He’s been away from the White House for some 17 years, but Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush, is in the news and in demand.
After the removal this month of Gen. James Jones from Scowcroft’s former White House post, _Foreign Policy_ published a piece criticizing Jones by contrasting him with Scowcroft, calling the elder Bush’s Washington wise man “the most successful national security advisor in history.” According to the FP essay, Scowcroft was “extraordinary…No one had a better, more nuanced worldview.”
In the same vein, a recent Washington Post column turned to Scowcroft for mid-course grades on President Barack Obama’s foreign policy.
But the Post and FP are just the tip of the Scowcroft iceberg. Earlier this year, a Newsweek piece condescendingly warned Republicans to listen to Scowcroft “and the other reasonable adults who back most of the Obama policy.” Late last year, Time praised Scowcroft as a key part of America’s “moderate national-security consensus,” charting “a solid and centrist foreign policy.” The New York Times has fondly called Scowcroft the old Republican realist.”
Indeed, a longing for a return to “realism” may be at the heart of the recent flurry of Scowcroft hagiography.
Without question, the younger Bush embraced and carried out a very different foreign policy than Scowcroft and the elder Bush, and the realists did not much care for it. It was too unpredictable for the realists’ taste, too black and white, and it let loose too many uncertainties, especially in and around Iraq.
For several years now, they have been critiquing, sometimes obliquely, sometimes overtly, the post-9⁄11 doctrine of the younger Bush.
Take James Baker, the elder Bush’s secretary of state. As he puts it, with a bit of a smirk, “When I left in ‘93, the question that always came up [was] ‘Why didn’t you guys take care of Saddam in 1991?’ Those questions are not asked of me anymore.”
What the realists forget to tell us, in their version of history, is that the foreign policy of realism had its problems, too, in Iraq and elsewhere.
After all, it was the realists who decided to cut Afghanistan loose after the Soviets withdrew. It was the realists who gave President Bill Clinton the time bombs in Somalia and Bosnia. It was the realists who made all those short-sighted deals with Middle East dictators, whose subjects hate us for propping up their rulers. And it was the realists who thought leaving Saddam Hussein in power was better than the alternative. But they didn’t consider all the ramifications of pulling the reins on Schwarzkopf’s juggernaut.
In their own act of preemption, Scowcroft and the elder Bush defended their decision to shut down the ground war against Saddam after a hundred hours in their 1998 book A World Transformed. “The United States could conceivably still be an occupying power in a bitterly hostile land,” they concluded.
Of course, that’s effectively what happened, at least in the eyes of Osama bin Laden and his followers. In a sense, occupation was inevitable after the war; perhaps the United States ended up occupying the wrong country.
Since a wounded Saddam could not be left unattended and an oil-rich Saudi Arabia could not be left unprotected, the realists ordered U.S. troops to take up long-term residence in the Saudi kingdom. The presence of foreign troops in the Muslim holy land incensed bin Laden, who set about the task of expelling the Americans from the “land of the two holy places.” Thus was born a fringe terror group known as al Qaeda, which launched a global guerrilla war against America, which triggered America’s global war on terror, which led, inevitably, back to Iraq.
I say “inevitably” because September 11 changed the very DNA of U.S. national-security policy. “Any administration in such a crisis,” as historian John Lewis Gaddis concludes in Surprise, Security and the American Experience, “would have had to rethink what it thought it knew about security and hence strategy.” Was deterrence any longer possible? Was containment viable? Was giving repeat-offenders like Saddam Hussein the benefit of the doubt responsible?
One by one, President George W. Bush and his advisers, including some from the realist camp, answered those questions. And the answer to each was “no,” which is why September 11 led back to Baghdad.
This is perhaps the most fundamental way that September 11 is linked to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq: The latter did not plan or hatch the former, but the former taught Washington a lesson about the danger of failing to confront threats before they are fully formed. In the same manner, the appeasement at Munich—carried out by the realists of that day—at once had nothing and yet everything to do with how America responded to Stalin and his followers in Berlin, Korea, Cuba, and Vietnam.
This is not to say that Scowcroft and the realists are to shoulder all the blame for the tragedy of Iraq, but nor should the younger Bush and the idealists. Both groups did their best given the circumstances they faced. Both took calculated risks. And both sets of risks spawned many unintended, unforeseen consequences.
It’s far easier to critique a foreign policy than it is to define and execute one—take it from someone who does more than his share of critiquing—but it seems the realists have forgotten this truth.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security.
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