Fighting Words

Mr. Stability

The wrongness of Brent Scowcroft’s realism.

Scowcroft longs for the “peace” of Saddam’s regime

The sole point of the non-findings of the Fitzgerald non-investigation, into the non-commission of non-crimes and the non-outing of a non-covert CIA bureaucrat, is (as Messrs. Kerry, Krugman, Rich, and others keep reminding us) that it might even yet trigger the long-awaited inquest into the Iraq intervention. I very strongly hope that there is a full-dress post-mortem into this country’s Iraq policy, though I am not ready to assume that “inquest” or “post-mortem” are the correct terms for it. Let’s just say a serious blue-ribbon, bipartisan, full-out inquiry. This inquiry, however, could hardly be confined—as Kerry, Krugman, and Rich so obviously hope—to the years 2001-05.

At the very minimum, the starting point of such a retrospective should be the decision, in 1991, to confirm Saddam Hussein in power after his expulsion from Kuwait and to keep his population under international sanctions. Another place to begin might be the apparent “green light,” given by the Carter administration, for Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran. Real specialists and buffs might wish to start with the role of the CIA in the 1960s military coup—or coups—that brought the Baath Party to power in Baghdad in the first place.

Jeffrey Goldberg’s widely discussed essay on Brent Scowcroft’s politics, published in TheNew Yorker of Oct. 31, makes an ideal starting point. It reminds us, for one thing, that the root-and-branch opposition to regime change in 2003 came not from the left, but from the right. There were many vocal leftists on the streets at that moment, as we all remember, but their slogans were so puerile (a war for Halliburton and all that) as to make them ignorable. Far more to the point were the arguments made by conservatives and “realists” to the effect that the status quo in the Middle East was preferable to any likely alternative. My impression is that Mr. Goldberg paid out enough rope to Gen. Scowcroft to allow him to hang himself, most especially at the critical stage where the old reactionary proudly announced that the pre-existing status quo had meant: “Fifty years of peace.”

I had not known until I read this article that Scowcroft was a Mormon, and this may have no importance. His willingness to believe anything could well stem from another source. He takes the view that the status quo is preferable to any forcible change, and also preferable to any change at all. For example, he warns that if Mubarak leaves or loses power in Egypt, he will be replaced by “bad guys” and sectarians. If this is true, then it must surely mean that the current “stability” of Egypt is illusory as well as undemocratic. He says that the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon is the prelude to civil war, not independence: “[T]he sectarian emotions that were there when the Syrians went in aren’t gone.” Hardly a persuasive argument, then, for the healing effect of a Syrian presence that lasted 29 years. (One should not forget that Lebanon’s current phase of crisis began when Bashar al-Assad tried illegally to extend the term of a minority Christian president.) Meanwhile, in Damascus, the lovely status quo appears, by some alchemy unknown to Scowcroft, to be engaged in destabilizing itself. Death-squad regimes, it might be argued, have a tendency to do this.

Scowcroft, sounding “realist” enough, announces to Goldberg that he is “a cynic about human nature.” Well, so would I be, if I were a former partner in the firm of Kissinger Associates who now runs his own consultancy, introducing unpleasant regimes to the corporations that love them. But “cynicism” of this kind often masks a certain naiveté. Those who elected to keep Saddam in power in 1991—Scowcroft prominent among them—imagined that they would keep him in a “box.” Instead, Saddam turned the sanctions regime into a racket that hugely augmented his own power and wealth, while the sanctions themselves killed innumerable people and created an immiserated underclass in Iraq that is the source of many of our present woes. And, perhaps more important, would have become the source of many woes. Like all of his co-thinkers, Scowcroft appears to imagine that the Saddam regime would just have continued, in its cynical way, providing some version of predictability and stability. Whereas it is as clear as day that the regime was crumbling and would have imploded with ghastly results that would have given many openings to “bad guys.” You can say that this has happened anyway, as it has, but realist statecraft often involves the realization that there are no good options. That realization ought to prompt, surely, some reflection on the policy that led to an option-free outcome. That was exactly the mistake that the “realists” made with the Iran of the shah, whose implosion came to them as if out of a clear blue sky.

The other great foreign policy blemish on the first Bush administration was its fatal indifference to events in former Yugoslavia. Here again, Scowcroft flatly contradicts himself without appearing to notice. He tells Goldberg that he was stationed at the embassy in Belgrade in 1959 and noticed that nobody referred to themselves as Yugoslav. “They always called themselves Serbs, Croats, Slovenians.” Well, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia were all semiautonomous parts of Tito’s state, so there is no necessary contradiction there, but let’s agree that even if he exaggerates Scowcroft is onto something. Several paragraphs later, however, he is quoted saying, “I didn’t think it would break up.” And—mark this—he is now speaking of 1991, when it actually was, quite visibly, “breaking up.” So, all he is telling us is that he was badly wrong, twice. On the other hand, he thought it was a brilliant idea to intervene in Somalia just as the Bush administration was leaving office. Both of these messes were bequeathed to the Clinton administration, which scuttled from Somalia but belatedly proved Scowcroft wrong (again!) in the Balkans by showing that American force could end the bloodshed produced by tribalist fascism.

Realism of the Scowcroft sort presided over the Iran-Iraq war with its horrific casualties and watched indifferently as genocide was enacted in northern Iraq. It allowed despots free rein from Saudi Arabia to Pakistan, and then goggled when this gave birth to the Taliban and al-Qaida. If this was “fifty years of peace,” then it really was time to give war a chance.