Passing of Brent Scowcroft, USMEP Chair 2001-2011 - A personal reflection from Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering | September 17th 2020
Brent Scowcroft’s death on August 6 marks the almost end of an era.
I worked with him, had the honor of knowing him as a friend, and for the last few years, we lived in apartments in the same elders’ refuge in Virginia.
Jerrold L. Schecter has written a fine obituary for the Washington Post which you should read and can find here.
My recollections are more personal and selective and relate to the region in which we share a special interest.
Brent was Henry Kissinger’s deputy and I ran the Secretary of State’s alerting and support system. We had many contacts across the telephone lines and with a primitive form of fax in making sure that the State Department and the National Security Council were functioning in synch. He was universally polite, respectful and sharp in all these exchanges to someone much his junior in experience and status. He had already achieved the stature of being both the efficient and effective manager of the National Security Council but also even more pertinent and important of being a wise head in foreign and security affairs. An early first love was arms control and disarmament and solving the nuclear equation by adding stability and strategic good sense.
Brent shunned publicity and personal self-promotion. He was a ‘quietist’ in the best tradition of that word. But Kissinger, as Schecter remarks, took him on because he stood up to Nixon’s tough, no nonsense, hard charging Chief of Staff, Haldeman. I was never misled by him nor was he a great sharer of secrets. He wanted honest, high quality work done on a timely basis and his role of National Security Advisor was legion.
He served both Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. He wanted a small staff, and saw its work as policy advice and counsel to the President, letting the Cabinet Departments and others carry out policy. He took quiet pride in making sure the President knew clearly what each of his cabinet level advisors thought and recommended on a key issue. But at the same time knew that he had a role in providing his own advice after seeing all of the others’ suggestions. Ford valued him and Bush thought he was, perhaps next to James Baker, his top advisor—and more important perhaps because Brent covered not only the State Department’s concerns but those of the Defense Department and the Intelligence Community. The Scowcroft model of the National Security Council is the one all his successors have striven, and failed, to emulate perfectly.
Brent followed the Middle East closely but Russia was a special interest. He studied both Russian and Serbo-Croatian and went as the Assistant Air Attaché for Larry Eagleburger when the latter served as U.S. Ambassador to Belgrade and the former Yugoslavia. Together they were a formidable team and even more so in the final months of the first Bush administration when Larry became Secretary of State and Brent was his top contact at the White House.
Over the years since 2000 when I left State, Brent was always available and we frequently spoke about international developments. Perhaps his most important and anguishing event was a Wall Street Journal opinion piece he wrote in August 15, 2002, warning Bush the son against the folly of invading Iraq. His words were wise and prescient and caused much comment and concern. Many thought they reflected directly father Bush’s views. They probably did, but Brent made clear they were his own and not subject to any consultation.
The pain was real. He was cut off from all contact with the White House and the Bush II administration. As a valued advisor and confidant, an icon of our time, this was a step against him he never deserved. He should have been rewarded for important advice to avoid a still on-going struggle which catalyzed unanticipated change across the region and leaves it in such strikingly bad shape that recovery seems beyond the limits of current possibility.
In his last years, after his first stroke and before his second when he became weakened and disabled, I had the privilege of dropping in to see him on a regular basis. The conversation was always wide ranging and informative. He clearly recognized the galloping disaster of the Trump administration—a painful experience for a quiet and moderate Republican. His military background was just that, almost never intruding. His views on Arab-Israeli peace understood the importance of the effort, valued what had already been done with Egypt and Jordan and clearly saw the need for a two-state basis for settlement. He was willing to join in our public and private letters on that subject as well as those seeking a negotiated work-out of the Iranian nuclear issue.
His chairmanship of the U.S./Middle East Project was close to his interests and his heart. Brent agreed to Chair our group having gotten to know and appreciate Henry Siegman during his time in the Bush Senior Administration. He grew up in a Mormon family but that was totally a private matter and there was never a sign that it influenced his trenchant and strategic thinking about U.S. national interests in the region and beyond.
Unfailingly welcoming and polite, always interested in hearing your views, a great listener and a steel trap mind were only a few of the important values which made Brent Scowcroft the figure on the national stage and the epitome of the best of America. To say he will be missed is an understatement of gigantic proportions. To say we were all lucky to have known him and have him in our group is a fine complement to his life of selfless service and equanimity.