HBO History Makers Series: A Conversation with Brent Scowcroft

HBO History Makers Series: A Conversation with Brent Scowcroft

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from HBO History Makers

TIM NAFTALI:  My name is Tim Naftali.  I'm director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, a new nonpartisan presidential library opened by the National Archives this summer. 

Welcome to today's Council on Foreign Relations history makers event with General Brent Scowcroft.  On behalf of the council, I would like to thank Richard Plepler and Home Box Office for their generous support of this series. 

And may I ask you now to please turn off your BlackBerrys and cell phones, wireless devices -- not pacemakers, however.  (Laughter.) 

I would like to remind the audience that this meeting is on the record and is being teleconferenced.  Council members across the nation and the world are participating via a secure password-protected teleconference.  I'm not sure why I had to tell you that it was a secure password-protected teleconference, but if you all feel more secure, I certainly do.  (Laughter.)

In the 1980s, Evan Thomas and Walter Isaacson wrote a book called, "The Wise Men" about the great Americans who shaped our national security policy in World War II and in the opening of the Cold War.  If they or others were to write a book about the wise men who shaped this country's national security policy through the victorious end of the Cold War and the coming of the world afterwards, I think they would structure that book around the man I'm fortunate enough to be interviewing tonight. 

General Brent Scowcroft is a national treasure, and he's one of those few people who's respected by people on both sides of the aisle.  He's a man who's given his life to our country, who has spent more time advising presidents than anyone else of his generation.  He was national security adviser for Presidents Ford and for George Herbert Walker Bush.  But well before he became national security adviser, he was an important assistant in the Nixon administration.  He was deputy national security adviser and military assistant to the president.  And before that, he was both in the high reaches of policymaking and the U.S. Air Force and then in the Joint Staff.  He was also assistant U.S. Air Force attache in Belgrade, Yugoslavia between 1959 and '61. 

This is a man who not only has contributed to our country through advising presidents, but -- and this is close to my heart -- he's also been a teacher, a professor of Russian history.  He's a man who's thought deeply about foreign policy and also been a practitioner.  So I can't imagine a better person to have a chat with today about history and why it matters for understanding foreign policy.  So we'll do that through the prism of General Scowcroft's life. 

General, I want to start with a really easy question:  What was the most difficult judgment call that you had to make in advising a president?

SCOWCROFT:  First, let me say, Tim, you've already destroyed me before we start.  (Laughter.)  I can't possibly live up to that introduction, and so I will be graded on how close I can come -- and I don't like that.  (Laughter.)  Anyway, it's wonderful to see so many old friends. 

You know, I get asked that question a lot, what's the most difficult thing.  I don't know how to answer that because, you know, few -- there are lots of excruciating experiences.  But let me tell you what, I don't know whether it's that or not, but let me tell you about the time, the coup against Gorbachev in 1991.  And the president and I were up at Kennebunkport, and it was about 11:30 at night, and I was lying in bed sort of reading and I had CNN on, just sort of half paying attention to it.  And I thought I heard something that Gorbachev was sick, and so I started, alert.  And then a few minutes later they said, "Well, he's sick and he may be giving up the presidency."  And I thought, oh my goodness. 

So I called Washington.  Of course there was nobody there; it was 11:30 at night.  (Laughter.)  I called my press guy and said, "You better come over."  And I called the Situation Room in the White House and they didn't know anything.  I called CIA and they didn't know anything. 

NAFTALI:  Did that surprise you?

SCOWCROFT:  No.  (Laughter.)

NAFTALI:  Okay.  I just wanted to know.  (Laughter.)

SCOWCROFT:  So Roman Popadiuk, my press man, came over and I said, "Look, I don't know what this is, but obviously we're going to have to make a press statement sooner or later.  So what do we craft?" 

Well, as the night went on, it became a little more clear but not very.  So I called the president, woke him up and told him there was something happening.  And we were going to -- we were going to go fishing the next morning.  And there was also a hurricane coming in.  (Laughter.)  And so he said, "Well, call me at 5:30 in the morning and we'll figure out what to do." 

Well, we knew a little more that there was in fact some kind of a coup going on against the president by that time, but the information was very fragmentary, very spotty.  And the president -- so I told him at 5:30 and he says, "Well," he says, "I'm going to have to give a press conference.  What do I say?" 

