Nation & World

New president, new challenges

6 min read

Scowcroft, security adviser to presidents, looks down the road ahead for Obama

In introducing the featured speaker at last week’s (Oct. 29) John F. Kennedy School Forum, Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, said, “If there were a really serious national security problem and we could only consult one person, that person, in my view, is Brent Scowcroft.”

Scowcroft, former national security adviser to presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush and assistant to former national security adviser Henry Kissinger under Richard Nixon, drew a packed house for his talk, titled “Challenges the Next President Will Face.”

“The new president-elect will be inheriting a very troubled world,” he began. “Most everywhere I look there are problems, and most are getting worse.” Though the United States no longer faces the sort of apocalyptic threat brought about by the Cold War, he continued, the current issues arise from areas of the world we hardly understand. “I’m glad I don’t have to write that first memo for the president, because it would be discouraging. Extremely discouraging.”

Among the issues on the table:

• The image of the United States in the world. “In the years I’ve traveled around the world,” Scowcroft said, “I think it has never been less. … We’ve always had the benefit of the doubt. We don’t have that anymore.” Unless the United States can restore that, he continued, the world will not be better off, since the United States is unique in its ability to build coalitions that can address problems that do not respect international boundaries, such as global warming.

• The structure of U.S. government, especially in foreign affairs. “The National Security Council was set up in 1947,” Scowcroft said, “to deal with the problems of World War II.” The world is very different today, he noted, in that the conflicts the United States faces are not the grand sort fought on a large scale, but “messy kinds of things” that include kicking down doors and nationbuilding on the part of a military not designed for it.

• The financial crisis. “What happens in one place spreads to the rest of the world,” he said. “That is a new development,” and we can’t continue to view it as separate nations. In pointing this out he also mentioned that political problems, too, overlap and are interconnected.

• Iraq. The situation is improving, Scowcroft said, in part because “rather than attacking everyone who was creating a problem for us, we have reached out … and the consequence is that a lot of hostility in the country has been reduced.” The Iraqi army is now fighting well enough, he added, but still needs U.S. support for infrastructure, supplies, intelligence, and more. Furthermore, though the military situation is improving, he said, the political situation is not. “Progress in Iraq is fragile and easily reversed,” he said. If that were to happen, “it would not be just a collapse in Iraq, but it could be a collapse in the Middle East as a whole.”

• The Palestinian issue. “The next president needs to make that a No. 1 priority,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anything that would change the psychological climate [in the Middle East] more than that.” Israel, he said during the question-and-answer period, must come to grips with the idea that the Palestinians do not want a two-state solution. “Israel either has to abandon the idea of a Jewish state or drive the Palestinians out of the West Bank,” he added. “So much of the rest of the region hangs on [the area]. The U.S. president needs to focus on that; otherwise the Russians might see the chance to drive the U.S. right out of the Middle East, and we don’t want that.”

• Iran. Scowcroft said that though Iran “clearly likes making difficulties for us in Iraq,” it is also in Iran’s best interest to see peace in its neighboring country. Though the United States may not have common ground with Iran, he said, “there may be some openings. … But there’s only one way to find out” — by beginning negotiations. On the nuclear weapons issue, which Scowcroft fears would lead to proliferation in countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, the United States needs need to present a united front with traditional allies as well as those with whom ties are less strong, including China and Russia.

• Russia. “Cooperation of the Russians is marred by the handling of the Russians by the U.S. and by the Europeans,” he said. “The most complicated part is what happened in Georgia. Russians see this as another step in the West’s attempt to humiliate them and not take them seriously.” The humiliation, he said, stems from the loss of the Cold War and going from one of two superpowers to near-complete political and economic collapse.

• Afghanistan. “The Afghanistan we’d like to see may not have to be a highly centralized, modern state,” he said. It may be better to work within the country’s existing structure of tribal groups governed at the top only loosely.

• Pakistan. “Pakistan is an extremely difficult problem for us,” he said, having wavered between a civilian democracy and a military government. “It’s a very, very complicated and difficult situation, and all I can do is wish the new president luck in dealing with Pakistan.”

• North Korea. “We’ve made a lot of progress here,” he said, “first, because we’ve been patient, and second, because we’ve behaved in a way that has encouraged others to help us with the problem,” including the Chinese, who obviously have a stake in keeping nuclear weapons out of the hands of North Korea, but didn’t want the refugee problem that would ensue from a regime change. Once regime change was off the table, the Chinese began to apply pressure to their neighbor.

The final question of the night, on double standards with respect to democracy, allowed Scowcroft to neatly summarize his argument. “There’s no question about it,” he said. “The best example is Hamas. We encouraged the Palestinians to have elections, and when Hamas won, we said, ‘Uh-uh, can’t do that. …’ You either pursue democracy and abide by the results, or you don’t take that gamble. What can I say?”