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Brent Scowcroft, US force behind first Iraq War, dies at 95

Former national security adviser Brent Scowcroft died of natural causes August 6, the Scowcroft Group announced Friday, Aug. 7, 2020; the former Air Force general was 95. Here, retired Lt. Gen. Scowcroft testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the START Treaty Negotiations, June 10, 2010, in Washington, D.C. (Pete Marovich/Zuma Press/TNS)

Brent Scowcroft, an arms-control expert and fixture of the U.S. defense establishment who worked closely with President George H.W. Bush to muster the multinational force that routed Iraqi forces from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War, has died. He was 95.

Scowcroft died Thursday of natural causes at his home in Falls Church, Virginia, according to the Associated Press, citing Bush spokesman Jim McGrath.

A specialist in Russian affairs during a long career in the U.S. Air Force, Scowcroft served as national security adviser to President Gerald Ford, from 1974 to 1977, and to the first President Bush, from 1989 to 1993. He earned a reputation as the rare Washington hand who valued discretion over publicity.

Two wars against Iraq, 12 years apart and led by father and son U.S. presidents, defined Scowcroft’s views of the appropriate use of America’s military might.

After Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded Kuwait in 1990, Scowcroft was among the first to make the case inside the White House for a military response. “I never had any faith in sanctions, and I don’t think the president did either,” Scowcroft recalled in a PBS “Frontline” oral history of the Gulf War.

The success of the U.S.-led force in driving Iraqi troops from Kuwait was a high point of Bush’s presidency. Scowcroft defended the administration’s decision not to chase the Iraqi forces to Baghdad to oust Saddam, saying that would have led to a prolonged occupation of Iraq by American soldiers.

“Not all national security advisers have had such influence, and few have played the role with Scowcroft’s deftness,” Ivo H. Daalder and I.M. Destler wrote of Scowcroft’s role in “In the Shadow of the Oval Office,” their 2009 book.

In 2002 and 2003, as President George W. Bush prepared to order an invasion of Iraq as part of the U.S. response to the 9/11 terror attacks, Scowcroft was among the more vocal dissenters among the Republican defense establishment.

In a column in The Wall Street Journal seven months before the March 2003 invasion, Scowcroft warned, “An attack on Iraq at this time would seriously jeopardize, if not destroy, the global counterterrorist campaign we have undertaken.”

By 2005, the early successes of the invasion had given way to a grinding insurgency, and Scowcroft told The New Yorker magazine that the younger Bush had bought into the ill-advised view that “we’ve got to hit somebody hard.”

He particularly questioned the judgment of Vice President Dick Cheney, his longtime colleague: “I consider Cheney a close friend — I’ve known him for 30 years. But Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore.”

A protege of Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft was rooted in the so-called realist camp of foreign policy, which holds that America’s self-interest doesn’t always align with advocating democracy and human rights every place around the globe.

“I believe that you cannot with one sweep of the hand or the mind cast off thousands of years of history,” he told The New Yorker. “This notion that inside every human being is the burning desire for freedom and liberty, much less democracy, is probably not the case. I don’t think anyone knows what burns inside others.”

In “A World Transformed,” a 1998 memoir he co-authored with the first President Bush, Scowcroft wrote: “I had a reputation for being cautious — a charge to which I plead guilty. I believe that one should try to change the direction of the great Ship of State only with care, because changes, once made, are inordinately hard to reverse.”

Scowcroft was born on March 19, 1925, to a Mormon family in Ogden, Utah, the youngest of three children. His father, James, was a wholesale grocer.

He fulfilled his childhood dream by winning admission to West Point, graduating in 1947 with a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. During his fighter-pilot training, he suffered a broken back in a crash landing and spent two years in military hospitals. His future as a pilot in doubt, he turned to an academic track, teaching Russian history at West Point and earning a master’s degree and later a Ph.D. in international relations at Columbia University. He was fluent in Russian and Serbian.

After serving as assistant air attache at the U.S. embassy in Yugoslavia from 1959 to 1961, he worked at the Armed Forces Staff College, the National War College, Air Force headquarters and the Pentagon.

In 1972, he moved to the White House as a military assistant to President Richard M. Nixon. A year later he became deputy to Kissinger, the national security adviser, and succeeded him in 1975, under Ford.

It was during that time that Scowcroft became friends with the elder Bush, who was director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, Scowcroft was vice chairman of Kissinger Associates, the international consulting business that he co-founded in 1982 with Kissinger. Reagan named him to head a commission on U.S. intercontinental ballistic missile strategy.

Scowcroft and former U.S. Secretary of State Edmund Muskie then served on the commission led by former Sen. John Tower that investigated the Iran-Contra affair, the secret effort to aid right-wing guerrillas in Nicaragua with money raised by selling arms to Iran, in defiance of U.S. law. In its 1987 report, the Tower Commission criticized Reagan’s remoteness from the operations of his own administration.

The commission largely exonerated Bush, then Reagan’s vice president. The report of independent counsel Lawrence Walsh six years later would take a more skeptical view toward Bush’s claim that he had been “out of the loop.”

Scowcroft was an adviser to Bush’s successful 1988 campaign for president, after which Bush named him national security adviser.

“His reputation, based on his deep knowledge of foreign policy matters and his prior experience, was such that there could be no doubt he was the perfect honest broker I wanted,” Bush later wrote. “Brent more than made up for my failings in arms control and defense matters.”

Scowcroft took office uneasy with some elements of the detente Reagan had reached with his Soviet counterpart, Mikhail Gorbachev. He said the Reagan administration had made “an unwarranted assumption” that the Cold War had ended with Gorbachev’s ascension. Scowcroft viewed Gorbachev as another committed Communist, one “attempting to kill us with kindness, rather than bluster.” To Scowcroft, that meant the U.S. should proceed more slowly in negotiating cuts in nuclear weapons.

With Secretary of State James Baker, Scowcroft encouraged Bush’s measured approach to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and watershed events such as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“To have stood up on the wall and gloated and say, ‘We won, here we are,’ could have provoked a coup against Gorbachev at a time when maybe it would have been successful,” Scowcroft said in an interview on NBC during the publicity tour for the book he co-wrote with Bush.

For the second President Bush, Scowcroft chaired the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board from 2001 to 2004, when he was not reappointed. He was president of the Washington-based Scowcroft Group, an international business consulting company.

His wife, the former Marian Horner, died in 1995. They had a daughter, Karen.


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