Well, what does he say?  What does the president say when you don't really know what's going on?  If you say there's a coup and Gorbachev is gone and he's not, then you've ruptured our relations.  If you say he's going to come back and he doesn't, then you've destroyed your chance of working with whoever has replaced him. 

So we gathered the press core together in the old barn sort of on the compound.  It was raining by that time and it was hot, and everybody was wet and warm.  And so the president sort of milled his way through it. 

But we really -- it was really one of the most difficult times because what we did and what we didn't do could have been very crucial in the course of events that we didn't really know what was happening. 

So finally then we got a hold of the embassy in Moscow and Ambassador Strauss was able to tell us what he saw going on.  But that's probably one of the most complicated periods of time.  And we really didn't know for a couple of days what the status was.

And then the president said, "Well, put in a call to Gorbachev.  And the answer came back:  not available.  And he says, "Well, try Yeltsin.  And sure enough we got Yeltsin.  And he -- this was the time he was down on the tank and so on and he was saying their coming after me and so on -- well, they weren't, but, you know, he was very dramatic and so -- and so it was crisis on the run.  And what is really shows you is how the world's changed now because things come up and they're television before you know what going on and you have to make policy when you have no idea what the facts in the case are. 

NAFTALI:  It also showed something else, too, though, that you had to make a tough call as to whether you would recognize a Stalinist or at least, you know, neo-Stalinist regime. 

SCOWCROFT:  Well, we talked about that.  We talked about that a lot.  And of course, the president wanted to denounce the coup against of Gorbachev.  But, you know, you can't denounce it because if it happens and if it goes through, then you've got to work with the government one way or another.  And so if you read what he said, it's on the one hand, on the other hand, and up and down.  And he came as close as he could -- thought he could -- or I would let him -- denounce the coup.  But he didn't come right out to it. 

NAFTALI:  You had a similarly tough call after Tiananmen Square, what to do with China.

SCOWCROFT:  Yes, and it was the same -- it was the same kind of thing.  And there it was more clear-cut because we had to decide between the opprobrium of the American people and our relationship with China.  And --

NAFTALI:  It's lucky you weren't running for office.

SCOWCROFT:  Well, it is lucky we weren't running for office.  But there I think it was clearly the precedent right at the beginning.  I mean, he slapped on sanctions before the Europeans did.  He put the sanctions on against the military, not against the regime, and so on.  And then, immediately after he had imposed the sanctions, he said, "I want to try to call Deng Xiaoping."

Well, he couldn't get through.  So he said, "I want to send you over there."  So, you know, immediately his instincts were "This is too important.  You know, I'm going to be denounced for supporting dictators," and so on and so forth, "but it's too important to destroy this relationship we've been nursing for 20 years."

NAFTALI:  You were on the first trip to -- you were on the plane with -- you were with President Nixon during the '72 trip.  What do you remember of the climate of the China that you encountered in '72?

SCOWCROFT:  It was like another world.  I had never been anywhere where everything was just totally strange and different.  And, you know, the Chinese would scurry about their business.  We walked into a department store just to see it, and they would just not look at you, avert their eyes.  But if you turned around quick and looked, after you'd passed, they were all just looking.  "Who are these strange creatures from outer space?"  Most of them had never seen an American before.  It was surreal.

And the meetings were -- well, I wasn't in the meetings then because I had a technical job at that time, not a substantive job.  But it was two strangers with blindfolds on, touching, feeling each other for the first time.  We had no communication with them for two decades or more, other than to shout at each other.  And it was the first tentative reaching out to establish contact.  And we're still establishing it.

NAFTALI:  Well, fast-forward to the trip in '89.  How was it different when you got there in '89 as the president's representative?

SCOWCROFT:  Well, it was very different, because we knew them.  We had had several meetings with them.  Early in '89, when the president first came into office, I told him, I said, "You need to meet with Deng Xiaoping right away."

Well, how do you do that?  You know, presidents frequently go to Europe early in their administrations; never go to China.  But then Hirohito died and he went to the funeral, and that gave him the opportunity to go to China.  I wanted to go China because Gorbachev was going later on, and I wanted to get to the Chinese before the Russians did.  And so we went there and we had good discussions with Deng Xiaoping.

