Lt. General Brent Scowcroft

The Aspen Strategy Group mourns the loss of our Co-Founder and Chair Emeritus, Lt. General Brent Scowcroft, who passed away on August 6. We honor Brent’s patriotism, deep personal integrity, sense of humor, intellect, and his dear friendship to all of us.

Brent Scowcroft was an American original. From the age of eighteen, he dedicated his life to the United States. As an Air Force Officer, National Security Advisor to two Presidents (the only person to have held the position twice), public intellectual and writer, he was centrally involved in nearly every major national security challenge from the Vietnam War, the opening to China, détente with the Soviet Union, the peaceful end of the Cold War, the unification of Germany and the successful prosecution of the Gulf War in 1990-1991.

Admired by Presidents and junior civil servants alike, he was a singular figure in and outside of the Federal government for half a century.

We in the Aspen Strategy Group revered him. He was a Co-Founder of our group with Joe Nye and Bill Perry in the early 1980s. As our long-time Co-Chairman, he moderated our foreign policy debates with a mixture of intelligence, tact, irony and humor. He made a point of introducing into our group younger people such as Condoleezza Rice in the mid-1980s. He took the time to mentor many of our members regardless of age, background or rank. Outside of our meeting room in Aspen, Colorado, he joined the chorus at our annual singalong and led us in hikes high up in the Rockies well into his 80s.

Our lasting tribute to him is the Scowcroft Fellowship Program that brings aspiring public servants to our group for internships.

We will miss his piercing intellect, acute sense of history, ready wit and warm smile at our annual gatherings.

We are all poorer for his loss, but infinitely richer for his life.

In the early 1980s, when I was talking to the Rockefeller Foundation about supporting the idea of an Aspen Strategy Group, they said that it would only work if we found Republican and Democratic co-chairs whose personal integrity was so obvious to members of both parties that we could overcome the partisan schism of the times. We chose Brent Scowcroft and Bill Perry and that is why the group has succeeded. Brent Scowcroft was the gold standard for personal and policy integrity.

Joseph Nye Jr.

Brent Scowcroft Remembered, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Project Syndicate, August 10, 2020

Brent Scowcroft was the very definition of a public servant — a man of integrity, grace, love of country, and humility. He was the standard for every National Security Advisor and a role model for so many others who sought to serve our country. His passing is a great personal loss for me. Brent was my most important mentor. It is fair to say that he, almost single-handedly paved the road for me to enter government in 1989. And from that day on, he was my advocate, my role model, and my friend. I will miss him but am grateful that his peaceful passing into the arms of the Lord is now complete. Those of us who were fortunate to know him and learn from him can find comfort in knowing that his memory and his spirit remain with us as a guide for how to serve.

Condoleezza Rice via Twitter

Tribute to Brent Scowcroft – by Nicholas Burns
(This tribute to Brent Scowcroft was delivered at the Aspen Strategy Group’s Farewell lunch for him when he stepped down as Co-Chairman.)

This lunch and—in fact—this entire day—is in tribute to one of the Founders of the Aspen Strategy Group and unquestionably one of the great public servants in American History—Lt. General Brent Scowcroft. Brent, we have assembled friends from all parts of your life: a great number of members of the ASG; your friends and colleagues from Scowcroft Group; many who worked for you at the National Security Council in both the Bush and Ford Administrations; we even have one of your own former bosses—Henry Kissinger. We have two sitting members of Pres. Obama’s Cabinet—Ash Carter and Sylvia Mathews Burwell; we have two former National Security Advisors—Steve Hadley and Tom Donilon; and we will have two of your friends joining on video—former Secretaries of State James Baker and Condi Rice.

We honor you today, Brent, because, along with your friends Henry Kissinger and George Shultz, there are very few people who have served our country for so long and so well. Brent has been on active duty for the United States since 1943 when he entered West Point. He spent 29 years in the military; in Belgrade as Air Attaché as well as on the Joint Staff in Washington. He was a professor at West Point; head of the Political Science Dept. at the Air Force Academy; Air Force Long Range Plans; Office of International Security Assistance at the Pentagon. He earned his M.A. and PhD from Columbia in these years.

