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Scowcroft believes that Iraq was a sideshow to the war on terror, and that America should have focus

The Republican Rift
Issue of 2005-10-31
Posted 2005-10-24

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.

The relationship between Scowcroft and the Bushes is not the only complicated one in this story. Condoleezza Rice was Scowcroft’s protégée. What happened there?

Condoleezza Rice started her public career as an aide to Scowcroft, and was firmly in the realist camp. But she switched Bushes, in a sense, becoming closer to the son than to the father; the son has a different view of the world, and now so does Rice. From what I understand, Rice believes now that the realists’ preoccupation with stability over democratic change brought us to September 11th, and now she’s committed to the idea of transforming countries into democracies, rather than dealing with their governments as they are. There is, of course, merit to that argument. There is also merit to Scowcroft’s argument that America shouldn’t rush into these sorts of programs haphazardly.

I was also struck by Scowcroft’s comment to you about Vice-President Cheney: “I consider Cheney a good friend—I’ve known him for thirty years. But Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore.” What does that say about Cheney’s role in the White House now?

It implies two things. One, the people who served George H. W. Bush cannot believe that their former colleague—the deeply conservative Secretary of Defense in that first Bush Administration—has embraced the neoconservative, transformationalist philosophy of George W. Bush. It also suggests something about the estrangement of the camp of George H. W. Bush from the camp of George W. Bush.

Some of the bad feeling between Scowcroft and his colleagues and the members of the current Bush Administration seems to stem from differing interpretations of the first Gulf War. How does each side see it?

George H. W. Bush made a decision not to invade Baghdad in 1991, and not to support the uprising of Shiites and Kurds at the end of the Gulf War. He was guided in this decision by his allies, and by the United Nations, which set as a goal the removal of Iraq from Kuwait, not the removal of Saddam from Iraq.

But for a long time he was criticized for this, particularly by the people who came to be known as neoconservatives. They said that he “didn’t finish the job.” The people associated with George W. Bush wanted very much to “finish the job.” Now, of course, George H. W. Bush’s decision, back in 1991, looks to many people prudent, rather than merely timid.

In doing the reporting for this article, did you get a sense of how the decision-making process in the White House works, and how it differs from that in the past two Administrations?

One big difference, as far as I can tell, is the unwillingness of many people in the second Bush Administration to listen to dissenting analyses. Scowcroft always made sure that George H. W. Bush heard all sides of an argument—good potential outcomes, bad potential outcomes.

People wonder whether Scowcroft is a proxy for the elder Bush. But is he also a proxy for a broader constituency—a wing of the Republican Party that is increasingly disaffected by the war?

Only Scowcroft and the elder Bush could say whether Scowcroft is Bush’s proxy on matters related to Iraq, and neither man is saying. On the larger question, yes, Scowcroft speaks for the non-neoconservative, non-evangelical, non-human-rights wing of the Republican Party—the business side of the Party.

Scowcroft, you write, is a “realist”—though he would qualify the term—and a number of those who made the case for invading Iraq were “idealists.” What do those terms mean, in this context?

One way to put it is that the realists didn’t go after Saddam, because it didn’t seem tenable. The idealists went after him, because he’s such a loathsome man. The great shortcoming of realism is its disregard for human rights—well, not disregard, precisely, but the belief embedded in realism that what countries do to their own people shouldn’t be our strategic concern. Now, of course, the realists feel that events on the ground in Iraq vindicate their views. The idealists say that it is too early to tell, and that “stability” in the Middle East—the thing the realists want—brought us to this current mess.

How well does the realist-idealist split reflect the debate that preceded the war? Two and a half years ago, much of the talk was about the doctrine of preëmption—which doesn’t neatly fall into either category.

Preëmption is not necessarily an idealistic notion; a realist could very well argue for preëmption. I believe that Dick Cheney would put himself in this camp—the camp of people who were less interested in bringing democracy to Iraq as a means of permanently making the place stable, but who saw in Saddam a rising threat and felt it necessary to do something.

Whether we should go to war to spread democracy is a good question—one that, as you note, we’ve debated as a nation since Woodrow Wilson. But is that, in fact, why we went to war?

Again, a mystery. I think that there were many reasons for this war, even in the mind of George W. Bush. I think each key player in the Administration had a different reason for wanting this. I tend to think that we went to war because most people thought Saddam was a provably dangerous man who was hiding a W.M.D. program. I tend to think that Bush’s second inaugural—the one in which he called for an end to tyranny—would not have happened had the American military found ten pounds of Iraqi anthrax in a bunker somewhere. This is a roundabout way of saying that democratic reform is the reason we have now for the war, because W.M.D.s weren’t found.

Are the conservatives turning against the neoconservatives?

They’ve been doing so for some time. Just read George Will. Their complaint is that neoconservatives aren’t conservative; they’re liberals with guns. Conservatives tend to take Scowcroft’s more jaundiced view of human nature. Paul Wolfowitz, on the other hand, is a liberal, but a liberal who believes that transformation can be brought about by force, not just persuasion. Obviously, there are other breaches within the Republican Party, on the Harriet Miers nomination, on spending, and on and on.

Is Scowcroft at all optimistic about what’s likely to happen next in Iraq?

He is not terribly optimistic. He feels very heavily the weight of history, and history isn’t telling him that things will turn out well. He’s hoping they will, I believe, and, from what I can tell, this is a sincere hope, even if a good turn of events in Iraq would prove him wrong in his analysis. This is an eighty-year-old man who wants to see his country safe and secure and prosperous. I’m not sure he’s right, of course—sometimes the realists overestimate the difficulties that come with change. But I think it’s fair to say that the country would be better off if Scowcroft was at least heard out by the current Administration
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