Then, in 1989, he had actually left office.  But I went over there -- this was a secret trip -- I went over there and he said, "I'm meeting you as a courtesy because you're an old friend, not because -- I'm not the decision-maker now," which, of course, wasn't true.  But he said, "I welcome you as an old friend, but I want you to know, this is none of your business.  This is an internal affair of the Chinese people, and you're interfering."

And so I said, "You're right.  It's an internal affair of the Chinese people.  But its ramifications around the world are an issue of great importance to the United States, and that's why I'm here."  And then we had a very amicable discussion.

NAFTALI:  In your career, you've watched as the United States has tried to establish relations with authoritarian, perhaps totalitarian regimes.  What lessons did you derive from our experience with detente in the 1970s about this?

SCOWCROFT:  I think a couple.  I think detente was a wise thing to do, because we needed to talk to each other in a rational, non-hostile framework.  And at that time, so far in the future as you could see, we were fated to live together.  And so this was an attempt to regularize that relationship.

I think what happened, though, is that what started as a very tactical move to take some of the sharp edges and the hostility out of the relationship turned into us beginning to believe our own words.  And we thought that there had been a change in the substance of the relationship, not in the tactical encounters.

And I think we paid a price for that, to the point that the Russians, I think, misread us and thought we had turned soft.  And as the '70s went on, the Russians started talking about the change in the correlation of forces in the world.  And President Ford -- it got to the point where President Ford had to say, "I'm not going to use that term anymore."

So we got carried away with a tactic and turned it into substance, which was a mistake.  But I think the one thing I will say is during the worst days with the Soviet Union, we talked with them, and we talked with them about the most serious thing possible, nuclear weapons and the possibility of nuclear conflict.  And while we didn't accomplish very much in many of those things, it was the glue that led us gradually to understand each other.

And one of the things I worry about is we don't have that conversation with China.  We don't talk with the Chinese about nuclear matters.  As far as I know, we don't.  So it's all a mystery and a shadow box, and I think that's a mistake.  So I'm a great one for talking to people, whoever they are.

NAFTALI:  Did you ever have a chance to talk to Tito?

SCOWCROFT:  Yes.

NAFTALI:  Tell us about Marshal Tito.

SCOWCROFT:  Well, Marshal Tito was a powerful, charismatic peacock.  He had a charming wife that took some of the rough edges off him.  When I was in Yugoslavia, which was around 1960, he was beginning to withdraw from day-to-day government, and he'd go up to his estate on Brioni Island and so on.  So he was not running the regular government.

But he was a very shrewd -- he was just a canny man.  And this was a period where he was experimenting with a new kind of communism, workers' councils and control of industry.  He was a communist, but the Russians were really after him.

So it was this curious period in Yugoslavia where they treated us like friends, except their secret service.  And my daughter was about a year old when we went over there, and the secret service used to harass the servants all the time; call them in once a week and ask them to report who had come to visit us, and this and that and the other.

And so it was not good for family life.  But it was a fascinating experience in seeing how Tito managed both the country and the relationships between his soul brothers in communism and his protector, if you will, the United States.

NAFTALI:  Would you say -- can you recall some other foreign leaders who were as shrewd that you interacted with, who were as shrewd as Tito, understanding his country's then-national interest?

SCOWCROFT:  Deng Xiaoping.  Deng Xiaoping.  He was -- he was a very shrewd and in some ways very un-Chinese kind of person. 

NAFTALI:  What do you mean?

SCOWCROFT:  Well, for example, the Chinese have a set kind of meeting room.  You go in a meeting -- whenever you meet with the Chinese, they have chairs around in a U-shape and the two principals sit at the bottom of the U like you and I are and they face out, and most of them -- you don't look them.  You talk to the wall at the other end of the room and the interpreters are behind you, and so on.  So it's very formal and ritualistic and impersonal.  But not Deng Xiaoping.  He would -- he was like this, leaning over right in your face, and he had -- he always had a spittoon down here. (Laughter.)  And he'd --

NAFTALI:  So he'd be spitting?

SCOWCROFT:  Oh, yeah, he used it.  And he was a chain smoker.  I mean --

NAFTALI:  So what was he spitting?  Oh.

SCOWCROFT:  Oh, you don't want to know.  (Laughter.)

NAFTALI:  Oh, my God.

SCOWCROFT:  But he was --

NAFTALI:  How pleasant.

