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In our opinion: Brent Scowcroft, master of U.S. foreign policy, was a Utah boy at heart

A brilliant foreign policy expert, Scowcroft may have done more than anyone else to shape how America interacted with the world over the past 50 years.

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Former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday, March 5, 2009, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on U.S. strategy in Iran.

Harry Hamburg, Associated Press

According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, Brent Scowcroft’s Utah upbringing gave him “a Westerner’s habit of reticence.” This means he would patiently listen to everyone else talk through an issue, then provide “a devastating summary of what made sense and what didn’t.”

If true, that is a great compliment to Utahns everywhere. Scowcroft, who died last week at the age of 95, should long be remembered as one of Utah’s most cherished sons.

A brilliant foreign policy expert, Scowcroft may have done more than anyone else to shape how America interacted with the world over the past 50 years. Despite this, it is doubtful his name is readily recognizable. That’s because he rarely sought the spotlight for himself. He was a true statesman. People who wielded real power in Washington, whether Democrats or Republicans, knew that when he spoke, they ought to listen. 

From Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, U.S. presidents relied on Scowcroft’s expert understanding of the world and his ability to weigh information free from partisan considerations. He wasn’t afraid of offending politicians with his honesty. He may have been “the guiding hand” behind President George H.W. Bush’s military operation to liberate Kuwait, as The New York Times put it, but he was one of only a few Republicans willing to publicly oppose President George W. Bush’s campaign to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein from power several years later.

When the president wouldn’t listen to him, he published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, warning that an attack would jeopardize the nation’s counterterrorist campaign and settle little. He also said it would undermine the faith others in the world had in an America they believed “meant well.” 

“It’s easy to lose trust, but it takes a lot of work to gain it,” he said.

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U.S. President George Bush confers with National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, center, and Secretary of State James Baker before meeting with reporters in London, July 15, 1991.

AP

Scowcroft knew a lot about trust. He cultivated and grew it as his biggest asset. He valued it more than partisanship, which ought to be a lesson to today’s group of knee-jerk reactionaries, on both sides of the aisle, who often seem more concerned about party than country.

True patriotism is synonymous with honesty and candor. His resume speaks to the influence he had on America’s late 20th century history. He was an adviser to Nixon and national security adviser to Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush. He founded the Forum for International Policy, a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy think tank. He served in the Organization of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the headquarters of the Air Force and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense. He served as chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board under the second Bush from 2001 to 2005, and Obama called on him to help choose his national security team.

And yet, when you cut through all the titles and accolades, there is something to the notion that he was, at heart, a Utah boy. 

In 2008, when Scowcroft was inducted into the University of Utah Hinckley Institute of Politics political hall of fame, he said the principles that guided his political career were formed while growing up in Ogden.

“Utah has the best workers in the country ... the most honest and hardworking with integrity,” the Deseret News quoted him saying. “That was the environment in which I grew up, and whatever success I’ve had is due to that and due to the people around me.”

The state should be proud of that legacy, and the nation should long value his contributions.