The first time Brent Scowcroft impinged on my consciousness was in December 1989, six months after the massacre of young Chinese patriots in Tiananmen Square. The particular way he impinged was by being photographed in Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, smiling and raising a toast with Li Peng, one of the main organizers of the massacre. Like many others, I was shocked and baffled by this spectacle, and read with great interest the justifications for it offered by the Bush-41 administration. The principal justification was that it was “important to keep the lines open,” and to “keep China from becoming isolated.” Scowcroft himself later described the purpose of his mission to Beijing as: “to lay out a road map for getting back together.”
Reading this stuff, I could see the administration’s point. I didn’t agree with it, and I still don’t; but their arguments were not contemptible. The thing that I could not see the point of, and that I did find contemptible, was that photograph of Scowcroft raising a toast to a gang of murderers. Why did he have to do that? Either (I reasoned) he was suckered into it, in which case he does not have a clue how things work in a country like China; or else he was actually sincere when he said, making that toast: “In both our societies there are voices of those who seek to redirect or frustrate our co-operation. We both must take bold measures to overcome these negative forces … We extend the hand of friendship and hope that you will do the same.” Taking “bold measures” to overcome “negative forces” is, of course, a thing that the Chinese Communist Party understands very well — these were, in point of fact, exactly the terms in which they saw their little operation of six months earlier. They gave Scowcroft a standing ovation.
Ever since then I have viewed with cold skepticism Scowcroft’s reputation as an international-relations guru. To be sure, the man is superbly well-credentialed. West Point graduate: B.S.: M.A.: Ph.D.: Professor of Russian History at West Point: Head of the Political Science Department at the Air Force Academy; etc. etc. Scowcroft has, in some official capacity or other, given advice to five U.S. Presidents. To judge from published memoirs and histories, and so far as one can make out among the din of axes being ground therein, the advice he has given has been decently sound: often wrong, often right, occasionally — as on Somalia — right when most of those about him were wrong. He obviously takes his work seriously, and is a terrific grind. Bob Woodward noted of him that: “His idea of recreation was attending a seminar on arms control, a subject he loved in all its obscure detail.”
Scowcroft illustrates an interesting fact: that it is possible to be knowledgeable, even worldly, in the extreme, while being stone blind to certain basic realities. Yes, China is an important country; and yes, of course we must keep lines of communication open with her; and no, there isn’t much we can do about the unfortunate fact that she is ruled by corrupt and amoral thugs. Still we should not flatter and fawn over those thugs, much less be seen to do so by all the world, much much less be thus seen while the thugs’ hands are still dripping with the blood of innocents. A person who can do that, and come away believing that he has performed useful work for his country, is, in some manner, style, degree or aspect, an idiot.
Presidents necessarily surround themselves with highly-credentialed people like Scowcroft, and they are right to do so. They are also right to keep them at arm’s length and rely on their own judgment when the time comes to make decisions. As our own Rick Brookhiser has pointed out: “The wise leader should strive to have intellectuals on tap and not be one himself.” Kept on a short leash, and forbidden to take any public initiatives themselves, these policy-wonk types are very useful. Insufficiently well supervised, they are walking calamities. The name “Ira Magaziner” mean anything?
There is a buzz going around conservative web sites that Scowcroft is a wimp, an equivocator with a distaste for American power and a soft spot for our enemies. I don’t think this is quite right, that 1989 toast notwithstanding. Cautious, yes — he admits to that himself — but not a cringing, guilt-addled America-last accommodationist, not a Warren Christopher or a Cyrus Vance. He was tough-minded about the Soviets and on board with the Gulf War after some initial misgivings about U.S. casualties.
The Scowcroft problem is not one of timidity or over-accommodation: it is one of commitment to managerialism. To Scowcroft, international relations are to be managed. The Soviets were to be managed; the Chinese are to be managed; Saddam Hussein is to be managed. This business of managing the world requires high skill and deep experience; and there is no place in it for emotion, sentiment, rhetoric, moral judgment, dramatic initiatives or leaps of the imagination. Herbert Parmet, in his life of Bush-41, notes Scowcroft’s misgivings about “emotional speeches equating Saddam with Hitler” following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Bush’s adviser, circumspect and thoughtful as ever, worried about using hyperbole that suggested a fight to Saddam’s death. Bush persisted. Americans did not want to bloody their sons for oil, or for diplomatic infatuation with ‘balance-of-power politics.’ As he knew from experience, they needed a demon.