In 1972, he was assigned to be Military Assistant to President Nixon, then Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. He is the only person to have served twice as National Security Advisor. Brent was at the very center of the action—in the West Wing of the White House—during the most remarkable and successful era of foreign policy accomplishment since the Second World War.

Brent was a pivotal figure in the White House working for President George H.W. Bush, Jim Baker and others. What they accomplished is still extraordinary twenty-five years later: the Unification of Germany in 1990; the extraordinarily skillful handling of a waning Gorbachev and a waxing Yeltsin in the pivotal year 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed, fifteen new states emerged, the Cold War ended– peacefully without violence and a shot fired; pivotal figure in the creation and management of a global coalition to drive Saddam Hussein from Kuwait; pivotal figure in the creation of the modern Middle East Peace process at Madrid in that same year.

Brent has received many honors for his extraordinary service to our country: the Presidential Medal of Freedom and Decorations from the governments of the United Kingdom and Germany.

Most of all, we honor Brent as our Mentor, our boss, our leader in government and in the ASG and, most assuredly, our friend. Brent: We admire you for many things: your immense personal integrity; your humility in a city of egos; your commitment to our country and to the ideal of public service; and your adherence to Harry Truman’s maxim: “It is amazing what you can accomplish—(in Washington)—if you do not care who gets the credit.”

We who worked for you remember that at the NSC—you were in your corner office before the sun came up and you stayed deep into the night—every one of the long days when you were our leader. You earned the confidence of Presidents, cabinet members and all of us who worked for you. President Obama was moved to say publicly earlier this year about Brent: “I love that guy”. Brent: We agree. And we know that if we had asked your permission to honor you today, you would have politely but emphatically declined.

So, thank you for agreeing to sit through these encomiums from your admiring friends in this room and beyond. We are here to pay tribute to you today.

Yes, General Scowcroft was a towering intellect, and a great patriot and public servant.  He was also that rarest of breeds in Washington DC:  he was unfailingly generous and kind – even to junior foreign policy aspirants.

I experienced this kindness in my very first meeting with him, over twenty years ago.  General Scowcroft had agreed to be the keynote speaker at a Harvard Law School conference (under the leadership of the wonderful Anne-Marie Slaughter.) 

As the student organizer, I was deputized to pick Brent up from the airport. Black suit on, and “General Scowcroft” sign nervously in hand, I set off.  Unfortunately, instead of sending the customary black car, the car service sent a white, 70’s-style stretch limousine with purple disco lights and champagne.  I was mortified, ready to sink into the ground. 

But Brent never missed a beat.  He hopped into the limo, and seeing my shame, said immediately with the customary twinkle in his eye: “This much more fun than riding in ‘the Beast’” (the Presidential limo).  Since we had some extra time, he insisted we do a few turns around campus in our white monstrosity, so he could learn about my background, my interest in foreign policy, and how he could recruit me to join the U.S. government when the time was right.

This interaction and my husband’s internship at the Scowcroft Group was all it took: Greg and I felt lucky to be adopted into the Scowcroft Group family – and gained a number of lifelong mentors and friends.

Thousands of young, aspiring government officials must have similar stories of his generosity and sense of fun. Thank you, Brent, for inspiring us to be our best selves, for the good of the country and the people around us.  We will miss you, and strive to live up to your example.

Anja Manuel

In uniform and at the highest levels of government, Brent Scowcroft served the country he loved with dedication and distinction. He was a brilliant thinker, a model national security advisor, and a treasured friend. I will miss him dearly.

Madeleine Albright via Twitter

Brent’s contributions to our nation’s security and foreign policy are so very many and so varied. I will not repeat the long yet incomplete lists that others have put forward, but focus on two particular elements of Brent’s contributions: Brent as master mentor and his continued acceptance and internalization of a changing world. On the second point, Brent was always able to take his incredible knowledge and experience and apply it to a changing world. I remember in my early days as an ASG member, I was seated with Brent and Joe at a dinner and had the opportunity to talk to them about the importance of Global Health as part of the nation’s security. They were skeptical. While this was not a topic that the group had expertise in and was not at that time accepted as an important national security consideration, Brent was open minded and allowed this topic to be the focus of one of the precious August sessions of the ASG. I would not claim it was one of our easiest or best sessions, but as the current situation reflects, it was prescient and was a reflection that Brent’s mind that was so disciplined, was also open to a changing world.

