What Turned Brent Scowcroft Against the War in Iraq

Roundup: Media's Take

This week in the magazine, Jeffrey Goldberg writes about Brent Scowcroft, the national-security adviser under President George H. W. Bush—and the former President’s best friend—who has been at odds with the current Administration. Here, with Amy Davidson, Goldberg discusses Scowcroft and the divide within the Republican party over Iraq.

AMY DAVIDSON: Why is Brent Scowcroft worth writing about now? He’s been out of government for some time.

JEFFREY GOLDBERG: For one thing, he’s a leading proponent of the “realist” school of foreign-policy thinking, which stands in opposition to the “transformationalist,” or neoconservative, or liberal interventionist—pick your preference—school. He also has a great deal of experience on the Iraqi question—he managed the first Gulf War for President George H. W. Bush, so it’s interesting to hear what he thinks of the current war. (Not much, as you can see from the article.) And he’s the best friend of the father of the current President, and the mentor of the current Secretary of State, so it’s worth exploring why the Administration of George W. Bush doesn’t listen to his advice on Iraq and other subjects.

Scowcroft is a consummate diplomat and a careful man. And yet, reading the quotes in your story, it seems that he almost had to force himself not to lash out at the current Administration—and he didn’t always succeed. Is Scowcroft an angry man these days?

He’s a man in control of his emotions, and so I’m not sure how angry he is, or how far he would be willing to go to show his anger. He is upset about the course of the war, of course, and I suppose he’s upset because his advice before the war was ignored. But I don’t think he takes these things personally. I think he doesn’t want to see America do damage to itself. And, according to what he told me, he thinks America has been damaged by the intervention in Iraq: he believes, he said, that the Iraq war has made our terrorism problem worse, not better.

You mentioned his advice before the war. That advice was very public: Scowcroft wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal with the title “Don’t Attack Saddam.” Does Scowcroft have any regrets about that—either about the substance of the piece or about how openly critical he was?

I don’t believe he has specific regrets. He very much wanted to express these ideas privately, but had no means to do so. He is a very unusual figure in Washington, in that he does not seem to seek popularity or attention. But he seems to believe that when asked a question he should answer honestly. (This, too, makes him unusual in Washington.) He regrets not having a better relationship with George W. Bush and his White House, but he’s not going to sacrifice principles for access. (This, it is almost needless to say, makes him extremely unusual in this city.)

Obviously, Scowcroft doesn’t think we should have gone into Iraq in the first place. Is he also critical of how the war has been conducted? Does he believe that it could have turned out better, had different tactical decisions been made?

Scowcroft believes that Iraq was a sideshow to the war on terror, and that America should have focussed its attention on resolving the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. Once the decision to go to war was made, he supported it, but with deep trepidation. He doesn’t specifically criticize the conduct of the war; what he says is that American policymakers need to think through very carefully the consequences of occupying Arab countries, which, he makes it clear, he doesn’t think the Bush Administration did. He also suggests that this might have been an impossible mission; as a realist, he is doubtful that democracy can be imposed by force.

Scowcroft told you that Iraq was beginning to remind him of Vietnam. How so?

He was very careful on this point: he said that Vietnam caused bitter divisions in American society, and he has not seen that in the case of Iraq. But he fears that we’re moving in that direction.

Scowcroft is George H. W. Bush’s best friend. What does it mean that Scowcroft seems to disagree with his son?

It doesn’t mean anything for his relationship with the elder Bush. They remain best friends. I’ve been told that Bush is sorry that his son and his best friend aren’t close, and, according to people with knowledge of this relationship, the elder Bush has tried to broker meetings between his son and Scowcroft. But the deeper meaning here is ideological: George W. Bush’s father was committed to a realist understanding of foreign policy. This served him well in Iraq, and not so well in Bosnia. George W. Bush, on the other hand, has become a leading proponent of democratic transformationalism; he believes it is America’s job to help non-democratic countries become democratic. The realists don’t believe that the internal organization of another country is any of our business; George W. Bush, evidently, does....
Read entire article at New Yorker

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