The Atlantic Council Hosts an Evening Honoring Brent Scowcroft: Robert Gates Keynote Transcript – 12/13/11

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Atlantic Council

Brent Scowcroft: Soldier, Scholar and Statesman

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates

Location: Washington, D.C.

Date: Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Transcript by
Federal News Service
Washington, D.C.


ROBERT GATES: Thank you, Jim. That was very generous. Well, as honorary chair, along with President 41, let me thank you all for coming to this event to honor Brent. And I would especially like to express my appreciation to the Atlantic Council, its leadership and its staff for honoring him as well.

First of all, I think there needs to be a certain addressing of this Scowcroft Award business, because it’s been addressed this evening in a kind of a frivolous way. And the reality is, first-President Bush took this very seriously. And the candidates for this award were evaluated on three criteria.

First was duration. (Laughter.) The second was depth, and snoring and whistling always got you extra points. (Laughter.) And the third was the quality of recovery. (Laughter.) And I would say that Brent got all of his points, and I would say perfect 10s on the first and the third. But I have to say, over all that time, I never heard him snore or whistle.

Much has been said tonight about Brent’s achievements and legacy. So I would just like to share a few personal reflections about the man I have treasured as a mentor, colleague and friend for nearly four decades. I feel like I have worked for Brent since I was a child. (Laughter.) In fact, I think I have worked for Brent since I was a child. I was first detailed from CIA to the National Security Council 37 years ago this summer. Brent was deputy national security adviser, soon to pin on his third star. I was a 30-year old GS-13.

Needless to say, I did not refer to Lieutenant General Scowcroft as Brent in those early days. (Laughter.) And in fact, a summons to the West Wing was never good news, or particularly career-enhancing. During that time, President Nixon’s final appeal for the Watergate case was being heard by the Supreme Court. I later wrote that starting work for Brent in the White House in the late spring of 1974 was like being a deckhand on the Titanic.

Brent, of course, stayed through the transition to the Ford administration, serving as national security adviser during an extraordinarily difficult time for our country at home and around the world – high unemployment and even higher inflation, the final collapse of South Vietnam and Cambodia and the Mayaguez incident, the North Korean axe murders, and much, much more. It seemed during the 1970s that just about everything that could go wrong for America did.

During that tumultuous period, Brent was a steady hand at the helm of U.S. national security apparatus. Quite apart from dealing with crises in Asia, in the Middle East, and a resurgent Soviet Union, Brent also had the unenviable task of keeping such shrinking violets as Henry Kissinger, Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney and George H.W. Bush on board, on message and, most importantly, off each other’s throats. (Laughter.)

After the Ford administration, Brent and I stayed in touch, and some 13 years later, soon after the election of the first President Bush, Brent offered me his old job as deputy national security adviser. I accepted on one condition: I would not work his hours. I had two young children; I wanted to see them once in a while. Brent quickly agreed to my conditions, believing clearly that I would never stick to them. (Laughter.) And he obviously was right.

What followed those next 27 months or so was another extraordinary series of events. But this time they were as inspiring as they were challenging: the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Eastern Europe, the reunification of Germany under NATO, the implosion of the Soviet Union, when for the first time in modern history a great and powerfully armed empire came to an end without a major war. And then there was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, followed by his expulsion by a broad international coalition six months later.

Too many have lost sight of the fact that all of these were potentially extraordinarily dangerous developments for our country and for the world. But all ended with America’s interests and its prestige enhanced. It’s hard to imagine this favorable turn of history taking place without George H. W. Bush’s skilled leadership, and as the president would be the first to say, without Brent Scowcroft.

A welcome retirement to the private sector did not put an end to Brent’s management of my career – (laughter) – or, I should say, his unique ability to talk me into doing things I didn’t want to do. (Laughter.) My first involvement with Texas A&M, serving as interim dean of the George H. W. Bush School of Government and Public Service, was a classic Scowcroft bait and switch. (Laughter.) Brent said something to the effect: Oh, come on down, it’s purely honorary, a placeholder, a day or two a month for nine months; we’ll pick a new dean, and you can go back to Seattle. Two years later – (laughter) – two weeks a month later, I was still there. And you try commuting from Seattle to College Station, Texas – (laughter) – using commercial airlines even before TSA. (Laughter.)

Reflecting on all that Brent has accomplished, and all the lives he has touched, a few things stand out about Brent Scowcroft. In a town of oversized egos and undersized backbones, Brent’s low-key, self-effacing demeanor, his steadfast integrity and common decency, but also his resolve and his moral and political courage truly set him apart as an example to all who aspire to high levels of public life.