SCOWCROFT:  He was really an intense person, but he --

NAFTALI:  He didn't speak in parables like Mao, right?  I mean, you didn't meet --

SCOWCROFT:  I did meet Mao.  I met Mao in one of the last meetings he had.  And at this time, he had had several strokes and he spoke -- it sounded like he's growling to me. (Growls.)  And then he had three nurses, a doctor and two interpreters.

NAFTALI:  (Laughs.)

SCOWCROFT:  And he would growl for a few minutes, and then they'd put their heads together ---

NAFTALI:  (Laughs.)

SCOWCROFT:  -- and they'd decide what he said and then they'd interpret it.  So it was --

NAFTALI:  Delphic oracle here.

SCOWCROFT:  Oh yeah.

NAFTALI:  I want to ask you about two other tough decisions you advised on, let's put it that way.  At the end of the Gulf War when the Shi'a uprising occurred, the British turned to us and asked us to help and we decided not to.  And it's a decision that the Bush administration -- that Bush administration has been criticized for.  How do you recall the considerations that went into that decision? 

SCOWCROFT:  I recall it very well because one of our basic principles -- I ought to let Richard answer that one.  Richard was my brains on the Middle East.

MR.     :  (Off mike.)  (Laughter.)

SCOWCROFT:  No, but one of our goals all the time was to retain Iraq as a unity because -- you know, when we -- when we replaced the British in the region, we first set up Iran and the Shah as our bastion of stability in the region.

NAFTALI:  Mm-hmm.

SCOWCROFT:  After he was gone, we went generally to a policy of balance --

NAFTALI:  Mm-hmm.

SCOWCROFT:  -- and that meant balancing Iran and Iraq off so that we didn't have to have large forces in the region.  So -- and that was sort of one of the strategic principles that we adhered to.

Now, in the lead up to the war, the president made a few strong statements about the horrors of the occupation of Kuwait.  And while he was asked questions about Saddam Hussein, and he said, "That's up to the people of Iraq."  Well, whether the people of Iraq, if they heard him, thought he was inciting revolt or not, I don't know.  That's the claim, now.  But in any case, when things started to fall apart -- when we had cleared -- pretty well cleared out Kuwait, there were uprisings in Basra and around and up in Kurdish territories, and they asked for support.  And we did not give it to them, and we have been bitterly criticized for that.  It was a -- it was a tough human decision.  It was the right strategic decision. 

NAFTALI:  The other moment I'd like you to recall for us is during the Yom Kippur War in 1973.  I believe you were deputy national security adviser. 

SCOWCROFT:  Mm-hmm.

NAFTALI:  And the decision to have the worldwide alert -- some people argue that that was the second-closest we came to a nuclear war in the Cold War, with the Cuban Missile Crisis being the first.  I know you don't share that view, but tell us how the White House operated.  How was that alert chosen?  Why did we decide to do it?

SCOWCROFT:  Okay, sure.

Let me tell you just a bit before it on the Yom Kippur War that the morning it started -- it was a Saturday morning, and we first got word that the attack had started, and shortly after the busying around and letting the president know ad this and that and the other, I read the president's morning intelligence brief and the part on the Middle East said, "The maneuvers of the Egyptians and the Syrians are particularly realistic this year."  (Laughter.) 

The alert -- we -- I won't go through the whole thing.  But anyway, we got a cease-fire in the Mideast war and it held for a time.  And then it started to break down, and it was our good friend Ariel Sharon who had the Egyptian Second Army surrounded.  And we didn't want that army destroyed because we were hoping for a conclusion to the conflict which would be balanced enough that the Arabs would feel free to start negotiating.

And when the hostilities started again, the Russians sent us a letter and said -- you know, "This is dangerous.  We have to save the Egyptian Second Army -- Third Army, and let's send a joint force in."  Well, the last thing in the world we wanted was the Russians -- Russian troops in the Middle East.  So we didn't really answer, and the -- and they hinted that if we wouldn't join them, they may have to do it themselves.  So we had a long NSC meeting -- the president was not in the NSC meeting -- and Al Haig would leave the meeting periodically to tell the president what was going on. 

So, what to do?  So we finally -- how could we tell the Russians, "No, we're not going to go in, we don't want you to go in and we're very serious about it"?  So I -- and I don't know who thought this up, but somebody thought that one of the ways to tell the Russians how serious we are is -- that is obvious to them -- would be to raise the state of alert of our forces around the world, because that would mean a mass of telegrams would go out, the Russians would see the telegraphic traffic and know we were serious.  So we did.  We alerted the Marines and the embassy in Manila and all kinds of things.  We did not raise the alert on the strategic forces -- on the nuclear forces. 

