Brent Scowcroft Calls Iraq War ‘overreaction’

On Aug. 30, as Republicans gathered in New York to celebrate their “war President,” retired Lt.-Gen. Brent Scowcroft sat with a reporter in his Washington office, giving his analysis of the direction of his party’s foreign policy, weighing in on Iraq, Iran and the rest of the world, and lobbing a few rhetorical mortar shells in the direction of the White House, which is located just a few blocks away from his office.

“Look, I’m a friend of this administration,” Mr. Scowcroft said. “I love the father. So do I want to do things which complicate [matters for] them? No. But do I feel that there are some things that it’s important to get out? Yes.”

From these “things,” a distinct picture emerged of the Presidency of George W. Bush according to Mr. Scowcroft: one which is equally indebted to the advice of a shadow cabinet of neoconservatives, the President’s evangelical brand of Christianity-which has given him a feeling of manifest destiny about conquering terrorism in the Middle East-or the father whose one-term Presidential destiny he is at pains not to live out himself.

It’s because of the influence of these forces on the President that Mr. Bush may have “overreacted” to the threat of Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, said Mr. Scowcroft, and that the “preoccupation with terrorism” meant that “we are maybe not paying enough attention to other problems in the world that have nothing to do with terrorism, but are really significant.” Mr. Bush had squandered opportunities to avoid war in Iraq, said Mr. Scowcroft, who also speculated that the Bush administration had exaggerated the threat of weapons of mass destruction because it provided “the only reason which you could use to propel a war [in] a particular time frame.” He fretted that the ongoing fighting in Iraq made it impossible for the administration to confront nations much closer to actually acquiring nuclear weapons, like Iran. Most of all, Mr. Scowcroft reiterated his skepticism about the prospects for gunship democracy in the Middle East-outlining the kind of realism for which George W. Bush’s father was known around the world.

“It’s not that I don’t believe Iraq is capable of democracy,” said Mr. Scowcroft. “But the notion that within every human being beats this primeval instinct for democracy has not ever been demonstrated to me.”

All this he offered as he sat amid mementos of a career that has spanned three decades and five Republican administrations. His framed Presidential Medal of Freedom hung on one wall; a bronze bust of Jim Baker sat near the door. Displayed above his desk was a framed black-and-white photo of a younger Mr. Scowcroft, napping aboard Air Force One. It was signed by his close friend, former boss and ideological doppelgänger, George Herbert Walker Bush.

Mr. Scowcroft’s true-blue G.O.P. decoration scheme only underscores the strangeness of his position. For in addition to holding a number of official titles-former National Security Advisor, chairman of a Presidential advisory commission on intelligence issues, head of a high-powered lobbying group-Mr. Scowcroft has acquired this most unlikely sobriquet: Republican dissident. It all started two years ago, in the lead-up to the Iraq war, when Mr. Scowcroft penned a column for The Wall Street Journal entitled “Don’t Attack Saddam.” In it, he argued that there was scant justification for attacking Iraq, and that doing so would “seriously jeopardize, if not destroy” President’s Bush’s wider war on terrorism. For a few weeks, Washington was atwitter. Colin Powell called to thank Mr. Scowcroft for providing war skeptics some “running room.” Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol lambasted him as a member of an “axis of appeasers.” Amateur analysts divined Oedipal overtones. As Mr. Scowcroft himself puts it, he was widely seen as a “stalking horse” for the current President Bush’s father, who always chased his politik with a shot of real .

Today, the episode is largely consigned to history. Mr. Scowcroft was ignored, America went to war, and many of the dangers he had warned of came to pass. But Mr. Scowcroft remains relevant-because of who he is, and what he represents: the foreign policy of the first Bush administration, with its emphasis on allies and thank-you notes, Great Power gamesmanship and sober-minded (critics say “amoral”) calculation. For much of this second Bush administration, Mr. Scowcroft’s school-the foreign-policy realists-has been sidelined, as neoconservatives strutted the halls of the Pentagon, spinning visions of a Middle East remade at gunpoint. Now, with Iraq turning into a gruesome slog and despair mounting in conservative circles, realism is suddenly in vogue again-and Mr. Scowcroft is looking like a prophet. In Washington, turning a man’s name into an adjective is the highest form of flattery. It is a measure of how radically the country has changed these last four years that Senator John Kerry’s foreign-policy advisors happily call themselves “Scowcroftian.”

