Gen. Scowcroft’s ambition was screened by an apparent lack of it. Of Mormon heritage, he neither smoked nor drank and avoided Washington social life. He was a golf, fishing and boating buddy with Bush, but as Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward observed in “The Commanders,” his book about the Persian Gulf War, “Scowcroft’s idea of recreation was attending a seminar on arms control, a subject he loved in all of its obscure detail.”

Bush is said to have told close friends that among his advisers he trusted Gen. Scowcroft because “Brent doesn’t want anything.”

Others saw in Gen. Scowcroft a fierce mind, a confidence and a temperament that could withstand delivering withering feedback to powerful people.

“I picked Brent because I saw him stand up to Haldeman, and I needed somebody with guts to stand up to me,” said Kissinger, referring to H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, Nixon’s draconic chief of staff who was forced to resign over the Watergate scandal and spent 18 months in jail. “Brent is judicious, wise, calm and a great patriot and great personal friend.”

Working for Nixon, Kissinger

Brent Scowcroft was born March 19, 1925, in Ogden, Utah, where his father was a wholesale grocer. The younger Scowcroft began his military career at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.

After graduating in 1947, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the newly created Air Force. He earned his wings but, on a training flight in 1948, his P-51 Mustang lost its engine, and he suffered a broken back in making a forced landing. The injuries took two years to heal and ended his flying career, but he fell in love with his nurse, Marian Horner, and they married in 1951.

She died in 1995. Survivors include a daughter, Karen Scowcroft, and a granddaughter.

After the flying accident, Gen. Scowcroft held teaching and administrative positions. He received a master’s degree in international relations from Columbia University in 1953 and taught Russian history at West Point.

He studied Russian and Serbo-Croatian and served as assistant air attache in Yugoslavia from 1959 to 1961. He completed a doctorate in international relations from Columbia University in 1967; later he joined the Defense Department and served in a succession of national security posts that eventually brought him to Nixon’s attention.

As military assistant to the president, then-Col. Scowcroft accompanied Nixon on his historic journey to China in February 1972 and provided seamless logistical support in a country never before visited by an American president in office. He was rewarded with a promotion to brigadier general, and he became part of the advance team that went to Moscow to lay the groundwork for Nixon’s summit meeting with Leonid Brezhnev in May 1972.

Kissinger, then head of the National Security Council, chose Gen. Scowcroft to replace Haig as deputy national security adviser when Haig left to become deputy chief of staff of the Army and then Nixon’s White House chief of staff during Watergate. Gen. Scowcroft completely immersed himself in his small White House office next to Kissinger, shunning on-the-record interviews or any press contacts that might antagonize the high-strung, colorful Kissinger.

“Henry was in charge of foreign policy, but Brent kept things running,” Peter Rodman, a foreign policy expert who served as a top aide to Kissinger, told Business Week in 1983. “He was the organizer, the coordinator.”

In 1975, Gen. Scowcroft resigned his military commission to succeed Kissinger as national security adviser; Nixon had resigned the previous year because of the Watergate scandal, and Ford was now president.

Gen. Scowcroft was credited with helping orchestrate the evacuation of American personnel from Saigon in April 1975, marking a humiliating defeat for U.S. forces in Vietnam. He also was involved in the successful military recapture of the American merchant ship Mayaguez in May 1975 after a group of Cambodian communists seized the vessel.

Tiananmen controversy

Gen. Scowcroft left the NSC in January 1977, when Jimmy Carter was elected president, but his expertise in weapons development and military strategy won him a place on Carter’s General Advisory Committee on Arms Control.

The group helped formulate the strategic arms treaty known as SALT II, signed by Carter and Brezhnev in June 1979. The treaty, although never ratified, became the first nuclear agreement to limit the number of nuclear warheads on a missile, established counting rules and other restrictions that formed the basis for future limitations on nuclear missile proliferation.

Gen. Scowcroft was not offered a policymaking role in the Ronald Reagan administration because of conservative efforts to make a clean break with Nixon and Ford’s policies of detente toward the Soviet Union. Gen. Scowcroft said he believed Reagan’s “evil empire” rhetoric was excessive and “tended to frighten our allies and make support of American leadership of the West more difficult.”