And after we had done that, which was a purely tactical move -- it ha no strategic significance -- we sent an answer back to the Russians, and I delivered it at 5:30 in the morning to Dobrinen (ph) at the embassy, and he says, "What are you guys doing over there?"  And now -- and they claimed, of course, they had nothing in mind.  I don't know whether they did or not.

NAFTALI:  Did you tell NATO that you were having this alert?

SCOWCROFT:  Well, NATO was alert.  I mean, our forces and NATO were alert.

NAFTALI:  I meant the other ones. 

SCOWCROFT:  I don't remember.  (Laughter.)

SCOWCROFT:  Probably not.  We were focused --

NAFTALI:  I think I know the answer to that question.

SCOWCROFT:  We were focused on one -- we were focused on one thing that night, and that was how we could underscore to the Russians, "You'd better take us seriously," without doing anything which was rash.

NAFTALI:  And President Nixon was not in the room. 

SCOWCROFT:  He was not in the room, no. 

NAFTALI:  So this was a decision that went -- sort of went out to him and came back from him?

SCOWCROFT:  I'm ---

NAFTALI:  So it went out with Al Haig and came back.

SCOWCROFT:  Yeah.  (Laughter.)  You'll have to ask Al Haig what happened.  But it was a unanimous decision of the president's advisers.

NAFTALI:  Well, now I'd like to open the floor for questions.  I'd like to invite members to participate in our conversation.  And remember that the title of this conversation is "History Makers," so please keep your questions focused on General Scowcroft's career rather than current events.  Please wait for the microphone and speak directly into it.  Please stand, state your name and affiliation.  And apparently, I'm to ask you to ask only one concise question.  And we'll begin with you, Malcom.

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  I'm Malcolm Weiner.  I'd like to follow up on Dr. Naftali's question concerning events right at the end of the first Gulf War.  It said that it was John Major who intervened in his last four days in office and persuaded President Bush to depart from what you'd described as the policy and intervene on behalf of the Kurds.  Could you say whether that's so, whether his plea was decisive?  And secondly, since we decided not to aid the Shi'a and left them open to the slaughter -- apparently 150,000 killed by Saddam Hussein -- and since we'd urged them to, repeatedly through our broadcasts, to stage an uprising, whether you think that's morally defensible and what the long-term consequences have been?

SCOWCROFT:  Well, if there was such an attempted intervention, I may ask my colleague here, I don't remember that.  And as to broadcasts insistently urging the Iraqis of any kind to revolt, it is not true.  We did not do that.  We did not do that.

So is it morally defensible?  Look, I'm just guessing, but had we intervened, I think we would have had then a slight example of what we have now.

QUESTIONER:  And John Major's role?

SCOWCROFT:  John Major's role?  Minimal.  He did not object.  We told him what we wanted to do.  He did not object as far as I know.

NAFTALI:  Thank you, General.  A very impressive recollection.  I'd like to ask a question about the collapse of the Soviet Union.  You mentioned close to that when you talked about the coup against Gorbachev.

The conventional wisdom during -- leading up to that period is nobody expected a collapse.  Now, certain people, I think Richard Pipes predicted it, but very few people did.  When did the people around the White House begin to think maybe the Soviet Union is going to go down?  I mean, before the turmoil started, was there an intelligence assessment to that effect or not?

SCOWCROFT:  Well, you know, it depends who you ask.  But our strategy from the outset of the Bush administration stood traditional U.S. policy on its head in respect to Eastern Europe.  Eastern Europe's where the Cold War started and we thought Eastern Europe is where it had to end.  That was the beginning.  And when we came in, a lot of people, in '89, people were saying, well, the Cold War's already over.  We didn't think the Cold War was over.  We'd had the experience of detente before and you can't turn this great tanker of American public opinion around on a dime.  We didn't want to make that mistake again. 

