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Book excerpt: How Brent Scowcroft became Bush’s ‘pain in the ass’ on Iraq

An except from The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, by Bartholomew Sparrow, which was published recently.


By Bartholomew Sparrow

Best Defense guest author

This is excerpted from The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, by Bartholomew Sparrow, which was published recently.

By Bartholomew Sparrow
Best Defense guest author

This is excerpted from The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, by Bartholomew Sparrow, which was published recently.

Scowcroft was reluctant for the United States to intervene in Iraq. With the administration heading to war seemingly without much forethought, he decided to take his case to the public. On August 4, 2002, he appeared on Face the Nation, where he explained to Bob Schieffer and millions of CBS viewers why he objected to the administration’s planned invasion. Scowcroft conceded that Saddam might well be a despot and untrustworthy, but he noted that it wasn’t because of terrorism that the Iraqi leader was a problem. He predicted that if the United States went in, it would turn the Middle East into a “cauldron.” Given the United States’ priorities and the costs and benefits of any invasion, he warned that an attack on Iraq would be “premature” and “counterproductive” in the absence of genuine progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue and without the establishment of a UN inspection regime that could review Iraq’s chemical and biological weapons systems. Saddam Hussein was “not a man who will risk everything on the roll of a dice,” consistent with the fact that “during the Gulf War, he didn’t do everything he could have done,” Scowcroft noted, such as planting chemical weapons in New York or releasing nerve gas.” Later that Sunday, the CBS Evening News showed clips of the interview, and a story in Monday’s London Times repeated Scowcroft’s arguments.

Curiously, no one in the Bush White House responded to Scowcroft’s comments (although on the evening of Monday, August 5, Powell had a long—and what he regarded as a very successful—conversation with the president at the Residence, Bob Woodward reports in Plan of Attack). Neither Rice nor any other White House official released any statements or try to contact Scowcroft once the media picked up the story. Perhaps they thought the story would simply disappear. Scowcroft explained their inaction by pointing out that they already knew of his position, so there was no reason for them to contact him or respond to his criticisms. (Hadley recalls that in early 2002 when he stopped by the Scowcroft Group’s offices for lunch, Scowcroft joked that the deputy national security advisor was meeting with “the infidels.”)

But the story didn’t go away. A week later, on August 11, Juan Williams discussed Scowcroft’s arguments on Fox News Sunday. That same Sunday, Senator Barbara Boxer spoke of Scowcroft’s objections on Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, and Senator Richard Lugar and CBS’s Bob Schieffer both commented on his views on Face the Nation. There were related news stories on PBS, MSNBC, and NPR. In the meantime, Arnold Kanter and Virginia Mulberger suggested to Scowcroft that he write up his Face the Nation remarks as an op-ed.

“I was watching [Scowcroft on] Face the Nation,” Kanter recalled, and Brent gave “this strategic answer. And I sort of said, ‘Well, shit, that’s pretty good.’ So the next morning I come in the office and I say, ‘Brent, that was really good. You ought to write it in an op-ed.’” He agreed, using the TV transcript as the basis for the editorial. After he had finished writing, he sent the op-ed to the Wall Street Journal. (Kanter credited himself as being “somewhere between a nudge and an editor.” He emphasized his name didn’t belong on it, but said that Scowcroft “every so often” jokingly reminded Kanter that it was his idea to write the op-ed.)

The op-ed wasn’t the elder Bush’s idea, then, contrary to what many assumed, and neither did the former president give his approval. Although Scowcroft talked to the former president almost every day, according to their mutual friend Robert Strauss, Scowcroft wasn’t writing on behalf of his friend or for anyone else.101 In fact, it would have been out of character for the former president to ask Scowcroft to write a dissenting op-ed, just as Bush was too respectful of the presidency and too diffident to presume to tell his son how to do his job—especially not in public.

All the same, Bush and Scowcroft shared deep misgivings about the foreign policy direction being taken by his son, and the two of them, together with Barbara Bush and a handful of others, had been discreetly but unsuccessfully searching for ways to halt the momentum building for war on Iraq. And each certainly knew the other’s mind. “Do I know what the father thinks about most things? Yeah, I think so,” Scowcroft told a reporter. “If I don’t, I’ve been sleeping for 30 years, because we’ve been together a long, long time. We talk about a lot of things, and we talk about a lot of them very quietly. We have a wonderful relationship, and I have to be very careful about the appearance of speaking for him out of turn.”