“It’s curious,” Mr. Scowcroft said. “I think back to my days of graduate school during the Cold War: I was attacked by many of my friends-probably primarily Democratic-for being a hard-liner, a hawk, so on and so forth. I think I have maintained a pretty consistent philosophy. Now I’m being attacked from the right for being a wussy liberal.”

W.’s Destiny

“The President has said-I think he told [Bob] Woodward-[that] he doesn’t feel that he has to reach beyond the experts that he has gathered around him. That he has every perspective he needs in order to make his decisions. He does not have a kitchen cabinet or that kind of thing, which was so popular with other Presidents that we’ve seen, who always went outside to their old cronies. This President just doesn’t do that, and it’s just part of his personality.”

And which “other Presidents” was he referring to? Well, Mr. Scowcroft says he doesn’t like to make explicit comparisons between the George Bush he served and the George Bush who is President now. “I have views, but I don’t like to talk publicly about them,” he said.

He prefers to couch his criticisms in political analysis and implied comparisons. “This administration has been pretty sharply divided on foreign policy,” he said. “If you look at many of the things the President said when he was running for election in 2000, they are fairly dramatically different from the way the administration has behaved. A humbler foreign policy, for example, greater consideration for our allies, shying away from peacekeeping, nation-building-all of those have been reversed. Now the nation-building part not through choice, but it leads one to speculate: Why the shift? Because he had a different view of the world after he became President.

“It’s possible that the transformation came with 9/11, and that the current President, who is a very religious person, thought that there was something unique, if not divine, about a catastrophe like 9/11 happening when he was President. That somehow that was meant to be, and his mission is to deal with the war on terrorism. Now that’s a perfectly rational explanation-but there were signs of a change even before 9/11.”

Mr. Scowcroft suggested that some of Mr. Bush’s more bellicose moves were about politics rather than policy. “I’m not sure how much the President is driven by the [neoconservatives] and how much he is driven by wanting to be re-elected-maybe more than most Presidents do-because his father was defeated. And I think it’s not impossible that, freed from that demand, he might behave somewhat differently.”

In other words, even at this late date, Mr. Scowcroft sees some reason to hope that this son, like most sons, will eventually evolve into his father.

To describe Mr. Scowcroft and the elder Mr. Bush as friends is to understate the case-some say they share a brain. Mr. Scowcroft first came to prominence in the 1970′s, when he was a deputy to Henry Kissinger, and first became National Security Advisor under Gerald Ford. But it was during his second stint in the job, under George H.W. Bush, that he really came into his own. The two men were so close that after Mr. Bush lost his re-election campaign, they wrote a joint memoir of the administration’s foreign policy, describing the same events in alternating passages.

“Do I know what the father thinks about most things? Yeah, I think so. If I don’t, I’ve been sleeping for 30 years, because we’ve been together a long, long time,” Mr. Scowcroft said. “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.”

Indeed, Mr. Scowcroft quieted his criticism of the current administration’s Iraq policy when it became clear that it was being interpreted as paternal advice by proxy-perhaps even by the younger Mr. Bush himself, who seemed spooked. (“I am aware that some very intelligent people are expressing their opinions about Saddam Hussein and Iraq,” the President told reporters in Crawford, Tex., shortly after Mr. Scowcroft’s column appeared. “I listen very carefully to what they have to say.”) Mr. Scowcroft said that the widely held perception that he was doing the elder Bush’s bidding in voicing concerns about Iraq is “not true.” He said the two men have never even discussed his article. Few people believe that, though, and Mr. Scowcroft said he’s resigned to being viewed as Poppy’s familiar, calling it “a fact of life.”

Springtime for Realism?

