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An Honest Broker: Remembering Brent Scowcroft

Brent Scowcroft was an Air Force lieutenant turned two-time United States National Security Advisor who served under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, as well as Deputy National Security Advisor for President Nixon. Later, Scowcroft would serve as chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board for President George W. Bush.

Brent Scowcroft with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger  (November 1975) (Charles Tasnadi) | Associated Press
Brent Scowcroft with Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger (November 1975) (Charles Tasnadi) | Associated Press

Scowcroft’s career was a memorable one; he helped craft the U.S. response to an array of situations—from the fall of the Soviet Union, to the evacuation of Saigon, to Tiananmen Square. Regardless of the international political developments he faced, he was steadfast in his craft and his leadership. Mr. Scowcroft passed away on August 6, 2020 at the age of ninety-five.

In this “Moment in U.S. Diplomatic History,” explore memories of Brent as told through the eyes of his government colleagues. Read about how Brent first established his team at the NSC, and how he advised two administrations through periods of international crisis (while staying out of the spotlight himself). Above all, recall how he was remembered fondly and with admiration by all who had the privilege to work alongside him.

For more “Moments” referencing Brent Scowcroft, click HERE.

Drafted by Miranda Allegar and Natalie Schaller

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Excerpts:

Stepping into the National Security Council:

“Brent Scowcroft clearly has been around the national security world so long that in a sense he is what in cricket terms is called a good all-rounder.”

Ambassador G. Philip Hughes:
Bridgetown, Barbados—Ambassador (1990–1993)
Philip Hughes was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on August 21, 1997.
Read Philip Hughes’ full oral history HERE.

. . . Fairly early on, it was announced publicly that Brent Scowcroft would be the National Security Advisor. . . Brent, of course, was inheriting a staff from the Reagan Administration. I think he made clear that he wanted to put his own people on that staff. You could think about the NSC staff a little bit like a layer cake. The top is the National Security Advisor, his deputy, the Executive Secretary and the secretariat structure that sort of manages the staff. Then you have the senior directors, or special assistants to the President, the directors and the deputy directors, and then the support staff.

Within the staff that Brent inherited, I think he made it reasonably clear that he intended to have all new senior directors. These would be his guys, his picks. . . Brent’s picks for the senior director roles in the NSC staff started to dribble out into the press . . . Bob Blackwill as the senior director for Europe and Soviet Affairs, Richard Haass as the senior director for Near Eastern Affairs, David Miller as the senior director for Africa Affairs and also for what you might call drugs and thugs, counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics.

Brent Scowcroft clearly has been around the national security world so long that, in a sense, he is what in cricket terms is called a good all-rounder. He clearly has greater depth of expertise in certain areas, or had at that time, than in others. He was profoundly steeped in military affairs, arms control, strategic questions, NATO issues, east-west security issues, Russia as I mentioned.

***

William Primosch:
Washington, D.C.—National Security Council; Economic Division (1992–1993)
William Primosch was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on May 2, 2001
Read William Primosch’s full oral history HERE.

The way the system was set up in the Bush White House, you had pretty direct access to the National Security Adviser. If you knew an issue needed to come to his attention and maybe to the President’s attention, you had latitude to raise it. Brent Scowcroft was very close to the President. There is a big difference between an organization like the NSC and the State Department. You would literally go into Scowcroft’s office and brief him on an issue, and he could either deal with it or bring it to the President’s attention.

. . . Brent Scowcroft was a very smart man and a real military strategic thinker. He did not have a great interest in international economic issues, but one of the things we always appreciated was that at least he was prepared to help if we made a request. If we said, “We think the President ought to raise this with a particular leader,” Brent would make a point of being helpful and trying to get it on the President’s agenda.

***

           
Brent Scowcroft at a Congressional Briefing  (1991) (Paul Hosefros) | The New York Times
Brent Scowcroft at a Congressional Briefing (1991) (Paul Hosefros) | The New York Times

Edmund J. Hull:
Washington, D.C.—National Security Council (1991–1993)
Edmund Hull was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on October 10, 2005
Read Edmund Hull’s full oral history HERE.

