Scowcroft the standard for national security adviser

Posted Jan. 14, 2009, at 8:24 p.m.

Several years ago, a senior State Department official said he understood I was from Maine. Was I from Camden?

I said no. Why?

The official then confessed that he’d once been invited to speak at a conference in Camden, though a hectic schedule barred much preparation. But he wasn’t worried. “How tough was an audience in a small town on the Maine coast going to be?”

He laughed. “Well, was I surprised! There was a full house, and one tough question about foreign policy after another.”

The 22nd Camden Conference will be held Feb. 20-22, and its program on “global leadership” will feature outstanding experts on critical issues facing the Obama administration. One speaker alone will be worth the price of admission: Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to two presidents, Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush, and hands down one of the nation’s ablest strategic thinkers.

It will be Mr. Scowcroft’s second visit. He was a speaker in 1988 at the first Camden Conference — held, says board member John Snow, after a wealthy medical entrepreneur, Harvey Picker, and several retired State Department and CIA people “decided they wanted to have something to look forward to in the long winter.”

Consider Scowcroft’s achievements in just the one term administration of Bush 41. Along with James Baker, Bush’s secretary of state, Scowcroft coordinated policies to deal effectively with the liberation of Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. Handling the break-up of Yugoslavia didn’t go so well, though it was Baker who claimed, mistakenly, that “we don’t have a dog in that fight.”

The lack of a second term undercut one of the most promising U.S. diplomatic efforts on Mideast peace and, possibly, a more pragmatic approach to the post-Soviet transition. Yet Scowcroft remained one of the most clear-headed, independent commentators on foreign affairs.

A Republican, he wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Aug. 2002, that an attack on Iraq would be a grave mistake, would not finish the work in Afghanistan, and divert us from the war on terrorism. He also opposed rapid expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders. His incisive critique of George W. Bush’s unilateralist policies is outlined in a recent book, “America and the World.”

Arguably the most important single position in the government today, the national security adviser coordinates all the views of diplomatic, military and other senior officials and delivers the best options — and key advice — to the president.

Fifteen people have held the job since the Kennedy administration. Henry Kissinger proved too dominant — with Richard Nixon’s blessing. Many have proved failures, ranging from McGeorge Bundy, who embraced escalation in Vietnam, to Condoleezza Rice, who was overwhelmed by Vice President Dick Cheney and other officials and failed to deliver more objective options on Iraq to Bush 43.

An article in the current Foreign Affairs observes: “The process Scowcroft put in place, the way he balanced his responsibilities as presidential adviser and honest broker, the manner in which he structured interagency deliberations by emphasizing trust and transparency, made Scowcroft the national security adviser to emulate.”

It is encouraging that Barack Obama has consulted Scowcroft; also that he has selected a person with Scowcroft’s qualities as his own NSC adviser, James Jones — like Scowcroft, a retired general with a reputation for independence and broad strategic thinking.

It is ironic that we find our most strategic thinkers among generals and admirals. But senior military leaders in the U.S. go through rigorous education and training, especially in strategy and history, not to mention their experience on a battlefield where they deal with the decisions of civilian leaders.

Just as ironically, the militarization of U.S. foreign policy since 2000 has been driven by two men with limited National Guard time and five draft deferments; while the secretary of defense, Robert Gates, and Gen. Jones, will try to strengthen the role of diplomacy and utilization of force only as a last resort. They also will need to develop a national security strategy that is broader and more reflective of American values than the Bush doctrine of preemption.

“The system is broken, in several ways,” notes Adm. Gregory G. Johnson, a retired officer who lives in Harpswell. “We still don’t have a clear national security strategy to replace the containment policy of the Cold War. Freedom is a nice goal, but not a national strategy.”

Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He can be reached at hill207@juno.com.

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