Like many, I have fond memories from our ASG annual hike and they relate to Brent as the master mentor. Brent was double my age, but always led the group with speed and agility up the mountain. I knew that if I could keep up with Brent up the mountain, the reward was his patient responses to my questions, both strategic and tactical, as we headed down the mountain. Brent always made me feel welcome and was willing to teach and share even though my path to the issues of national security and foreign policy were non-traditional and the opposite of his.

We miss you Brent, especially now.

Your selfless service to our nation in so many ways inspires us and calls on us to act on the example you set, and the things that you taught so many of us.

Sylvia Burwell

Brent Scowcroft, Former U.S. National Security Advisor, Dies at 95, Thomas E. Donilon, Foreign Policy, August 7, 2020

Brent was a towering figure in national security before I was even born, but as I joined with the Aspen Strategy Group, he welcomed me warmly, always listening, learning, and taking many opportunities to provide support and mentorship. His commitments to rigor in discussion and on hikes was among his many wonderful traits. He leaves a huge intergenerational legacy that we will continue to honor at the ASG and will continue to pay forward to future generations. We will miss Brent’s presence with us, though his inspiration and example, as well as his spirit remains alight.

Diana Farrell

Brent is rightly known and praised for his distinguished service to the country, his deftness in mastering the policy process, and his toughness in fighting for policy positions he believed in. Those are all noble qualities worth honoring. But I especially admired his graciousness, shown equally to the high and to the lowly. We all ribbed him extensively about his hiking prowess and the “death march” he insisted on foisting upon us — and he took it all in stride. He loved telling a good joke, and he was indulgent of bad jokes (like that awful pun). In his later years, he slowed down a bit, but that allowed more time for personal connections. On one of his last hikes, after the hip surgery, his pace was so slow that he might have walked alone. So my wife, Karen, held back just to have an extended conversation, and one entirely about the real world of life and family and not ephemera like arms control and policy. Brent was expansive and irrepressibly charming. He told the story of crashing his plane early in his military career and then being cared for by an especially attentive nurse, whom he later married. Even a dozen years after her own passing — after a time when Brent was able to repay his debt by being an attentive nurse himself — Brent’s love and concern was sweet and tangible. Great people of history are not always great souls, but in Brent’s case, the two went hand in hand.

Peter Feaver

Maybe somewhere sometime Brent frowned. But I never saw it in the hundreds of encounters we had at ASG and in Washington. He was a serious man with a gigantic intellect and extraordinary judgment. But he presented himself quietly, humbly, and with that twinkle in his eye. He was slight, but he was so fit. No one who went on them will forget the “death marches” straight up various Aspen peaks. He resembled a mountain goat without the horns! But even more special was his generosity. He always made time to check on his friends–to share that twinkle and tidbits about events and ideas as well as interest in what we were doing. He was ready to help–to participate on a panel, assess an idea, give advice. He was present in our lives and his focus was on us, not himself. With one exception: his beloved granddaughter. How he lit up when he talked about her, the delight of his life! He showed pictures and talked of their recent encounters. How sad but lucky she is to have had him to treasure her. How sad but lucky we all are. If and when we resume our summers in Aspen…on that first night of folk singing and banter, we will look up into that specially Aspen-starry sky. Somewhere near the North Star but brighter will be a twinkling star. Yup, that’s Brent.

Jane Harman

Brent Scowcroft embodied the American belief in putting the country first, David Ignatius, Washington Post, August 8, 2020

Rarely is so much wisdom found in a person so humble and accessible. Yet Brent Scowcroft was so successful, and so admired by all of us in the Aspen Strategy Group, because he understood everything about the world except how brilliant and extraordinary he was. His analysis was always incisive, yet he didn’t have a pompous bone in his body and was unassuming in a way that contrasted with the awe we always felt for him and his experience.

