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The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security

Friday, March 4th, 2016

[by Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security by Bartholomew Sparrow

In writing The Strategist, Bartholomew Sparrow has demonstrated that his talents as a biographer match his skill as a scholar. Cautious and careful, in telling the life and national security career of the highly regarded Brent Scowcroft, Sparrow never slips into hagiography, or gives Scowcroft a free pass in situations where it would be easy to do so. In retaining his critical eye, Sparrow has consequently permitted Scowcroft’s selfless character and frequently wise judgement to shine on their own merits in the historical record. The result is that The Strategist is a biography of remarkable power, like a great river, there are deep currents of insight below the gently moving surface.

At a sprawling 716 pages, Sparrow had room to investigate Brent Scowcroft’s family heritage in Mormon Utah, his journey at West Point from student to professor, his intellectual and professional mentors (Herman Beukema, William T.R. Fox, George Lincoln, Richard Yudkin, Andrew Goodpaster) and Scowcroft’s unfailing devotion to his wife Jackie, who became an invalid in the years when Scowcroft’s career embraced its largest burdens. It is this context that helps explain the strong ethical core that Scowcroft demonstrated time and again as a military officer, strategist and statesman as he handled brilliant but brittle personalities at the center of national security and foreign policy.

What Sparrow makes clear, time and again, was that it was Scowcroft’s unusually high emotional intelligence coupled with an amazing work ethic that provided Scowcroft with the high opportunities that allowed him to bring his talents as a strategist and manager of national security to bear. Quite simply, Scowcroft connected with people and his relentlessly consistent integrity in dealing with everyone – literally from interns to journalists to Presidents of the United States – was such that his word was regarded as being as good as gold. His equanimity too was almost as legendary as his ethics. ” I never heard Scowcroft get angry” is a frequent refrain of former colleagues. His detractors are few: Dick Cheney, who as Vice-President had a bitter break with Scowcroft over the Iraq War, had nothing but praise to say of his former friend’s integrity and judgement.

Not only did Scowcroft forge an unusually close strategic partnership with two presidents (Ford and Bush I) but he managed to win the respect and trust of so paranoid and aloof a figure as Richard Nixon (it is far less clear that Scowcroft trusted Nixon). Scowcroft’s secret was that inside a Beltway where politics and personalities trended Machiavellian, he operated in a zone of trust. Even the Clinton and Obama administrations sought Scowcroft’s counsel because they were assured of his absolute discretion and impartial judgement.

Asked to compare himself with his former boss, Henry Kissinger, Scowcroft demonstrated that he knew his strengths and his limitations. Sparrow writes:

“….Scowcroft had his own well-developed sense of military strategy and world history. He was also brilliant at questioning and evaluating the merits of his new ideas and policy options as well as a superb bureaucratic operator who knew how to put concepts into practice. But unlike Kissinger, Scowcroft said he was better at reacting to and evaluating ideas than he was dreaming them up; that was why he liked to hire people smarter than himself. ‘I don’t have a quick, innovative mind’ he claimed. ‘I don’t automatically think of good new ideas. What I do better is pick out good ideas from bad ideas.”

Was Scowcroft a good strategist?

The first problem in answering this question, at least from reading Sparrow, is that Scowcroft’s rarely equaled skill as a manager of the NSC decision-making process tends to greatly overshadow and blur his record as a strategist.  Scowcroft’s National Security Council, which worked well under Gerald Ford when the greatest of Washington prima donnas, Henry Kissinger, reigned as Secretary of State, hummed like a machine under George H. W. Bush. One would have to go back to Eisenhower to see such a comparable example of smooth national security decision making. The key was the absolute trust Scowcroft established, as Sparrow records:

“Bush, Baker, Scowcroft and other senior administration officials were able to establish relationships based on trust. ‘One of the reasons why the system worked was that Baker and Cheney totally trusted Brent to keep them informed and to fairly represent their views to the president,’ Gates said. ‘He was the only national security adviser in my view that was ever so trusted by the two other principals’ – and Gates had served under six US presidents at the time he wrote the above, before his time as defense secretary under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Scowcroft’s management of the NSC process also worked well because of his creation of other interagency groups to expedite decision making. One of his key innovations (retained by subsequent presidential administrations) was the formation of the Principals Committee which included the Vice-President, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the director of central intelligence, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House Chief of Staff and the national security adviser – all meeting without the president.”

Scowcroft achieved the holy grail of natsec policy – “whole-of-government” planning and execution. Part of the reason was that Brent Scowcroft was extraordinarily close to the elder President Bush, far closer than in the dysfunctional yet highly successful partnership between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. That accounts for some of it, but Condi Rice was just as close to George W. Bush as Scowcroft had been to Bush’s father yet her tenure as national security adviser is given low marks, not least for being completely unable to rein in Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or Vice-President Dick Cheney who was virtually the prime minister of the administration in its early years. The difference may have been that Scowcroft could not only speak with the President’s unquestioned authority, he knew better when to do so than Rice and consequently, seldom needed to do it at all.

The second problem in answering “was Scowcroft a good strategist” is that he clearly was not and never aspired to be a grand strategist in the manner of Richard Nixon, George Kennan or Otto von Bismarck.  Scowcroft never approached national security by attempting to reshape the geopolitical calculus despite the regrettable tagline of “new world order”. Instead, Scowcroft’s strategic philosophy was to manage risks as they emerged by peacefully integrating a collapsing rival state system piecemeal into the existing international community status quo at the lowest possible cost of disruption. Maximizing geopolitical opportunities or strategic gains was not his primary yardstick.