So Gorbachev was saying all the right things, but nothing was really happening.  So our strategy was to support not the satellites of Eastern Europe who are making the most trouble for the Soviet Union, that was Romania at the top, but those who were most trying to liberalize internally and change internally.  So for us, Romania went from the top of our support to the bottom, and Poland, and to a lesser extent Hungary, went up to the top.  So that was what we were trying to do.  But we also were trying to encourage Eastern Europe at a pace which would not result in what had happened over and over again since 1953, and that is stimulation of revolt in the satellites and the Russians would come in and smash them again.  So what we wanted was to encourage liberalization, but at a pace underneath where we thought the Soviets would respond. 

In addition to that, we wanted to keep this going without a conservative coup against Gorbachev.  And, you know, we worked very hard at that, and how you gauge, you know, how much you should do and how much you shouldn't do, I don't know.  We were probably very lucky.  But by the time the coup came, it was too late.  And besides, the coup plotters, the people whom we had feared for decades, you know, the head of the secret policy, the defense people, and so on and so forth, couldn't manage a coup.  Then Gorbachev, who didn't really realize the force of nationalism inside the Soviet Union until too late, tried to put together a cooperative union.  And he allowed elections in the various places and he won a few.  And then he had an election in Ukraine and they voted for independence. 

And so -- I'm just speculating, but my guess is that some vestige of the Soviet Union might have lasted for a lot longer had it not been for the bitter hostility between Gorbachev and Yeltsin.  And I think Yeltsin, as the president of Russia at that time, literally pulled the Soviet Union out from underneath Gorbachev because he got, after Ukraine had had their election, he got Belarus and they met together and decided that the Soviet Union was no longer going to be there.  And so on December 31, Gorbachev didn't have a job.  And that was the end of the Soviet Union.  Could you see it coming?  I don't know, maybe, maybe not.  I'm not sure the Soviet Union necessarily would have ended.  It would have transformed.

NAFTALI:  So that's why were as skeptical of Reagan's approach to Gorby?  You thought that Reagan had embraced him too much when you came into office?

SCOWCROFT:  Well, you know, it was personal because I think President Reagan went from the Evil Empire to the Cold War's over with nothing really to show other than the verbiage.  And what we were saying is, you know, verbiage, we went through that in detente, the good verbiage, and what we need to see are changes on the ground.  And when Poland declared a non-Communist government and so on and so forth, then, then when the Soviets started to withdraw their troops, then you could say changes are being made.  Up till then --

NAFTALI:  -- you were skeptical.  Sir?

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  My name is James Tunkey.

In witnessing the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the post-9/11 era, you've seen one of the great paradigm shifts in the world.  What have we learned?  In playing such a central role at the end of the Cold War, how have you been able to -- what have you learned about the transformation?  And I'm wondering if you could specifically use the decisions that were made by you, you predecessors, and your successors in Afghanistan and Pakistan to elucidate your comments?  Thank you.

NAFTALI:  Well, I'm glad we didn't have a question about policy today.

SCOWCROFT:  Well, that's a very interesting question.  I think what I have learned is to analyze and try to judge the situations and the forces that are moving the world at the time.  And I think for that there's no substitute for history.  I think history doesn't teach, but if you don't learn from it, you're going to make serious mistakes.  And I think you try to gauge what is going on in the world, what the forces are, what is moving them, and then how to take advantage of the positive ones and how to minimize the negative ones.  Now, that's a very broad statement. 

There's a lot of discussion now about liberals, conservatives, realists, idealists, neocons, and so on.  I've been accused of being a realist.  One, when I first got into government from the liberals, the idealists during the Cold War, as a Cold Warrior, and now it's a pejorative by others from the opposite side.  I think U.S. foreign policy historically has never been like most foreign policies.  There has always been a tinge of idealism in it.  So, in that sense, Morgenthau is not right that nations seek to maximize their power and that's what it's all about. 

We've always been a little different, but we've mostly thought we were the shining city on the hill, that we thought people would emulate us.  But if they did, that was their business, and it was not out for us to tell other people how they needed to live.  And so we have had modest aspirations in the world, and mostly just to make the world as stable as possible so we can pursue our private enterprises, rather than to have an overarching U.S. goal for harmony and peace in the world.

The problem with idealism in itself is that the focus is on the goal -- wouldn't it be nice if the world looked like this? -- tending to ignore how you get there and can you get there.  The problem with realism is man is worthless, he's an evil creature, you have to suppress him, so the Hobbesian kind of view.  I think what we need to try to do is look out at the idealistic goal, but keep our feet on the ground, and say what kind of steps can we take that are realistic.  And sometimes we overreach and sometimes we underreach. 