When Scowcroft learned the Wall Street Journal would be running the op-ed, he faxed a copy to Kennebunkport, since he didn’t want to put the elder Bush in the awkward position of learning about the editorial from reading the newspaper or finding out about it secondhand. Out of courtesy, Scowcroft also faxed a copy to Rice’s personal secretary at the NSC; again, he heard nothing back.

Reading the morning newspapers on August 15 out on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, President Bush was outraged to see Scowcroft’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. He immediately called Rice, who was in Washington. “What is he doing?” he demanded. “Scowcroft has become a pain in the ass in his old age,” he told her.

Rice then called her one-time mentor, former boss, and dear friend and began yelling at him, telling him that both she and the president felt blindsided. She berated him for betraying the president, betraying the trust of his friends and former associates in the administration, and betraying the Republican Party. She wanted to know why Brent hadn’t called her beforehand to let her know his position. Scowcroft mildly commented that the arguments in the op-ed were the same as those he’d made on national television two weeks earlier. “It’s different when you put it in print,” Rice responded. In Scowcroft’s description, “I got taken to the woodshed.” Rice hadn’t been blindsided, though. Scowcroft’s fax had gone through to her private office number, and she was aware of her mentor’s other media statements. In fact, she’d spoken to him on the morning of Sunday, August 4, before he went on Face the Nation.

Yet she could hardly admit these facts, given how embarrassing the op-ed was for her. Everyone believed she had considerable influence over Scowcroft, but it was now apparent she hadn’t been able to prevent him from writing in the widely read Wall Street Journal—the editorial page of which amounts to the daily bulletin board for the Republican Party—notwithstanding their close relationship.

The op-ed carried a further unpleasant implication: Rice hadn’t protected her principal, the president of the United States, from public humiliation. By saying that she hadn’t seen the op-ed, Rice was able to distance herself from both the op-ed and her mentor. She had good reason for distancing herself from Scowcroft, moreover, since she suspected that some might think he was arguing on her behalf (as she writes in her memoirs). So she was at pains to let the president, her White House colleagues, her fellow Republicans, the press, and the public think she had been unaware of the op-ed, and that in any case it didn’t express her views.

The op-ed also constituted a clear indictment of how Rice was running the NSC process. In his memoirs, George W. Bush writes that Scowcroft’s op-ed made sense, but that he was “angry Brent had chosen to publish his advice in the newspaper instead of sharing it with me.” Yet if the president didn’t know about Scowcroft’s op-ed and his argument against an Iraqi war—and Eagleburger maintained that “it was obvious the president knew” of Brent’s disapproval of his plans for war—then Bush had been poorly served by Rice, the NSC staff, and his other advisers, since it would then appear they hadn’t informed him of what he described in his memoirs, Decision Points, as Scowcroft’s “fair recommendation” on Iraq. Or if Bush did know, as Eagleburger believed, then Scowcroft’s position should have been widely known and been debated within the administration, in which case the former national security advisor probably would not have felt that he had to go public. But his views hadn’t been credibly and forcefully presented.

The fact is that George W. Bush hadn’t participated in a full and open discussion about the pros and cons of going to war against Iraq. Rice hadn’t informed Bush of the full set of policy alternatives for countering terrorism and dealing with Iraq and hadn’t insisted that the president consider the potential consequences of his actions. Perhaps “because she lacked Scowcroft’s convictions” or perhaps because she agreed with Bush and rejected Scowcroft’s analysis and assessment of the situation, the national security advisor “failed to frame Scowcroft’s policies as an option for Bush to consider,” Craig Unger writes.

Powell was the one person in the administration whom the op-ed helped, at least in the near term. The secretary of state telephoned Scowcroft afterward, telling him, “You gave me some running room.” The “initial reaction” of almost everyone else in the Bush administration, though, “was he’s helping the bad guys,” Powell said. Elliott Abrams conceded that few among them—himself included—appreciated the fact that Scowcroft “has a loyalty to the country that is great than his loyalty to the Republican Party.”

In any case, the die had already been cast. The day before Scowcroft’s op-ed appeared, in fact, Rice chaired an NSC meeting for the purpose of drafting a strategy for war against Iraq and placed one of her NSC aides in charge of an interagency group, the Executive Steering Group, that was tasked to oversee and coordinate the many steps that had to be taken to support US military operations in the Gulf. Left unquestioned was its premise: that the United States should invade Iraq.

Bartholomew Sparrow is a professor in the department of government at the University of Texas at Austin where he teaches American political development.


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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