Now of course, this Kissingerian-Scowcroftian view of things is correct most of the time in all places, and all the time in most places. International relations are to be managed; and it is a good thing we have skilled diplomats and seasoned advisers to manage them for us. These managerial methods fail, though, when a serious and ruthless threat to the international order, or some important part of it, arises. The British Foreign Office of the 1930s was not short of policy wonks, International Relations Ph.Ds. and seasoned advisers. Unfortunately, they were all wrong. The man who was right was a self-educated romantic with a reputation for political unreliability and personal eccentricity, yet who knew that Hitler could not be managed but had to be confronted — as, of course, though unfortunately later rather than sooner, he eventually was.
Scowcroft himself understands this at some level. In A World Transformed, the book he co-wrote with Bush-41, Scowcroft notes the collapse in the international position of the U.S. brought about by the delusions of détente — an exercise in High Managerialism — in the early 1970s, and adds: “It took the harshness and determination of the Reagan administration … to restore a realistic perspective.” Yes: when management has failed, confrontation becomes necessary: and a self-educated romantic like Winston Churchill or Ronald Reagan, with clear moral vision and unshakeable faith in his own powers of judgment, is just the person you want in charge at such a time, however much the Kissingerians may cringe at rhetoric about “gangster cliques” or “evil empires.”
The issue we currently face with Saddam Hussein is, of course: Is this actually such a time? Have managerial principles actually failed? It seems clear to me that they have — not only in respect of Iraq, but all over the Middle East. Looking back across the long years of the Israel-Arab conflict, indeed, it is difficult to believe they ever had any chance of success there. Yet still Brent Scowcroft urges us forward to more “peace processes,” more “diplomatic initiatives,” more “understanding.” In the Wall Street Journal Op-Ed that aroused so much interest last week, he tells us that:
The shared view in [the Middle East] is that Iraq is principally an obsession fo the U.S. The obsession of the region, however, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If we were seen to be turning our backs on that bitter conflict — which the region, rightly or wrongly, perceives to be clearly in our power to resolve — in order to go after Iraq, there would be an explosion of outrage against us.
An explosion of outrage? Heaven forefend! What might they do? Fly a plane into one of our buildings? Well, then, we had better drop our own foolish obsessions and embrace theirs!
We can argue — and we are arguing, as free people should — about whether action against Iraq is more dangerous than inaction. (I think it is less dangerous.) We can argue what Scowcroft calls “the central point” of the piece he published last week: that a campaign against Iraq would divert us from the War on Terror. (I believe it would assist it wonderfully.) We can argue the propriety of attacking a sovereign nation without direct provocation. (My view: we are at war, and unfriendly nations must take their chances.) We can wonder what would happen after we defeat Saddam — whether we should be stuck for years with the job of running, or helping to run, Iraq. (In my opinion, yes, we would, but we’d cope.) We can fear for Israel if Saddam is provoked. (Though my own contingent of Israeli readers tell me in their e-mails that we should get it over with: “Better now than later.” Recent pronouncements by their government take the same line.)
What seems to me increasingly unarguable is that the time for managerialism, for understanding, for “peace processes,” is past, and the time for confrontation nigh. I think we understand the peoples of the Middle East well enough, having repeatedly watched them dancing in the street at our misfortunes. It is time now to press a little understanding of us on them. The crushing of the cockroach regime in Iraq, aside from its other probable benefits, would be a splendid way to accomplish this — to bring a little Attitude Adjustment to a region sorely in need of it, and unlikely to acquire it through the efforts of managers, however many “diplomatic initiatives” they launch, however many “peace processes” they set in motion, however much “understanding” they display, however many “hands of friendship” they extend, however many toasts they raise to those who hate us and who spit on our values.