In November 1986, Gen. Scowcroft was appointed to a Special Presidential Review Board headed by former senator John Tower (R-Tex.) to investigate allegations that the administration illegally sold arms to Iran in exchange for U.S. hostages in Lebanon and then diverted money from the arms sales to the Nicaraguan contras.

That violation of a congressional prohibition on funding the contras raised the threat of impeachment. Instead, the commission’s 1987 report concluded that members of the NSC staff were responsible for the secret diversion of funds. It said Reagan was out of touch with his own staff.

Back in the White House under George H.W. Bush, Gen. Scowcroft suffered embarrassments over the June 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. The Chinese leadership had ordered the People’s Liberation Army to enforce martial law and crush the protests of students, resulting in the death of several hundred to several thousand people (estimates varied) and the wounding of more than 7,000 civilians and troops, stirring worldwide revulsion.

Only a month after the massacre, Bush secretly sent Gen. Scowcroft to meet with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping to work out a formula for Sino-American rapprochement. The June meeting was revealed only in December 1989, when Bush again sent Gen. Scowcroft to Beijing, ostensibly to brief the Chinese leadership on Bush’s recent summit with Gorbachev in Malta.

The visit contradicted Bush’s ban on high-level visits to China and came while his military embargo, imposed after Tiananmen, was still in effect. CNN TV footage showed Gen. Scowcroft toasting with Li Peng, a senior Chinese official who played a key role in ordering the Tiananmen crackdown. The toast raised a furor of criticism in Congress against Gen. Scowcroft’s and Bush’s insensitivity to China’s human rights violations.

In a State Department oral history interview in 2006, Gen. Scowcroft said an American TV team unexpectedly showed up at the 1989 banquet. “Well, just as I was lifting a glass to respond to the Chinese toast, in came the camera crew,” he said. “And I thought: ‘What do I do? Do I put my glass down, refuse to toast, destroy my mission? Or do I go ahead and toast and be, in return, toasted by the American press?’ Well, I chose the latter, and boy, was I toasted.”

The following day, in negotiations with Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen, “We came up with a road map to renormalize our relations,” Gen. Scowcroft said.

However, small, step-by-step confidence-building measures lagged and ground to a halt after the fall and execution of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989.

“When Ceausescu was toppled, I believe the Chinese leaders panicked,” wrote Gen. Scowcroft in his memoir with Bush. “They had taken great comfort from his apparent impregnability. They referred to him frequently in our conversations and seemed to take him as proof that communism could survive the current liberal onslaught. When that proved not to be the case, they may have concluded that they had been right at Tiananmen, that any gesture of moderation would be simply too dangerous, and their only chance of survival was to be absolutely inflexible.”

Point man in Persian Gulf War

Gen. Scowcroft was Bush’s point man in the Persian Gulf War, which liberated Kuwait in February 1991 after it had been invaded and annexed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Gen. Scowcroft was the architect and coordinator for Bush in building an allied coalition that defeated Iraqi forces yet avoided carrying the war to Baghdad to oust Hussein.

Although he was a longtime intimate of the Bush family, Gen. Scowcroft publicly opposed President George W. Bush’s plans for an invasion of Iraq in a signed editorial page article in the Wall Street Journal on Aug. 15, 2002.

Gen. Scowcroft warned that “an attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counter-terrorist campaign we have undertaken.” His commentary created a firestorm of speculation, suggesting that he was speaking on behalf of the former president Bush. Only in 2009, in an Esquire magazine interview, did Gen. Scowcroft confirm publicly that he spoke on his own.

For his work on the Persian Gulf War, Gen. Scowcroft received in 1991 the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. But of the many medals and awards Gen. Scowcroft received, his private favorite was from President George H.W. Bush: “The “Scowcroft Award for Somnolent Excellence,” a prize for falling asleep at meetings but recovering quickly enough to make it appear he had been engaged in deep strategic thought.

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Brent Scowcroft, Bandar bin Sultan are posing for a picture: Brent Scowcroft, left, in 1996 with former Saudi Arabian ambassador to the the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. © Rich Lipski/The Washington Post Brent Scowcroft, left, in 1996 with former Saudi Arabian ambassador to the the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Presidency of George H. W. Bush, James Baker are posing for a picture: President George Bush, left, with Nationaal Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, center, and Secretary of State James Baker at the White House in 1992. © DAVID AKE/AFP/Getty Images President George Bush, left, with Nationaal Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, center, and Secretary of State James Baker at the White House in 1992.
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