Scowcroft ran an extraordinarily lean and efficient organization. There was a minimum of layering. We could e-mail General Scowcroft or Bob Gates directly. Things like meetings were arranged very quickly. For example, when (Israeli Prime Minister) Rabin, who was then in the opposition came to town, it took a quick email to Scowcroft’s secretary, a meeting was scheduled and then you’d follow up with another longer email as a briefing memo in which you always started with what the general sought to achieve in that meeting. And that was the staff work. The meeting took place, and important contact was maintained, the general got insight into the situation out in the Middle East and in many ways it was the opposite of the State Department where a great amount of time and effort was wasted on paperwork and clearances. A great deal of energy was wasted to make it through all the hoops on the field and, as a result, the final product was often bland and unimaginative.

The August Coup of 1991:

“It was Brent Scowcroft who said the President wants you to come in tomorrow.”

Ambassador Robert Strauss:
Moscow, Soviet Union—Ambassador (1991–1992)
Robert Strauss was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on October 25, 2002.
Read Robert Strauss’ full oral history HERE.

Q: The coup in the Soviet Union.

STRAUSS: Soviet Union.

Q: When the military and other groups tried to oust Gorbachev.

STRAUSS: Tried their best, exactly. In fact they took him physically. I guess he was in his home on the Black Sea there when they took over the home and stayed a house prisoner of theirs. So the phone rang. We were out for dinner with our tutor as a matter of fact. When we got back the phone was ringing. It was the White House calling saying that this coup had taken place. The President wanted me over there the next day, to leave the next morning. It was 9:00 at night I guess, when the phone rang in California, so midnight here. It was Brent Scowcroft who said the President wants you to come in tomorrow, and stop and pick up Jim Baker, Secretary of State Baker, who is fishing in Wyoming or Montana. I forget which. They can pick him up and bring you all back here, and you can get the last briefing and get sworn in.

We flew overnight to get [to Moscow], and then the drive in the morning, worn out. It was a sight, bombs everywhere, tanks still in the street, Gorbachev still in captivity . . . They [National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker] obviously were terribly concerned about it, and the best advice they had was that these people simply despised Gorbachev and his reforms, and would do their utmost to get rid of him. But they had serious doubts that they would end up successful . . . .

Just about the time I arrived Gorbachev was getting into trouble. . . . There was no big story yet . . . . but people thought Gorbachev was a lot more secure than Gorbachev was, which is a better way of putting it. And Gorbachev was not as secure as he thought he was. . . Yeltsin was a major player already . . . . By the end of the year, on Christmas Day, Gorbachev gave up his job. Yeltsin pushed him out of his job, which is a better way of putting it.

Q: Did you get the feeling that this was . . . a White House with a president that really understood situations . . . in other words, a White House that was comfortable with the crisis.

STRAUSS: I think that is right. I think George Bush was, generally speaking, comfortable. You see, this was the second year of his presidency and going into his third year really. He was comfortable, and he had good people. Jim Baker he had tremendous confidence in. They both had confidence in Larry Eagleburger, the Secretary of State and the deputy secretary respectively. Brent Scowcroft had a world of experience and sophistication. So he had a first rate team at that time.

Addressing Human Rights Violations in Guatemala:

“If we go through channels, I’m never going to get this letter signed in time”

           
Brent Scowcroft and George H.W. Bush  (1991) (Barry Thumma) | AP
Brent Scowcroft and George H.W. Bush (1991) (Barry Thumma) | AP

Ambassador Thomas F. Stroock:
Guatemala City, Guatemala—Ambassador (1989–1992)
Ambassador Stroock was interviewed by Andrew Low on November 27, 1993
Read Thomas Stroock’s full oral history HERE.

I was scheduled to make a speech to the Rotary Club [in Guatemala], which is the biggest gathering with businessmen in the country. I got ahold of the Public Affairs Officer, John Tracy; a marvelous Irishman, a great friend of mine and an excellent PAO [Public Affairs Officer.] I said, “I want to make a speech. I want to make it as friendly as possible under the circumstances, but as firm as a rock about human rights.”

That’s what it was. There was a phrase in there that said, “The United States cannot long have productive relations with a country that either promotes, or tolerates, human rights abuses of its own citizens because that is not in the tradition of the American people.”

Well, that created quite a sensation. The press asked Vinicio Cerezo, the President, about it, and he said, “Well, I know Tom. He’s kind of a cowboy, and these are just his personal opinions. I’m sure they don’t reflect the opinions of the United States Government.”

