Inside NDU’s tribute to Brent Scowcroft, and bygone centrism

Some of the Republican Party’s foreign policy old guard wheelhouse gathered in Washington on Wednesday to celebrate one of their own: former national security advisor and retired Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft.

Scowcroft was the honoree of a National Defense University Foundation tribute and accepted a lifetime achievement award at a black-tie dinner at the Ritz-Carlton. At a VIP reception before the dinner, Scowcroft, an advisor to multiple U.S. presidents, sheepishly told the E-Ring he was “embarrassed” by all of the attention, but he looked thrilled to see many of his old friends, including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter.

As much as the evening was a celebration of Scowcroft’s place in Washington’s national security hall of fame, though, it was a reminder of how far from the political center current partisan politics have taken national security.

Kissinger told the E-Ring he was proud of Scowcroft, his dear friend of 44 years who had weathered so many crises for the country.

Does the country today need more Brent Scowcrofts, we asked?

“You can never have enough Scowcroft,” Kissinger replied. “But you’re lucky if you get one.”

Susan Eisenhower told the E-Ring she got to know Scowcroft through her mentor, the late Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, former NATO supreme allied commander and superintendent of West Point. Nearly 30 years later, she said of Scowcroft, “I don’t know what Washington would do without him, frankly. He’s one of those people you can rely on for clear thinking and good sense.” Neither of which, she said, there is enough of these days. “We’ve been suffering from this for a while.”

“Since I’m a centrist, I gravitate immediately toward General Scowcroft’s worldview,” Eisenhower added. “I think he’s a national treasure in the sense that younger people coming along need to look to General Scowcroft and his immediate associates to see that there is a vital intellectual case for the middle ground. You don’t have to be on one extreme or the other to be associated with great ideas.”

To Ash Carter, Scowcroft set a life-changing example of public service in national security. “He was a hero of mine and made a great impression on me when I was a young physicist and had no idea of national security policy or a life doing that,” Carter told the E-Ring.

Later, at the dinner, he credited Scowcroft as a mentor for more than 25 years who set him on a course of public service in 1983 by treating him kindly and respectfully as a member of a U.S. delegation to Moscow, when Carter was a physicist with M.I.T.

“I knew something about lasers and nuclear particle beams and so forth,” Carter said. “My mission was to examine a Soviet spacecraft that they claimed was a probe of a moon of Mars, but our intelligence community suspected was a space-based laser weapon. So off we went to Moscow.”

The laser could not shoot down missiles, Carter concluded, but the trip made a lasting impression. “It was when I realized that the values embodied in Brent Scowcroft existed in public life at the highest levels. He inspired me to stay involved in these matters.”

Gen. Michael Hayden, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency, praised Scowcroft, his former boss, as a “master at policy” from a seemingly bygone era who was “logical and thoughtful, unemotional and nonpartisan.”

Of that, there’s “not enough going around,” Hayden said, these days.

“Partisanship has bled over into areas where it rarely has been before,” said Hayden. “The general there has served two presidents as national security advisor and has been a counselor to presidents from both parties. Just pure expertise and humility.”

For Scowcroft, it was all in a lifetime’s work.

“All I’ve done is the best job I can, and I didn’t do it expecting rewards or anything like that. So it’s embarrassing,” he told us, smiling with a white wine in hand.

We asked the honoree how he feels about today’s national security leaders.

“I feel sympathy for them today, because in some ways it’s a much more complicated world,” he said. “I don’t know that it’s a more dangerous world, but it’s a more complicated world.”

Scowcroft is a 1968 graduate of the National War College at NDU. Earlier, Scowcroft was inducted into the NDU hall of fame, where Gen. Colin Powell spoke. At the dinner, which clocked in at over three hours, NDU’s president, Army Maj. Gen. Gregg Martin, said that when students now pass Scowcroft's portrait there, the message is: “Be like General Scowcroft.”

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