Almost exactly thirty years ago, on August 2, 1990, Brent Scowcroft sat on a small airplane. Crammed in the seat in front of him, their knees touching, sat George H.W. Bush, the President of the United States. Bush spent the flight on the phone, calling up leaders around the world.
Scowcroft, who was the American President’s principal foreign policy advisor, was madly revising the speech Bush was going to give at their destination in Colorado – he had to make it compatible with the things that had happened the day before. Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, had sent his troops to invade neighboring Kuwait. The entire world was now watching the United States. The Cold War was almost over. The Berlin wall had fallen. Two Germanies would soon become one. Faced with naked aggression in a somewhat less-than-crucial context, would American leaders look the other way? Or would they conclude that it was in their country’s interest to intervene?
He had had “absolutely no doubt” about Bush’s determination, Scowcroft subsequently recalled (1). A few days later, after landing back at the White House, Bush told journalists that “this will not stand, this aggression against Kuwait.” And another few months later, an international coalition led by US military forces defeated Iraq’s army, with broad reverberations throughout the international system (2). Brent Scowcroft died a few weeks ago, on 6 August 2020. He was 95. Today, the question on many an analyst’s mind is whether America was very much a different country three decades ago, or whether Washington’s key policymakers back then were a different type of people.
Despite Bush’s clear words and Scowcroft apparent lack of doubt, the decision to intervene had not come easy. “Yours is a society which cannot accept [ten thousand] dead in one battle,” Iraq’s dictator had told the US envoy in Baghdad before his daring move. He was implying that Americans had no stomach for long wars in far-away places. For as long as America’s capitalist democracy had been engaged in a deadly battle with Soviet totalitarian communism, leaders in both Washington and Moscow had had little choice but to intervene. But now the Soviets were down and the Americans were surprised by their sudden success, the Iraqis reasoned. The world seemed remarkably unrestrained. These circumstances “will not happen again for fifty years,” an adviser told the Iraqi dictator. It was the “opportunity of a lifetime.” Moscow had its own fish to fry and Washington would swallow his land grabbing, Saddam concluded (3).
“We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future.
The Iraqi despot was not alone with his assumption. Before boarding for Colorado, Bush and Scowcroft had attended a meeting that seemed to reach that very conclusion. The US government’s key policymakers had congregated for an hour at the White House. “There was sort of a fait acompli atmosphere,” Scowcroft later recalled (4). All gathered had agreed that they had to protect Saudi Arabia – it was inimical to US interests to permit any power to “gain dominance over Gulf oil supplies,” Pentagon planners had argued before. But the world needed oil, and Saddam would provide it, the officials at the meeting had concluded. Liberating Kuwait was “not viable,” budget officials concerned with the costs of a potential deployment had opined. Military leaders doubted whether their political masters possessed the resolve to go to war over Kuwait. Some had even argued that the crisis offered an “interesting opportunity” to boost production and drive down the global price of oil – to the benefit of US consumers. Dick Cheney, Bush’s Secretary of Defense at the time, later remembered that the general feeling had been that most citizens of Kuwait lived “in the south of France anyway.” (5)
Mere hours later, jam-packed on their small plane, Scowcroft told Bush that he was very disturbed at the tone of the morning meeting. It had skipped over “the enormous stake the United States had in the situation, or the ramification of the aggression on the emerging post-Cold War world.” (6) First, there was a regional dimension. Washington wanted to stabilize the Gulf, and Saddam’s actions were reinforcing old antagonisms. Also, neither Iraq nor Iran could be allowed to dominate the region, and Saddam’s incursion was threatening to start tilting the balance in his direction. However, the second – the global order – dimension was dominating. “We were trying to set up a method of behavior for the post-Cold War world,” Scowcroft later remembered, and this was the key moment where Washington needed to set the tone for the future. (7)
In other words, had the remaining superpower allowed a rogue dictator to do what he wanted, others would have registered the message. Scowcroft, together with his principal White House staffers, worked in the background. Luckily, upon further consideration, various other decisionmakers throughout the US government came to the same conclusion. By the time of the next meeting on the crisis, the tenor had changed. “This is the first test of the postwar system,” Larry Eagleburger, the Deputy Secretary of State, underlined. If Saddam succeeded, “others may try the same thing.” This would be a “bad lesson.” The world would become a more dangerous place – with long-term negative consequences for America’s goals of constructing a liberal and democratic global order. Both US security and prosperity would suffer (8). The bottom line was that the US leadership had to accept the costs of intervention now in order to prevent larger future threats to the national interest.
