Military Book Reviews

The Strategist

 The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security by Bartholomew Sparrow (Public Affairs, 2015, 752 pages)

The authoritative biography of Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, USAF (retired.) former Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs (colloquially; the National Security Advisor), The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, chronicles the life and experience of the only man to serve as national security advisor to two US Presidents (Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush). This candid portrait of a public servant at the center of twentieth century America’s trials and triumphs is a tale of one man’s dedication to national security and how the values of strategic thought, integrity, and personal humility were keys to safely navigating those perilous and momentous times. 

Influential in the US government during key events from the late 1970s to his death in 2020, Lieutenant General Scowcroft, left no official memoirs, thus The Strategist by Bartholomew Sparrow, stands as the historical record for one of the most critical actors on the world stage. Doctor Sparrow, a professor in the Department of Government at the University of Texas, has been a lifelong student of the American government and its dynamic history. The author of three additional books, including, From the Outside In: World War II and the American State, he was granted unfettered access to General Scowcroft and his confidants. 

Sparrow’s cogent and balanced examination of General Scowcroft’s decisions, including a retrospective self-critique by the General, grants The Strategist singular status and makes it a truly important work; a gift to the nation, its historians, and any leaders present or future in search of understanding the complex tasks of national security strategy. Readers will find it compares favorably with similar works. More detailed than many accounts of multiple presidencies of the same era, such as Bob Woodward’s Shadow, in its breadth, it compares favorably to similar reviews of single administrations such as George W. Bush’s Decision Points.  Girded by copious research, including more than one hundred interviews with former staff and senior officials and an exhaustive survey of written texts from speeches to official reports, The Strategist provides for the study of statecraft what Lord Slim’s autobiography, Defeat into Victory, gave warfare. Frank insight from the master validated by actual practice.  

The author has divided the subject into five parts each conforming to major phases of General Scowcroft’s development, covering the general’s life from boyhood in Utah to his work as an elder statesman. Though the principal text is 570 pages, segments are easily digestible and suitable for stand-alone reading. Topically, they cover: the general’s youth through service on the Joint Staff; rise from military aide to national security advisor during the Nixon and Ford administrations, the general’s continuing contributions (such as co-authoring the Tower Commission report) during the Carter and Reagan years, return to service as national security advisor for George H.W. Bush, and his ultimate contributions as one of the only voices on foreign policy respected and trusted on both sides of the aisle in Washington D.C.  

Throughout, the reader is treated to intimate pictures of the twentieth century’s most prominent world leaders and perspective into their thinking, as well as the formative experiences of many staff that later guide the United States through the travails of the early twenty-first century.  The centrality of Brent Scowcroft in the management of US policy at end of the Soviet Union is revelatory, showing him as one of America’s most important while unheralded leaders.  Brent Scowcroft’s arrangement of the National Security Council remains in place today, supporting interagency management of crisis and complexity.  The Strategist provides context to so many key events, that it must certainly serve every serious student of security as a companion reader during review of geo-politics from the Cold War and forward.  A limitation of the text for today’s reader is the lack of a discussion on policy for China since 2008, the central foreign policy challenge of the next century, no doubt a function of timing.  Nonetheless, in recounting the general’s life, Dr. Sparrow provides uncommon insight and context for the making of the major decisions that have and will continue to shape the geo-political world.  Hopefully, an update or a new text can be written elaborating on how the United States might approach China in a “Scowcroftian” manner once additional Scowcroft records become available or more presidential records are opened to the public.       

The valuable lessons in the text generally fall into three categories: guidelines for professional behavior and the critical nature of acting with integrity, the role of strategic thinking in ensuring security, and the importance of humility in building consensus, wielding power and influence over decisions, especially when stakes are high.  All of this retrospective plays out upon a backdrop of what we today call “wicked” problems.  Any leader weathering the storm of uncertainty, will find in the person of General Scowcroft a light by which to navigate and The Strategist their chart. Few books are an absolute must for the senior leader’s library, this is one.  As our nation engages in a new era of great power competition, no strategic mind should overlook Sparrow’s The Strategist.    

Book review contributed by Lt. Col. Matthew R. Crouch, USMC.Crouch is a Senior Military Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. A graduate of the United States Naval Academy, he holds master’s degrees in Political Science and International Business Administration and is an Olmsted Scholar. He has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the US government or other organization.
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