Brent’s humility about the world, and about the human capacity to foresee what lies around the corner, was a strength that made his analysis more shrewd. When others voiced certainty about what lay ahead, he was mostly more cautious and uncertain. He was always open-minded as well: I’m a bleeding-heart liberal from a very different tradition than his, yet I found it immensely useful to bat ideas around with him because he listened respectfully and then told me periodically why I might be wrong. His intellectual humility also made him a great national security adviser, for in the White House he was willing to tolerate and forward views that he doubted. There’s a reason every national security adviser claims to be creating the Scowcroft model, even though they rarely do.

While Brent led us in discussions about international security, that was not the only dimension of his leadership. He also led us on Aspen hikes, swooshing past us on trails up to the Continental divide. Normally, it might be humiliating to be outpaced by an octogenarian, but in the case of Brent we simply shrugged. We always expected him to be way ahead of us in every way.

We miss him and his leadership.

Nicholas Kristof

My memories of Brent go back to the administration of George H. W. Bush. We first met the day that I briefed the President on Eastern Europe, two days before the Berlin War came down. It was the first time I had been in the Oval Office – a big deal for a relatively junior CIA officer. I have always been grateful that Brent was there – a such a kind, calming and reassuring presence, encouraging me to just tell the President what I knew. I would see him periodically after that and what I recall most is that he always seemed genuinely interested in others. When he asked “How are you?” there was never the slightest sense that this was pro forma – again, kind and genuine. And during some tense, stressful, and controversial times when I was Deputy or Acting Director at CIA, he would always offer to help in any way – and always did. In a town where trust is scarce, Brent was a rarity in never having an agenda other than to do the right thing. And I have to say, he was the most sophisticated consumer of intelligence I ever dealt with. I once wrote down his definition of intelligence and have quoted it so often that I hear it played back more and more by many who might never have met Brent: “The role of intelligence is to narrow the range of uncertainty when difficult decisions must be made.” Exactly right.

John McLaughlin

Our nation lost one of its most valuable public servants with the passing of our friend Brent Scowcroft. History will record that Brent played a major role in America’s skillful response to the breakup of the Soviet Union. History will also record that he was a key player in the George H.W. Bush Administration’s initiatives to reduce nuclear dangers in the immediate aftermath of the Soviet Union’s dissolution.

Brent Scowcroft remains the role model for effective national security advisors and for the civility and respect required to make our democracy work. I was fortunate to work with and learn from Brent as a trusted friend. My heart goes out to Brent’s family.

Sam Nunn

From my days as a Cadet at West Point, I was a student of international affairs. So, it should come as no surprise, long before I met Brent Scowcroft, I was impressed and inspired by his extraordinary skill and extraordinary patriotism. “Duty, Honor, Country” were more than words for Brent. They defined him and his contribution to the United States over a life-time of service. He understood that politics played a critical role in our democracy, but he profoundly understood that the national security of the United States and the Constitutional values that he swore to protect transcended politics and personal advantage.

He brought to his monumental tasks a keen mind, constantly honed by study and analysis; he brought an open mind that would entertain the views of those who disagreed with him; and, he brought innate decency and integrity that established a sense of trust and dependability that was recognized by all who knew him.

Our paths finally crossed in the late 1990’s. I had been elected to the United States Senate and secured a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee. I was pleasantly surprised to be contacted by the Aspen Strategy Group and asked if I would like to be a member. It did not take me long to say “yes”. The Aspen Strategy Group was and is composed of leading thinkers in international affairs from both sides of the aisle, from academia as well as public servants and elected officials. It remains the epitome of thoughtful analysis from both sides focused on the pressing problems of the day. Again, without surprise, it’s Republican co-chair was Brent Scowcroft.

I headed to Aspen with a sense of excitement and a bit of trepidation. I would be among some of the most talented foreign policy specialists in the world without the procedural and customary trappings of the Senate where wisdom is imputed to practically everything one says. (It is a world where talented staff can “revise and extend” remarks to squeeze something from even the faintest glimmer of “wisdom”). I was duly impressed by all my colleagues, especially Brent. The intellectual exchange was exciting and tethered in fact not rhetoric or ideology. I spoke a few times, but generally, listened and learned. I also discovered an unannounced tradition of Aspen; the mountain climb led by Brent Scowcroft. Yes, Brent led us up a mountain, and a relatively young Senator was able to keep up with a more mature, Brent Scowcroft.