NAFTALI:  Can you give us an example of underreaching?

SCOWCROFT:  Yeah, well, let me think.  A specific example?  I think had we been somewhat more realistic, if you will --

NAFTALI:  It's okay.

SCOWCROFT:  -- in the post-World War II world, we could have done better than we did because I think for a couple of years sort of bet on the come that the Soviet Union, and in fact, could trust us, and if we just reached out to them and so on that everything would be fine.  And I think we made a number of decisions based on that even during World War II that set the stage after World War II to a disadvantage that didn't have to happen.  I think the Cold War would have happened anyway, but I think we could have made our side of the table a little better.

NAFTALI:  Do you think we underreached with regard to Yugoslavia at the end of the Bush administration?

SCOWCROFT:  What do you mean?

NAFTALI:  Well, we didn't do very much.

SCOWCROFT:  Oh, you mean in '91.

NAFTALI:  Yeah.

SCOWCROFT:  Well, that's a very interesting case because when the trouble first started in Yugoslavia, the Europeans came to us and said, look, you guys ran the Gulf War and you did a great job.  Yugoslavia's in our backyard, let us handle it.  We're the Europeans, it's ours.  And unfortunately we were only too happy to say, yes, absolutely.  Then later in '91, before the hostility really started, Secretary of State Baker went over there and he gave a few speeches and so on and so forth about the importance of staying together and so on.  And he got attacked back here for being opposed to self-determination. 

I think this may be another case of underreaching.  Had we, instead of answering the Europeans the way we did, if we had gotten together with the Europeans, gone to the Yugoslavs as a united group and said, look, we think it makes no sense for Yugoslavia to split up.  It's a small country now.  But if you insist, here are the ground rules.  It might have worked.  But once the fighting starts, you know, then they turned on each other.  All the hostilities, all the instinct for revenge, all of those started, as they did in Iraq.  So, and now, you know, instead of one small state in the Balkans, in Yugoslavia, we have six tiny states much less able to make their way in this globalized world.

NAFTALI:  Sir?

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  I'm Allen Hyman from Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center.

In 1979, when American hostages were taken by Iranians, few of us would have imagined that at this time Iran would emerge as one of our major adversaries.  What lessons should we have learned from the way the Carter administration managed that conflict?

SCOWCROFT:  Well, it was a well-meaning attempt.  I think, and I don't know this, I'm assuming President Carter hoped, maybe expected, that the revolution against the Shah would be a liberal revolution, that it would be a middle-class uprising.  And that, of course, did not turn out to be the case.  When he realized that, and after they seized the embassy, I think the --

I was not in the government at all, and I don't know what thinking went into the rescue attempt, but it was a high-risk enterprise.  Among the risks were that we had a number of helicopters involved, and we were going to start them up and shut them down over and over again.  And if you've ever dealt with helicopters, not now, but in those days, you know once you shut it down, you don't know if you can start it up again.  So there were a lot of things like that.  But the result of the seizure of the hostages and the failure of the attempt led to, really, emotional hostility on the part of the United States.  And then a few years later, we shot down an Iranian airliner.  And that led to a reciprocal hostility on the part of Iran, which has colored our relations ever since.  So there's been a visceral hostility between the two of us.

Iran has gone from, as I said earlier, being our bastion in the Middle East for preserving stability to now our principal fear in the region.  And Iran probably hasn't changed that fundamentally.  I think this is another case where dialogue needs to begin. 

Look, the Iranians see no reason to do us a favor right now.  They're actually doing quite well and they think we're bleeding ourselves, and that's just fine.  But I don't know if they're any more farsighted about the region than maybe we have been.  But now is the time to start and to talk because it took us a long time talking with the Soviet Union before we really engaged.  We talked past each other for years.  And the same with China.  So you don't solve any problems by refusing to talk to people.

NAFTALI:  Zachary?

QUESTIONER:  Zachary Karabell, Fred Alger Management.

On that last point, which is actually what I wanted to ask about, what do you say or what have you said historically to people who have argued against talking?  Are there any --

SCOWCROFT:  Against what?

QUESTIONER:  Against dialogue.  Are there any circumstances when in fact you believe there should not be?  Is there an exception to that rule?  And without treading too much beyond the history maker part, what do you do about non-state actors and dialogue with them?  And if non-state actors are going to become or have been actors in international affairs, at what point should governments engage those actors and at what point should they not?

