By Will Dunham
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Brent Scowcroft, a pragmatic three-star general who served as national security adviser to Republican U.S. Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush and later criticized President George W. Bush’s Iraq war policies, died on Thursday. He was 95.
Scowcroft, a member of the presidential commission that investigated the biggest scandal of Ronald Reagan’s presidency and an architect of the 1991 Gulf War under the elder Bush, died of natural causes, according to a statement on Friday from a spokesman for the Bush family.
Scowcroft reached the rank of Air Force lieutenant general during a 29-year military career and was an influential voice on U.S. national security for decades. He was a cautious internationalist – he called himself a realist – closely aligned with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Scowcroft served as chief military aide to Republican President Richard Nixon during a time when the United States was looking to extricate itself from the Vietnam War, then became Ford’s national security adviser from 1975 to 1977 and George H.W. Bush’s national security adviser from 1989 to 1993.
“He’s just marvelous and he never asks for one ounce of credit,” the elder Bush said of Scowcroft after the Gulf War was won in March 1991.
Scowcroft, a soft-spoken man with the manner of a genial Westerner, remained close to Bush and co-authored a 1998 book with him. But he took exception to his son George W. Bush’s “unilateral” approach to world affairs as president.
Scowcroft was a key adviser to the elder Bush during the 1991 Gulf War in which U.S. forces, along with a coalition of allies, expelled Iraqi troops that had invaded oil-rich neighbor Kuwait in August 1990..
The war ended with Bush’s team opting to leave Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in power after Iraq’s forces were quickly swept out of Kuwait. Twelve years later Bush’s son ordered an invasion of Iraq that ousted Saddam and led to his execution but left American troops fighting a messy war in Iraq from 2003 to 2011.
Scowcroft, in a PBS interview five years later, explained the first Bush administration’s decision not to send U.S. forces to Baghdad in 1991 to overthrow Saddam.
“It was never our objective to get Saddam Hussein. Indeed, had we tried we still might be occupying Baghdad. That would have turned a great success into a very messy, probable defeat,” Scowcroft said.
Before the younger Bush launched his Iraq war in 2003, Scowcroft publicly opposed it, doubted the U.S. justifications for it and called it an unwise diversion from the fight against terrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States by al Qaeda.
In 2004, Scowcroft called Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan a “failing venture” and faulted Bush for becoming “mesmerized” by hawkish Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
In 2005, Scowcroft said the continued American presence in Iraq was inflaming the Middle East. He advocated handing over the U.S. operation in Iraq to NATO or the United Nations.
His criticisms were particularly stinging, considering he was a mentor to Condoleezza Rice, who served Bush as national security adviser and then secretary of state. Scowcroft had served under Bush as chairman of the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board but was removed in 2005.
During Ford’s presidency, Scowcroft closely advised the president, alongside Kissinger, on the 1975 evacuation of the last U.S. forces in Vietnam. The chaotic scene in Saigon – with helicopters plucking people off rooftops – became a symbol of America’s debacle in Vietnam that left 58,000 U.S. troops dead.
In 1987, Scowcroft was one of three members of the Tower Commission that investigated the biggest scandal of Republican Reagan’s presidency – the sale of arms to Iran in exchange for U.S. hostages in Lebanon, with proceeds diverted to fund “contra” rebels in Nicaragua in violation of U.S. law.
Born on March 19, 1925, in Ogden, Utah, Scowcroft graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1947 and later earned a doctorate in international relations from Columbia University. His career as a military pilot ended in 1949 when his P-51 Mustang crashed in New Hampshire, breaking his back.
He taught Russian history at West Point and headed the U.S. Air Force Academy’s political science department before taking a series of jobs at the Pentagon in the 1960’s.
Scowcroft had one daughter with his late wife, Marian.
(Reporting by Will Dunham; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Chris Reese and Dan Grebler)