Five magical days in the beautiful mountains of Aspen finally came to an end, and we headed home wiser and better prepared to ask the difficult questions. I found myself in the crowded and small commuter airport in Aspen, waiting to catch a hop to Denver and then home to Rhode Island. I found a seat and settled in to relax, turned and saw my seat mate was Brent Scowcroft. My pulse quickened. I had not avoided Brent during the conference, but I frankly did not have the confidence to engage this towering figure of American foreign policy in chit-chat. But now, there was no way out. I blurted out the first thing that came into my head. “General, what are you doing for the rest of the Summer.” Brent replied in a casual way, “I’m going to Greece with “41”. Now, of course, being a sophisticated and astute Senator, I had to respond “why would you be going to Greece with the Class of 1941 when you’re in the class of 1947.” Brent looked at me with a combination of amazement and some concern for my ability to travel alone and simply said “41, George Herbert Walker Bush”. “Oh, that 41”, I said. Mercifully, they announced our flight.

Having made such a stunning impression on Brent, I always felt his continued kindness and tolerance towards me was part of a special bond. He could see beyond the moment and try to summon the best. Perhaps, too, he gave me the benefit of the doubt because I erred on the side of West Point. In any case, each following summer in Aspen was a great reunion (and I was sure to ask how “41” was doing.) We continued to stay in touch in Washington after he turned over his duties in Aspen.

The nation has lost a great statesman. I have lost a friend. His work is now our work. His sense of duty and dedication and decency is the measure of our lives. That is how one pays tribute to a great man.

Jack Reed

Brent Scowcroft was the kindest, wisest man among us. He led the Aspen Strategy Group on a tough climb every year, and, as he did in life, took us all to the top. His patriotism, intellect, sense of service was unparalleled. He challenged each of us to be about country, not party; about getting things done, not getting in each other’s way. He was the epitome of principled, effective, just public leadership. The last time I saw him was at Goodwin House when I came to give a speech. I wasn’t sure he knew me but he gave me his quintessential wry, sweet smile and I felt at home. He will be so missed, but those of us who knew him would not have missed any and every moment in his presence.

Wendy Sherman

My husband, Andrew Moravcsik, and I still joke that the principal reason I was invited to join ASG was because I managed to beat Brent up the mountain. That was no mean feat, mind you. I no longer remember exactly the year that I was first invited to participate in ASG, an invitation I jumped at, but it must have been the late 1990s or early aughts. On Sunday or Monday came the traditional hike up to Independence Pass. Andy and I started off together with a group of people — I seem to remember Nick Kristof and his kids — but as the going got tougher and different clumps thinned out I pushed ahead. After a while I was finally gaining on the leaders — marathoner John Podesta — and Brent — then well into his 70s.

Up we went, as the pitch of the climb got steeper and steeper. I’m both competitive and conflicted about being competitive (nothing surprising for a girl raised in Virginia in the 1960s), but not this time! I was fit and in my late thirties or early forties; I pushed as hard as I could and just managed to pass Brent near the top.

He was gracious as always; the competition was never exactly acknowledged — competition among ASG members, for everything from hiking prizes to high government positions, never is. We hiked back down talking about a myriad of subjects. He was his no-nonsense, direct, remarkable self. But I still look back and think about what kind of man could still be first up the mountain at 75. An indomitable one. A disciplined, tough, dedicated, determined leader. A man who could put his country ahead of his own comfort. A man whose like in high office I wish we had today.

Anne-Marie Slaughter

I worked for Brent Scowcroft on the NSC staff (1989-1991), as the deputy director and then director of the Aspen Strategy Group that he co-chaired back then with Joseph Nye (1997-2003), and on the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board while he was chairing that too (2001-2003). There have been a number of fine tributes written about Brent. I especially liked the essay about him in Foreign Affairs by Bob Gates and the essay by Janan Ganesh in the Financial Times.