SCOWCROFT:  Yeah, there are some cases where one has to be careful about dialogue because dialogue is also signaling, and you can signal confidence, you can signal insecurity, you can signal all sorts of things.  So you have to take all of that into consideration.  But on the whole, one of the best ways to understand your enemy is to talk with him.  And I would say with non-state actors, it's a very difficult problem.  You'd have to go about it in a very different way and I'm not sure.  As far as I'm concerned, it can do no harm.  Can it do any good?  I don't know because this is a very different kind of thing. 

And, you know, I think we have distorted the way we think about non-state actors by labeling the war on terrorism because war brings up images of soldiers, uniforms, flags, all of the kind of baggage we have, and this is a very different kind of a problem.  And it has sort of constrained us in innovative thinking about how to do it.  I've not had a question should you dialogue with non-state actors, but it seems to me that, assuming it's physically possible, I don't see any reason why not because I think by and large, with the considerations for the diplomatic framework, you help yourself by learning as much about your opponent as possible.

NAFTALI:  Jacob?

Q    Jacob Weisberg, Slate magazine.

Would you say a few words about George H. W. Bush as a foreign policy decision maker, ideally in a comparative perspective against others you've worked with?

SCOWCROFT:  Well, he was marvelous to work for because he had looked at the whole system, the world's system, from almost every conceivable vantage point.  His first diplomatic job was at the U.N., and he used to routinely walk up and down the halls of the U.N and drop in on his fellow ambassadors.  And he'd sit down and he'd say, what's going on in your country, what do you think about the U.N., what do you think about the United States, and so on.  So he got to know what attitudes were toward us, toward the U.N., and so on. 

Then he went from there to China.  He was our second representative in China when it was the other side of the moon.  And there he was in a totally alien environment.  He didn't know how to handle them, they didn't know how to handle him.  So there was that experience.  Then he came back and he was director of central intelligence.  Then he left office, he came back, and he was vice president.  So by the time he became president, he knew how the government worked, he knew how people thought about us, he knew about international organization, he knew about diplomacy, you name it.  So he was marvelous to work for.

You know, you go in with a new problem and you didn't have to say, well, there's this little country here and it's this way and that way and the other, you could start right off of the thing because he knew what the background of the issue was.  And he was very comfortable in it.  And I think he used his advisors to great effect.  We used to sit around for hours talking, and he would ask questions and listen and so on and so forth, and not reveal what his thinking was because he didn't want it to stifle a conversation.  And so I think in his decision making on foreign policy, he was just an outstanding president.

NAFTALI:  Sir?

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  Tony Holmes from the council.

What are your views of economic sanctions, particularly the efficacy of unilateral economic sanctions?

SCOWCROFT:  Well, I was almost going to write a paper on that at one time.  Fortunately, I never did.  I think economic sanctions very rarely produce the effects that they want.  They only case that I can really think of where economic sanctions, and collective economic sanctions, maybe worked was in South Africa.  But in South Africa, you had an internal faction that was strongly supporting.  Economic sanctions, I think, in some part are frustration with what you do because we really don't have much between diplomacy here and military force here.  And so what do you do?  How do you inflict pain and try to get people to do things?

Economic sanctions against Iraq, though, in the '90s, I think worked because they were not trying to change Iraq's behavior, they were trying to keep Saddam from rebuilding his forces and from doing what we thought he would do which was to move out aggressively in the Middle East.  As we saw when we went in, the sanctions worked.  His military was pretty bad.  So if you're trying to prevent that sort of thing. 

But economic sanctions to induce a change in behavior, like, for example, we've had on Iran for a long time.  Now, might they work?  Iranian economy is pretty bad right now and it's probably going to get worse.  And if we can get everybody to join in economic sanctions, might it work?  I don't know.  I'm still a skeptic.  It's hard to make -- you know.  North Korea, for example, is about as poverty-stricken a country as you can have.  Has it really changed their behavior?  I don't think so.  I think what's changed their behavior is the fact that now we are working with the Chinese and the Chinese have confidence in what we're trying to do and they're trying to do.  So I'm not a fan of sanctions, but there is that big gap and we don't know what to do in.

NAFTALI:  Well, we've reached seven o'clock.  I want to thank General Scowcroft for a wonderful conversation.

SCOWCROFT:  Thank you all.

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