As defense secretary I often spoke to military audiences, from service academy cadets to newly minted generals, about what I consider to be the seven or eight key attributes of successful leaders. All of those qualities, to one degree or another, were practiced and embodied by Brent. But one attribute in particular made me think of Brent every time. And it’s not one you might think of. And it was self-confidence – but not the chest-thumping, strutting egotism we see and read about all the time in this town, but rather the quiet self-assurance that allows a leader to give others both real responsibility and real credit for success; the ability to stand in the shadow and let others receive attention and accolades; the self-confidence not to cast such a large shadow that no one else can grow. Among those who grew and matured, who became wiser and more effective policymakers as a result of being in Brent’s orbit were future national security advisers, the secretary of defense and many more.

Brent’s personal modesty extended to his view of statecraft, properly understood as reconciling ends, means and resources in a world that has a way of disrupting the best-laid plans of even the most perspicacious statesmen. Brent wrote not too long ago, the United States ought to be on the side of trying to achieve maybe a little more than it can, but not too much. In a commencement speech to my alma mater, William and Mary, at the close of the 1990s, Brent lamented the hubris and triumphalism that followed victory in the Cold War, especially talk of the “end of history” in all of its tragic dimensions. He warned against preaching rather than teaching American values to the rest of the world.

Brent’s low-key pragmatic sensibility coexisted with a willingness to take a stand on what he believed, even when doing so went against the conventional wisdom of his party, inviting criticism and even ostracism. On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Brent publicly warned of the costs and consequences of war, warnings that, whatever one’s views on the rightness of that conflict, turned out to be remarkably prescient. And let there be no doubt: Brent, above all, has been a protector of America’s leading an indispensable role in the world, in particular our key alliances and partnerships.

Shortly before leaving the Pentagon, I delivered a pretty tough speech in Brussels about a potential dismal future for NATO if allies didn’t get serious about their defense investments and capabilities. The main purpose of the Brussels speech and the main message I wanted to send to our European friends was to convey this warning, that a generation of senior American policymakers who have been the strongest defenders of the Atlantic alliance are departing or have departed from positions of responsibility and authority in Washington: Henry Kissinger, Zbig Brzezinski, the late Larry Eagleburger, Jim Jones, myself and of course Brent.

We were all, to one degree or another, influenced by our formative experience during the Cold War. The politicians and policymakers that will follow us, frankly, will not have the same historical, personal and, indeed, emotional tie to Europe and may not consider the return on America’s investment in Europe’s defense worth the cost. And that would be a tragedy, because as Brent put it so well back in May, in this kind of a world, it is more important, more essential than ever that we take care of our closest and most important relationship and community of common values. And that community, for all of its flaws and troubles, is still Europe.

Finally, I’m also deeply concerned about the decline of views and values associated with Brent Scowcroft when it comes to how we govern and relate to one another here at home. Civility, mutual respect, putting country before self and country before party, listening to and learning from one another, not pretending to have all the answers and not demonizing those with whom we differ: For all the platitudes to the contrary, these virtues, in this town, are – seem to be increasingly quaint, a historic relic to put on display at the Smithsonian next to Mr. Rogers’ sweater or Julia Child’s kitchen. Zero-sum politics and ideological siege warfare are the new order of the day. These problems go much deeper than individual personalities. The predicament we are in is the result of structural changes taking root over several decades that will not be undone by a change of personalities.

The reasons are varied and known to most here tonight: The highly gerrymandered system of drawing congressional districts to create safe seats for incumbents of both parties, leading to elected representatives totally beholden to their party’s ideological base; wave elections that sweep one party into power after another, each seized with ideological zeal and the rightness of their agenda, making it difficult to sustain the bipartisan strategies and policies needed to address our very real and serious problems; strategies and policies that, to be successful, must be pursued beyond one presidency and one Congress; the decline of congressional powerbrokers, particularly the committee chairman, who might have been tough partisans but were also people who could make deals and enforce those agreements on their committee members and on their caucuses; and a 24/7 digital media environment that provides a forum and wide dissemination for the most extreme and vitriolic views leading, I believe, to a coarsening and a dumbing-down of our national political discourse.

As a result of these and other polarizing factors, the moderate center – the foundation of our political system – is not holding. Moderation is now equated with lacking principles; compromise means selling out. So just at the time this country needs more continuity, more consensus, and, above all, more compromise to deal with our most serious long-term problems, most of the trends are pointing in the opposite direction.

The good news for America is that even though we have a lot of work to do and enormous obstacles ahead of us, we also have the power and the means to overcome them, just as this country has overcome far worse episodes in the past. But it will take a willingness to make tough decisions, the wisdom to see the world as it is rather than as we would like it to be, and the courage to compromise on behalf of the greater good.

Fortunately, we don’t need to look far for inspiration on how to act, how to work, how to live, and how best to serve the American people. We have the example of the extraordinary career, the brilliant mind, and the beautiful soul of the great man we honor tonight. Ladies and gentlemen, Brent Scowcroft. (Applause.)