The best testament I can offer about Brent is to let him speak for himself and direct those who are interested to those portals. I conducted two lengthy oral history sessions with Brent. Joined by Ernest May, Fareed Zakaria, and James McCall, I did one in 1999 that was released in 2011. It is here.

Joined only by McCall I did another two-day session with Brent in August 2000 that delved more deeply into professional and some more sensitive details. He asked that this interview be closed until his death. Therefore now, twenty years later, it has just been released. It is here. Peter Baker wrote up a few of his takeaways from this a few days ago for the New York Times. The link to Peter’s piece is here.

I will only add some brief context. Brent’s core expertise was in US defense policy and what related to that, including arms control. The Gates essay does a good job in also calling out how, during the Nixon/Ford years, Brent had to extend his experience in crisis management and, he could have added, with intelligence issues. Because of his experience with investigating the Iran-contra scandal, Brent had also acquired some strong views, some of them quite negative, of the way the national security process was managed during the Reagan years.

Brent was not America’s lead diplomatic strategist between 1989 and 1992. Jim Baker was. At all times, from start to finish, the Bush-Baker combination was the core steering mechanism. Brent understood this from the start. Indeed, Bush first offered the job of Brent’s deputy to Dennis Ross (Bush already knew and had worked with Ross), but Ross preferred to serve the core team from Baker’s 7th floor perch, as did Bob Zoellick (who was also offered a senior White House post).

Beyond Brent’s stance on the specific issues, on which people may judge him right or wrong, the point I wish to stress is that he was really the ideal national security adviser in an administration with such an activist Secretary of State. When they argued on policy, Baker usually won the arguments. That doesn’t mean the president didn’t wisely choose someone to provide the cautionary ballast for the Bush-Baker core.

During 1989, as Brent settled into his role, what then began happening was a fusion of talents. All the relationships evolved.

Let me illustrate: the main breakthrough in European security in the spring of 1989 was to combine a dual initiative, a major new initiative that would decisively accelerate progress toward a Europe-wide treaty limiting conventional forces, coupled with the postponement of any modernization of short-range nuclear forces (putting off a step that had been agreed at a NATO summit the previous year, 1988, but which had been become a new pain point in the Alliance). In this particular case, much of the impetus for the big deal, including on SNF, came from Bush and Baker, but it was Brent and his staff who then did all the heavy lifting on the conventional arms control half of it, in order to make the whole package click. In the process Bush, by the way, bluntly overruled vehement opposition from the Defense Department. And the package worked.

That example led to others where Bush, Baker, Scowcroft, Cheney, and others found how effective they could be as role-players on a team. In that context of emerging teamwork during the rest of 1989 and on into 1990, what Brent also provided, as a perfect complement to Bush himself, was a tone and sense of professional standards, and of unassailable integrity. This touched many things, including the way people related to each other, the quality of written staff work, and the follow-through. This tone, which started of course with the president but was then personalized by Scowcroft and Gates, had intangible yet very broad effects across the whole foreign and defense side of the administration. This was immeasurably important. Again, I think it was the ideal complement to Baker’s role.

And no one could have managed the DoD or the arms control process as well as Brent did, aided by Gates and others, like the late Arnold Kanter, though Brent himself was self-critical about what he thought he was unable to do. In the Gulf war crisis and war of 1990-1991, Brent was a rock. He was also right about the Balkans, which he discusses at some length in his recently opened oral history. He was right about how to handle Somalia. Etc. Ganesh’s essay, mentioned above, speaks for me.

But Brent was not just cautious. He could be quite bold indeed. One of his important regrets was that the US did not go far enough in overhauling its fundamental force structure in the period between 1990 and the end of 1992. We discuss some of the reasons for that. Even there, at least on nuclear force posture, and especially non-strategic weapons, what Brent orchestrated in the autumn of 1991 (with vital help from Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and — not least — Mikhail Gorbachev), a simply enormous accomplishment worldwide, is something I think no one but Brent Scowcroft could possibly have accomplished.

I miss him.

Philip Zelikow