Early on in the administration, it appeared that Mr. Scowcroft and the rest of the realists would exercise significant vicarious influence in the administration via Secretary of State Powell, who has shown a career-long reluctance to use military force in most circumstances, and through National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, a Scowcroft protégé. But Mr. Powell has mostly been marginalized, and Ms. Rice has often sided with hawks like Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz in the struggle for the administration’s soul. Mr. Scowcroft and Ms. Rice had bitter words after Mr. Scowcroft went public with his criticism of the Iraq war. Mr. Scowcroft says that he and Ms. Rice have since made up and now talk regularly, but associates say that Ms. Rice has bitterly disappointed her mentor. In public, Mr. Scowcroft takes care to praise Ms. Rice for her “brilliant mind,” but when asked to assess her job performance, he said he would prefer not to comment. “Each National Security Advisor sees his or her job in slightly different ways,” he said.

But lately Mr. Scowcroft-or at least his point of view-has been making a comeback. The New Republic recently declared that it was “Springtime for Realism”; conservative intellectuals like Francis Fukuyama, William F. Buckley and George Will have written despairingly of America’s entanglement in Iraq. In recent months, talk within the administration of creating a showcase democracy in Iraq has quieted considerably. Mr. Bush, who once talked of smoking terrorists out of their caves, now says the war he’s fighting may never be won-at least in any conventional sense.

Supporters of the President say that Mr. Scowcroft’s cautious way of thinking about things-leaving Saddam Hussein in power, for instance-is a relic of the past and dangerous to boot. Critics point to his longstanding personal ties to the Saudis and to his business interests. Mr. Scowcroft doesn’t disclose the clients of his consulting group, but they are said to include oil companies and foreign governments.

The fact of the matter is, though, that Mr. Scowcroft has been proven right about a lot of the things: He was skeptical about the existence of Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program and of its relationship to Al Qaeda; he warned that fighting a war in Iraq could prove a distraction to the rest of the war on terror, creating animosity and hurting alliances. Two years ago, the Presidential advisory board he heads recommended centralizing the nation’s intelligence-gathering capabilities within the C.I.A.-an approach Mr. Bush just recently endorsed. (How did the administration thank Mr. Scowcroft’s commission? It was rousted from its offices next to the White House and stuck in an less desirable office building a few blocks away. Washington wags saw it as punishment for Mr. Scowcroft’s apostasy. He blames renovations, not revenge.)

Of course, the language at the convention continues to equate the multilateralism of the first Bush administration with a sort of relativism or amoral opportunism. Critics point out that it was Mr. Scowcroft, after all, who secretly went to China after the massacres at Tiananmen Square to reassure Deng Xiaoping about America’s friendship. The elder Mr. Bush’s administration was stridently criticized for sitting by while the Balkans sank into bloody civil war. But it’s a measure of America’s yearning for those supposedly simpler days, when Eastern Europeans were clamoring for our blue jeans, that the first Bush administration is now held up by many as a sort of golden era. Naturally, the people most proud of the administration’s record are those who served it. And the fact that Mr. Scowcroft, the consummate insider, is expressing his displeasure publicly is a measure of how much those who served Bush père feel that Bush fils has trampled their legacy in his march toward a preemptive war.

“One of the interesting issues is the degree to which the expertise of the previous Bush administration has been drawn on, and my answer to that question is: I think not much,” said Lawrence Eagleburger, a former Secretary of State under the first President Bush who has also been critical of the current administration’s foreign policy. “I think Scowcroft is one of those they should have been listening to. [But] I think to some degree, the people that are closest to this President viewed his father’s administration on foreign policy as excessively multilateral.”

“I think that there are still many, many people within the Republican Party that do not buy into the ‘mission’ thing,” said the Cato Institute’s Christopher Preble, one of the founders of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a group of intellectuals and policy wonks who recently came together to preach pragmatism. “[They] are not prepared to sign up for a messianic liberation-theology strategy in the same way they were willing to do so during the Cold War, because the threat we are facing today is very, very different.”

Mr. Scowcroft put it a little differently. “You know, I think fundamentally Americans side with John Quincy Adams: ‘We go not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,’” he said. “Things are always harder than they look. Changing history, changing people, changing cultures is a slow, evolutionary process-and I think we’ll find that out in Iraq.”