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Brent Scowcroft’s life of public service was built on trust and prudence

In this Nov. 21, 1990 file photo, Secretary of State James Baker whispers to National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft during an impromptu press conference by President George H. W. Bush in Paris.
Associated Press

The passing of Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to two presidents, reminds us of two crucial elements of the standards we should expect of those who shape and execute our nation’s public policies. Those who knew him well, as I was fortunate to for more than four and a half decades, were familiar with his quiet virtues — modesty, kindness, dedication, courage and forthrightness. He never sought the limelight or drew attention to himself. He was astonishingly disciplined in his eating and exercise habits. He cared deeply about his family, friends and colleagues.

What made Scowcroft a model public servant, however, were not his quiet virtues but two qualities that should always be in demand — trust and prudence. He developed these qualities early growing up in Ogden and then leaving at age 18 for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and a career that would take him literally around the world. His ambition to serve his nation as a pilot was cut short by an accident that closed that path while opening an avenue as a teacher, strategist and policymaker.

The U.S. military has a marvelous way of developing talent. Scowcroft earned his doctorate in international relations at Columbia University, taught at West Point and the Air Force Academy and arrived at the White House as a military aide in 1972. Within a year, he was named deputy national security adviser to Henry Kissinger and promoted to lieutenant general.

On the last day of October in 1975, President Gerald Ford reshuffled a number of key people in his administration — James Schlesinger at Defense and William Colby at the CIA were dismissed, replaced by Donald Rumsfeld, the White House chief of staff, at Defense and George H.W. Bush, the U.S. liaison to the People’s Republic of China, at the CIA. Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld’s deputy, was elevated to White House chief of staff, and Henry Kissinger — who served both as secretary of state and as the White House national security adviser — had the latter hat removed and his deputy, Scowcroft, was made national security adviser. Eliot Richardson was brought from London where he was serving as the U.S. ambassador to be secretary of commerce. This cluster of changes in the administration rocked Washington.

Amid the anxiety associated with these moves, Scowcroft was a steady hand. Over the previous 14 months, he had earned the trust of Ford, who wanted a fresh set of relationships among the major elements in the foreign policy community — state, defense, the CIA and the National Security Council staff. In their new roles, Scowcroft and Bush quickly bonded and contributed to a national security decision-making process that was transparent, systematic, and in which there was less tension and more cooperation. Like many of the best things in life, the process was built on trust.

Thirteen years later, when Bush was elected the nation’s 41st president, he asked Scowcroft to return as his national security adviser, helping to lead the team that successfully brought the Cold War to a close, reunified Germany and assembled an international coalition to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, among other accomplishments.

Sometimes the relationship between those responsible for coordinating policy in the White House on national security and economic policy is challenging. Most issues fall rather neatly into one realm or the other, but roughly 10% to 15% of the time, policy issues emerge in which both the foreign and economic policy communities have a stake and involve what each consider vital interests. Someone needs to sort it out, and that task often falls to the White House chief of staff. At the same time, much hinges on the relationship between the individuals with policy responsibility and the trust that exists among them.

During the tenure of Scowcroft as national security adviser, the relationship was collaborative and without contention. He was firm but rarely territorial. He displayed an openness and transparency that was refreshing. He did not have hidden agendas or pull surprises. We served together in the Ford White House from the first day to the last and did so again during the Bush 41 administration. He once observed that it was surprising that the two of us were both born, raised and educated in Utah, yet first met in Washington and that during the Bush years had responsibility for coordinating national security and economic policy, the only time those posts have been filled by two people from the same state.

One reason Scowcroft was so trusted is that he was guided by a thoughtful, prudent approach to policy. He resisted taking unnecessary risks and did not question the motives of others. He was calm during real and perceived crises, and yet determined when he saw a need for decisive action. His prudence not merely eschewed taking unnecessary risks, it also gave equal standing to long-term considerations and did not elevate short-term benefits. He was a strategist with his eye on the far horizon and a concern for future generations.

Americans need and deserve policymakers whom they can trust and ones who exercise wisdom in charting national policy. Scowcroft was such a public servant and his judgment will be missed.

Roger B. Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government at Harvard University, served as the assistant to the president for economic and domestic policy from 1989-93.