. . . When I got back to Washington, I thought to myself; just being recalled and coming back, that’s not dramatic enough. I need something dramatic. I need a letter signed by the President of the United States saying that Ambassador Stroock does indeed speak for this Administration. To get a letter signed by the President through the fudge factory down at Foggy Bottom, is not going to happen in a week. I wanted to get back to Guatemala in a week while this thing was still hot.

Suddenly I remembered that General Brent Scowcroft, who was the head of the National Security Council, was a good friend of Dick Cheney’s. I had met him through Dick and we had gotten along well at subsequent meetings.
So I called Kathy Enbody, Dick’s secretary — she has been his secretary for years — and got her to call Brent Scowcroft’s secretary. Then I called Brent and said, “I really, really need to talk to you.”

So I had an appointment on Thursday with Baker, and Friday with Scowcroft. The deal with Scowcroft was that he would take me to see the President with this now-famous letter.

. . . Friday I waltzed it over to the White House at about 10:30 in the morning. I waited for about 50 minutes, and finally got in to see Brent Scowcroft, and of course, no chit-chat there, just me and Brent Scowcroft. I told him my problem, and he read the letter and he said, “Bernie Aronson has signed off on it?” I said, “Yes,” and I had the whole file, and I said, “I’ve talked to Jim Baker about it too.”

“Okay,” he said. “You better hurry.”

So he picked up the phone, and spoke to the President. Immediately, he walked me from his office down two corridors into the Oval Office. You can hear that there is a chopper warming up on the White House south lawn. That’s how close it was.

The President was headed off at noon for some place — I think Camp David, I’m not sure. We spent two or three minutes chatting: how are you? How is Marta? and how are things going?

He was very flattering: “You’re doing a wonderful job, and I hear there’s a problem? You’ve got a letter for me to sign?”

And I said, “Yes, Mr. President, here it is.” He said to Brent, “Is it okay if I sign this?”

And Brent said, “It’s been approved by everybody in the State Department.”

He looked at me and said, “This better not be wrong,” and he put it up on the door jamb as he headed out the door, signed George Bush, and handed it to me. Then he went out with his entourage, got in the helicopter and lifted off. Very impressive: Marines saluting — everything. I breathed a sigh of relief.

Remembering Brent and Honoring His Legacy:

“Scowcroft came in and became what is called an ‘honest broker’ at the NSC . . . He was always seen as one who accurately and fairly presented the views of departments and agencies.”

Arthur A. Houghton III:
Washington, D.C.—National Security Council (1974–1976)
Arthur Houghton was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on August 30, 2001.
Read Arthur Houghton’s full oral history HERE.

Brent had enormous influence. He had the absolute confidence of the President, Jerry Ford, as well as Henry Kissinger. . . Brent was not there to manage the staff. There were other people who managed staff. Brent was there to be an advisor to the President and a communication link between the President and NSC staff as well as other agencies of government. He did that job superbly. . . He had a good touch and a good feel for the play and flow of politics internationally. I have great, enormous respect for Brent Scowcroft. He played his cards very close to the chest, as he should have, appropriately.

***

Ambassador Karl F. Inderfurth:
New York City, New York—United Nations, U.S. Representative (Ambassador) for Special Political Affairs (1993–1997)
Karl Inderfurth was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on April 27, 2001.
Read Karl Inderfurth’s full oral history HERE.

Scowcroft came in and became what is called an “honest broker” at the NSC. He was the person who saw the President most often, but he was always seen as one who accurately and fairly presented the views of departments and agencies. If asked his views, I’m sure he provided those to the President, but he ran the NSC as an “honest broker.” He stayed out of the limelight. He didn’t appear on television. He wasn’t competing to be chief foreign policy spokesman. The Scowcroft model has continued to be the one that most people look to as the best example of how the NSC system should run.

***

Rand Beers:
Washington, D.C.—Acting Senior Director, Director for Counterterrorism and Counternarcotics, National Security Council (1988–1992)
Rand Beers was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy on May 12, 2003.
Read Rand Beers’ full oral history HERE.

He ran . . . a very disciplined, straightforward organization. He had the issues that he cared about. He worked on them. He left other people to run the issues that he didn’t spend that much time on. . . I think Scowcroft deserves a great deal of credit for making the system work effectively. . . Scowcroft never sought to put himself in a public limelight. He knew that he could go and talk to the president at any time. He didn’t need to be any public spokesman.