One week after a top aide to former Secretary of State Colin Powell issued a blistering attack on foreign policy-making in the George W. Bush administration, Brent Scowcroft, who served as national security adviser under Bush’s father, assailed neoconservatives who persuaded the president to go to war in Iraq.
In an interview with The New Yorker magazine, Scowcroft, whose relations with the Bush administration have been badly strained since he publicly warned against invading Iraq seven months before U.S. troops crossed over from Kuwait, argued that the invasion was counterproductive.
"This was said to be part of the war on terror, but Iraq feeds terrorism," Scowcroft told the magazine, adding that the war risked moving public opinion against any new foreign policy commitments for some time, just as the Vietnam War did during the late 1970s and through the 1980s.
"Vietnam was visceral in the American people," said Scowcroft, who also served as national security adviser in the mid-1970s under former President Gerald Ford. "This was a really bitter period, and it turned us against foreign policy adventures deeply. This is not that deep, [but] we’re moving in that direction."
Scowcroft’s remarks come at a critical moment. According to recent opinion polls, the government’s performance in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Bush’s choice of his personal attorney to serve on the Supreme Court, and the lack of progress achieved in Iraq have combined to put the president’s approval ratings at below 40 percent.
Moreover, there is a growing likelihood that a federal special prosecutor will indict top administration officials, including Bush’s political adviser, Karl Rove, and Vice President Dick Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, this week.
They are thought to have played a key role in trying to discredit and punish whistleblower Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who had publicly questioned its rationale for going to war in Iraq. The probe has cast a dark cloud over the White House at a moment when it can least afford it.
The administration was also unpleasantly surprised by the cascading media coverage given to a talk at the New America Foundation (NAF) last week by ret. Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, Powell’s top aide for some 16 years, in which he accused Cheney and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld of leading a "cabal" that circumvented the formal policymaking and intelligence processes in order to take the country to war in Iraq.
Wilkerson, whose long-standing personal and professional closeness to Powell has been widely noted, also accused Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a Scowcroft protégé from Bush I, of condoning the cabal’s machinations and failing to ensure an open policymaking process in which all reasonable voices and options were heard when she served as Bush’s national security adviser during his first term.
Scowcroft, a former Air Force general who has long been seen as George H.W. Bush’s closest friend, if not alter ego, was not nearly as scathing as Wilkerson, although some of his opinions echoed those of Powell’s former chief of staff. While Wilkerson’s words reflected deep anger and frustration, Scowcroft comes across in the interview as regretful but resigned.
Of Cheney, who worked closely with Scowcroft as secretary of defense under Bush I and White House chief of staff under Ford, Scowcroft expressed bewilderment. "The real anomaly in the administration is Cheney," he said. "I consider Cheney a good friend I’ve known him for 30 years. But Dick Cheney I don’t know anymore."
Cheney, he said, appeared to have been taken with a presentation by Bernard Lewis, an octogenarian Middle East scholar from Princeton University, who had been invited to the White House soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. According to Scowcroft, Lewis’ message was, "I believe that one of the things you’ve got to do to Arabs is hit them between the eyes with a big stick. They respect power."
"I don’t think Cheney is a neocon, but allied to the core of neocons is that bunch who thought we made a mistake in the first Gulf War, that we should have finished the job," Scowcroft told The New Yorker.
"There was another bunch who were traumatized by 9/11, and who thought, ‘The world’s going to hell and we’ve got to show we’re not going to take this, and we’ve got to respond, and Afghanistan is okay, but it’s not sufficient.’"
On the foreign policy process, Scowcroft also implicitly echoed Wilkerson’s contention that the views of dissenters from the Cheney-Rumsfeld line, including himself, were either ignored or screened out.
When a frustrated Scowcroft published his warning against invading Iraq in August 2002, Rice telephoned him and asked, according to another source, "How could you do this to us?"
"What bothered Brent more than Condi yelling at him was the fact that here she is, the national security adviser, and she’s not interested in hearing what a former national security adviser had to say," according to the source.
At the time, Scowcroft was serving as chair of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB), which should have been consulting regularly with the White House but was apparently kept in the dark about the preparations and rationale for going to war.
Scowcroft was dropped from PFIAB earlier this year, and efforts by George H.W. Bush to arrange a meeting between his son and Scowcroft have been unavailing, according to The New Yorker account.
Indeed, one of the most important differences between foreign policy by Bush I and Bush II was the openness of the process to dissenting opinions, according to John Sununu, Bush I’s chief of staff.
"We always made sure the president was hearing all the possibilities," he told The New Yorker, a view that was implicitly endorsed by the former president himself. In an e-mail message, the elder Bush described Scowcroft as being "very good about making sure that we did not simply consider the ‘best case,’ but instead considered what it would mean if things went our way, and also if they did not."
The willingness to consider what could go wrong, as well as what could go right, is one of the most profound critiques of the current administration made by Scowcroft, widely considered a classic "realist," of both the current administration’s policy process and the neoconservative influence on it.
Noting that he and his Bush I colleagues, including Cheney, strongly opposed invading Iraq and ousting Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War because of the risks of becoming bogged down in a "hostile land," Scowcroft told The New Yorker, "[T]his is exactly where we are now. We own it. And we can’t let go."
"Now, will we win? I think there’s a fair chance we’ll win. But look at the cost."
"What the realist fears," he went on, "is the consequences of idealism. The reason I part with the neocons is that I don’t think in any reasonable time frame the objective of democratizing the Middle East can be successful. If you can do it, fine, but I don’t think you can, and in the process of trying to do it you can make the Middle East a lot worse."
(Inter Press Service)