This is why as Sparrow, relates, that Scowcroft and the senior President Bush strongly discouraged “triumphalism” in American rhetoric about the Cold War while trying to work with Mikhail Gorbachev to manage the Soviet collapse; and why the break up of Yugoslavia was viewed with such distaste (Scowcroft had served in the embassy in Belgrade under Kennan). Conversely, this is also why  Scowcroft was so eager to use American military force in Iraq, to defend and reinforce post-Cold War international legal norms from Iraqi aggression, but not to march to Baghdad and overthrow Saddam’s dictatorial regime. Brent Scowcroft deserved the credit for both his early insight that force would be required to remove Iraq from Kuwait and the wisdom of the Bush administration to wield overwhelming force with restraint and diplomatic finesse.  When the second Bush administration – an administration filled with his former colleagues – opted to march on Baghdad, it would have been a simple matter for Scowcroft to remain silent, but instead he offered counsel. When his advice was rebuffed, Scowcroft did the harder thing and made his case against the Iraq War public even though it cost him friendships and access to the President of the United States. A rare choice in Washington.

Scowcroft is indeed a strategist by any reasonable measure and something greater, a statesman for whom the country and its national interest always came first.

Strongly Recommended.

Double No Trumps?

Friday, January 29th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — silly fun.. ]
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I’d say that here Kim Jong-Un

would easily Trump, ahem, Vladimir Putin

if he’d had access toi a camera and Photoshop.

Erdogan: Truth as casualty

Monday, January 25th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — truth can still be a casualty, even when not at war ]
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That was January 15th.

It didn’t take too long for Erdogan to get around to projecting onto Biden precisely the sort of thing he was in fact doing himself.

Here’s January 23rd:

Psychology — psyche — be thou my muse!

Juxtaposition: chess in Wahhabism and Buddhism

Sunday, January 24th, 2016

[ by Charles Cameron — on the focus of similarity — sameness or differences? ]
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SPEC chess is haram

As I said recently, juxtaposition does not imply eqivalence.

It is only too easy these days to see a headline like Chess is ‘haram and a waste of time,’ says grand mufti of Saudi Arabia and view it purely in terms of Islam. It is in fact an Islamic ruling, though non-binding (there was, in fact, a chess tournament scheduled to take place in Mecca today, January 22, 2016), and can also be found in Shia sources (Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq has also ruled against the game) — but many people who intensely dislike Islam may nonetheless admire Buddhism, and the Buddha dispproved of the game, even when played “in the air”..

Hey, to get a better sense of what “in the air” means here, let’s take a look at a different, more informative translation (albeit on that would not have fit into the procrustean bed of my DoubleQuote format:

Whereas some honorable recluses and brahmins, while living on food offered by the faithful, indulge in the following games that are a basis for negligence: atthapada (a game played on an eight-row chess-board); dasapada (a game played on a ten-row chess-board); akasa (a game of the same type played by imagining a board in the air); pariharapatha (“hopscotch,” a diagram is drawn on the ground and one has to jump in the allowable spaces avoiding the lines); santika (“spellicans,” assembling the pieces in a pile, removing and returning them without disturbing the pile); khalika (dice games); ghatika (hitting a short stick with a long stick); salakahattha (a game played by dipping the hand in paint or dye, striking the ground or a wall, and requiring the participants to show the figure of an elephant, a horse etc.); akkha (ball games); pangacira (blowing through toy pipes made of leaves); vankaka (ploughing with miniature ploughs); mokkhacika (turning somersaults); cingulika (playing with paper windmills); pattalaka (playing with toy measures); rathaka (playing with toy chariots); dhanuka (playing with toy bows); akkharika (guessing at letters written in the air or on one’s back); manesika (guessing others’ thoughts); yathavajja (games involving mimicry of deformities) — the recluse Gotama abstains from such games and recreations.

**

I trust that that juxtaposition of Mufti and Buddha carries an element of surpise. By way of contrast, one could always make a less surprising (less challenging?) juxtaposition, between the Grand Mufti — Sheikh Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh — and Benjamin Franklin:

SPEC-chess-is-haram 2

Reminders, and other signs

Sunday, November 22nd, 2015

[ by Charles Cameron — the camps, theirs and ours, and nuking Mecca, with a pinch of Lynch ]
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Here are the reminders..

SPEC DQ reminders

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These DoubleQuotes arose in the context of comments by Georgetown Syria specialist Marc Lynch, better known on the web as the blogger Abu Aardvark, on a recent On the Media podcast:

The kinds of ideas that you are seeing espoused by presidential candidates right now are the sorts of things that you would have seen on obscure right-wing blogs twelve years ago, and now they’re being taken seriously on the op-ed pages. The idea that you would have a religious test for Syrian refugees to let Christians but not Muslims in, or that you would create a national registry to track Muslims, or to shut down mosques – I mean, these are radical fringe ideas, and yet they’ve insinuated themselves into the mainstream.

**

Here’s the evolution of an idea, from 2005 to the present. You’ll note that the rhetoric has gained intensity (the qualification “if they nuke us” has been dropped), but in this case the earlier source (Fox) was more mainstream, and the current one (WND) way deeper into the fringe..

SPEC DQ nuke mecca

**

Sources:

  • Raw Story, Trump crosses the Nazi line: Maybe Muslims should wear special ID badges
  • Raw Story, Rhode Island Republican wants Syrian refugees held in ‘centralized’ camps

  • Fox News, Tancredo: If They Nuke Us, Bomb Mecca
  • World NetDaily, Bomb Mecca off the face of the earth

  • On the Media, Lessons Unlearned

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