Brent Scowcroft: The Wise Man

Over the past five decades, beginning with his service to Richard Nixon and continuing to the present, Scowcroft has played a central role in promoting an internationalist foreign policy grounded in realist precepts. 

March-April 2015

IN 1961, Richard Rovere, a correspondent for the New Yorker, wrote an essay in the American Scholar called “Notes on the Establishment In America.” In it he described, with extensive footnotes, a northeastern mandarin class, composed of everyone from John McCloy to John Kenneth Galbraith, that was manipulating the levers of power at the highest levels of government and industry. Rovere wrote:

The Establishment, as I see it, is not at any level a membership organization, and in the lower reaches it is not organized at all. In the upper reaches, some divisions have achieved a high degree of organization and centralization and, consequently, of exclusiveness and power. The directors of the Council on Foreign Relations, for example, make up a sort of Presidium for that part of the Establishment that seeks to control our destiny as a nation.

Rovere’s spoof occasioned a good deal of comment—one credulous legislator and member of the John Birch Society even entered it into the Congressional Record as a profound indictment of the establishment’s reach and sway—but perhaps no riposte was more telling than William F. Buckley Jr.’s. It appeared in Harper’s Magazine in 1962 and was titled “The Genteel Nightmare of Richard Rovere.”

Buckley, who had devoted much of his early career to attacking the Eisenhower administration and mainstream liberals alike, pounced upon Rovere’s study. He said that for all his mock sobriety, Rovere was likely revealing more than he had intended. “The fact of the matter,” wrote Buckley, “is that Mr. Rovere’s disavowals notwithstanding, there is a thing which, properly understood, might well be called an American Establishment; and the success of Mr. Rovere’s essay wholly depends on a sort of nervous apprehension of the correctness of the essential insight.”

Indeed it did. For much of its history, the establishment has operated quietly in the corridors of power. The very idea of an establishment, after all, can seem antithetical to American democracy, a sentiment that was vividly expressed in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s description of Secretary of State Dean Acheson as “this pompous diplomat in striped pants, with a phony British accent.” The Vietnam War further discredited the establishment in the eyes of the Left and the Right, the former blaming it for being too hawkish and the latter for not being hawkish enough. As the militant rollback doctrines championed by Buckley and his crowd, which had been expressed but never acted upon by the Reagan administration, were put into operation by the neoconservatives during the George W. Bush administration’s war in Iraq, the establishment seemed as passé among Republicans as among Democrats.

More recently, however, the establishment has seen its reputation rise steadily. An entire field of what might be called establishment studies has appeared to depict leading foreign-policy figures from the Cold War, some of whose surviving members (most notably George F. Kennan, who died at the age of 101 in 2005) warned against both NATO expansion and the Iraq War. The volumes include Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’s The Wise Men, Kai Bird’s The Chairman, Geoffrey Kabaservice’s The Guardians, Godfrey Hodgson’s The Colonel and John Lewis Gaddis’s George F. Kennan: An American Life. The reason for this steady output about patricians such as Kennan, Acheson, Henry Stimson and Robert Lovett isn’t simply a case of nostalgia for a bygone era, though there is certainly some of that. It’s because these grandees represent a foreign-policy tradition that retains its relevance—a conception of public service that, as far as possible, seeks to define and defend America’s national interests rather than focus on partisan gain.


ENTER BRENT Scowcroft. In his new biography The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, Bartholomew Sparrow, a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin, offers a timely reminder of his significance. Few former government officials epitomize the belief in public service better than Scowcroft. As a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general, a former military assistant to Richard Nixon, and U.S. national-security adviser under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush, Scowcroft has become Washington’s quintessential wise man.

Over the past five decades, beginning with his service to Nixon and continuing to the present, Scowcroft has played a central role in promoting an internationalist foreign policy grounded in realist precepts. He stands for the antithesis of a crusading doctrine that goes abroad in search of monsters to destroy. The bluster and braggadocio that characterize many of his detractors are alien to Scowcroft. So as a welter of Republican candidates prepare to seek their party’s nomination for the presidency, they would do well to contemplate his legacy. Here are five lessons Scowcroft’s career offers.