And yet, Bush’s choice – as preordained as it appears in the rearview mirror – was anything but easy (9). For instance, US military leaders were aware that high losses would once again damage their reputation and, hence, their position within the American society. Scarred by the war in Vietnam a few decades prior, military commanders wanted the armed forces to have the support of the population. Their “number one priority was to rearrange the relation with the American people,” a former official told me a few years ago. Thus, military leaders pushed the President to authorize an overpowering but very expensive deployment – they believed that decisive force would end the war quickly and save (American) lives. (10)
This type of military expedition ultimately delivered a crushing victory, but significantly increased Bush’s political costs in case of defeat. Towards the end of August 1990, Bush met Secretary of State James Baker – who was also his best friend – at the White House. Baker cautioned that the Iraq crisis had “all the ingredients that brought down three of the last five Presidents: A hostage crisis, body bags, and a full-fledged economic recession caused by [expensive] oil.” Bush replied: “I know that, Jimmy, I know that. But we’re doing what’s right; we’re doing what is clearly in the national interest of the United States. Whatever else happens, so be it.” (11) Thus, when the military leadership asked for very large forces to be dispatched to the Gulf, Bush – at Scowcroft’s advice – listened carefully and then stood up and said, “You’ve got it. Let me know if you need more.” He then promptly walked out of the room, leaving everyone stunned. (12)
Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended.
Ultimately, Bush and Scowcroft’s choices were grounded in a particular reading of international affairs and, implicitly, of the post-Cold War era. “We didn’t think it was going to be a peaceful world,” Scowcroft later remembered his and the President’s thinking. “We thought it was going to be a messy world.” (13) Francis Fukuyama, who was at that point the deputy director of the State Department’s policy planning staff, had just advanced his famous and popular end-of-history thesis: With communism dead, nations would converge, and conflict would be avoided. But Bush, Scowcroft, and many of their advisers believed that the international arena remained a highly competitive environment. Thus, they thought it was “romantic” and “wrong” to imagine that history could have ended. Regional disputes, long suppressed by the US-Soviet competition, would be reawakened, and new “political and economic” forces would be “unleashed.” Without the US global engagement, Washington’s international politico-economic designs would be imperiled.(14)
Today, we face a chicken and the egg problem. We see how Donald Trump, the current US President, is abandoning long-held American responsibilities. Was America so different three decades ago that it brough people like Scowcroft and Bush to power to served its interests at that point in time? If this is the case, we should brace ourselves – any American President will be transactional, less interested in global order and stability, and more likely to question the utility of the transatlantic alliance. Conversely, maybe the United States did not change that much, but the people who governed it three decades ago were different individuals, with different priorities and different ideas. Should this be the case, there is hope. Maybe the next President will be able to go back on some of the steps this Administration has taken, especially towards mending Washington’s relationship to Western Europe. In any case, the future remains interesting and uncertain. What is certain is that Scowcroft wisdom will be sorely missed.
- Philip Zelikow and James H. McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project, released August 2020.
- The best overview is Richard N. Haass, War of Necessity, War of Choice: A Memoir of Two Iraq Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010). For a more recent narrative, John Gans, White House Warriors (New York: Norton & Co, 2019), 89-114.
- Cited in Jeffrey A. Engel, When the World Seemed New: George H. W. Bush and the End of the Cold War (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), 381 and 388.
- Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 59.
- Sandra Charles, “Memo for Haass: Minutes from NSC/DCM, August 2, 1990, on Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait,” January 22, 1991, Bush Library, Richard N. Haass Presidential Meeting File CF0118-019, NSC Meeting – August 2, 1990 Re: Iraqi Invasion of Kuwait; Philip Zelikow, “Interview with Dick Cheney,” March 16, 2000, 55, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project; and Norman Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero: The Autobiography of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf (New York: Bantam, 1993), 297.
- George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998), 317–18; and Richard Haass, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (New York, New York: Penguin Press, 2017). Also, Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 9.
- Zelikow and McCall, “Interview #2 with Brent Scowcroft,” August 10, 2000, 61 and 72–73.
- John Meacham, Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush (New York: Random House, 2015), 426; and Andrea Mitchell, “Interview with Brent Scowcroft,” November 7, 2007, Princeton University Library, James A. Baker Oral History Project.
- For the same conclusion, see Stephen Knott, “Interview with Richard Haass,” May 27, 2004, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
- Interview with Joint Chiefs of Staff official, March 2018, Washington D.C. See also Schwarzkopf, It Doesn’t Take a Hero.
- James A. Baker and Thomas DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: Putnam, 1995), 277.
- Robert M. Gates, “The Scowcroft Model,” Foreign Affairs, August 13, 2020.
- Philip Zelikow, “Interview #1 with Brent Scowcroft,” November 12, 1999, 52, University of Virginia, Miller Center, George H.W. Bush Oral History Project.
- Brent Scowcroft, “Memo for Bush: US Diplomacy for the New Europe,” December 22, 1989, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (December 1989). Also, “Memo for Bush: Your Meetings in Brussels with NATO Leaders,” November 29, 1989, and “US Policy in Eastern Europe in 1990,” January 1990, Bush Library, Scowcroft Collection, 91116 German Unification (November 1989) and NSC Collection, Robert D. Blackwill Chronological Files 30547-010, January 1990. For Francis Fukuyama’s essay, “The End of History?,” The National Interest, no. 16 (Summer 1989): 3–18.