Obituary

Brent Scowcroft, Former U.S. National Security Advisor, Dies at 95

A key foreign-policy guide to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, Scowcroft helped shape the National Security Council as we now know it.

A portrait of Brent Scowcroft in the offices of a midtown law firm in New York City on Feb. 4, 1988.
A portrait of Brent Scowcroft in the offices of a midtown law firm in New York City on Feb. 4, 1988. Michel Delsol/Getty Images

I never had the privilege of working directly with Brent Scowcroft. He was of a different generation and political party. But like every U.S. national security advisor over the past 30 years, I was the direct beneficiary of the processes, structures, principles, and values that he put in place during his two tours in that office.

Scowcroft was a modest man of immense integrity and determination. An Air Force lieutenant general and the son of a four-generation Utah family, he occasionally joked that Washington is a place where your enemies stab you in the back and your friends stab you in the chest. But he established himself as a skilled policymaker and manager, and he is rightly seen today as the master of effective and principled national security policymaking.

During the presidency of George H.W. Bush, Scowcroft and his deputy, Robert Gates, put in place the core system that has been used by every National Security Council (NSC) since—up until the current administration.

Scowcroft started by devising a structure for vetting the full range of policy proposals on any given issue and systematically channeling them up the chain to the president. The system operates through layers of interagency committees centrally coordinated from the White House. At its heart stands the Deputies Committee, which is chaired by the deputy national security advisor and attended by second- or third-ranking officials from all the key national security agencies. These deputies meet several times a week to formulate day-to-day policy options, develop strategies, and—critically—manage crises. They also report up to the cabinet-level Principals Committee, which is chaired by the national security advisor. And sitting atop the process is the National Security Council itself, chaired by the president. The NSC staff coordinates these interagency debates and, once the president makes a decision, helps ensure they are properly executed.

Prior to the creation of this system by Scowcroft and Gates, interagency coordination was ad hoc and the subject of competition and controversy among the president’s most senior advisors. For example, James Baker, who served as President Ronald Reagan’s treasury secretary, described that administration’s NSC as “a witches’ brew of intrigue, elbows, egos, and separate agendas”; indeed, Reagan’s long-serving secretary of state, George Shultz, refused to attend interagency meetings he didn’t chair. Faithful and rigorous adherence to the Scowcroft-Gates system would have prevented some of the United States’ most costly foreign-policy errors.

Scowcroft set an example for how a national security advisor should steward the decision-making process.

Scowcroft also set an example for how a national security advisor should steward the decision-making process. Bush called Scowcroft the perfect honest broker, and with good reason: Scowcroft promised an even-handed consideration of the policy options prepared for the president—and ensured the quality of those options being presented. And he demonstrated immense confidence by deciding to hire Gates, a deputy who could at any point function as national security advisor himself. Scowcroft and Gates ran the NSC as a genuine partnership.

Part of the reason Scowcroft was able to be so successful was the nature of his relationship with his boss. Bush and Scowcroft were similar in age and disposition; they had worked together since the Nixon administration and had become close friends. This friendship allowed Scowcroft to be candid with the president. A World Transformed, the extraordinary memoir they wrote together, demonstrates the honesty of the advice Scowcroft gave the president—and his willingness to squarely address their failures. Scowcroft’s closeness to Bush also helped ensure that when he spoke within or outside of the administration, people understood him to be speaking on behalf of the president.

But Scowcroft always let the cabinet be the public face of U.S. foreign policy. He believed that the national security advisor should be seen infrequently and heard even less. Even though Scowcroft had more foreign-policy experience than Baker, who served as Bush’s first secretary of state, at the outset of the administration, Scowcroft made clear that the latter should be the president’s public foreign-policy emissary. This willingness to play a behind-the-scenes role helped avoid much of the tension that can arise between the White House and various agencies.

Scowcroft excelled at assembling a team.

Of course, even the best national security process is only as good as the people who carry it out. But Scowcroft also excelled at assembling a team. He understood that an effective national security team should not just be a collection of stars but a well-functioning unit. The players should be aligned with the president’s policies and overall approach, faithful to the process put in place, and willing to deal with one another in a direct and respectful manner.

Above all, Scowcroft performed a grueling job with an enormous amount of integrity, setting an example for all who succeeded him. And he bequeathed to the subsequent members of the small club of national security advisors a treasure trove of wisdom.

I wish that President Donald Trump would have spent some time with Scowcroft—and that Trump’s national security team would spend some time reflecting on Scowcroft’s example and legacy. The current geopolitical environment is more volatile and uncertain than any since the end of the second World War. Yet this time around, we don’t have the benefit of Brent Scowcroft to help us navigate it. His wisdom and guidance is sorely missed.

Thomas E. Donilon served as national security advisor to President Barack Obama.

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