Secretary of Defense
Remarks Honoring Brent Scowcroft with the DOD Distinguished Public Service Award
Good afternoon. It is a great privilege to welcome to the Pentagon Brent Scowcroft and family – and especially his daughter Karen, his seven-year-old granddaughter Meghan, and Catie and John Kelley, Brent’s grandniece and her husband. It’s great to have them join us and a group of long-time friends and dedicated public servants as we honor Brent with the Department’s highest civilian award.
We have a few photos of the two of us around the room, some dating back many years, and what I remember today and will always remember first and foremost is Brent’s kindness, his example, and the strength of his spirit.
We hiked together for almost twenty years nearly every summer out near Aspen, and I’ll remember one or those treks vividly; it must have been eight years or so ago now. A whole group of us went out to hike up to Independence Pass. At the end of our journey the only ones to finish were my wife Stephanie and I, a 15 year-old kid, and, of course, Brent, who at that point was in his eighties.
But what I will remember most about Brent is the way he treated me when he first met me, when I was really a nobody -- how he treated me with utmost respect, as a member of the team. And I know so many others who can relate similar experiences.
But rather than recount all the happenings in which Brent Scowcrowft figures in my life, or yours, or even in the life of our country, I commend to you a shorter but useful way to appreciate Brent, and this is to reflect on all the things that did not happen – the bad things that did not happen – or how history could have been very different.
Things could have been different, indeed, if not for the cool head and warm heart of this great man at the center of America’s national security for five decades.
The aftermath of Vietnam, for example, when America could have been plunged into a dark period of declined influence and self-confidence; but which never happened because, by acting decisively in the Mayaguez incident, opening up to Mao’s China, and standing resolute against Brezhnev’s Soviet Union, our prestige in the world was sustained.
Or the final days of the Nixon White House and the transition to President Ford, an unprecedented achievement for our Republic, precisely because nothing happened…but it could have been quite different.
Or the peak years of the Cold War, when we now know from Soviet archives that we were closer to nuclear war than anyone except maybe Brent imagined, but it didn’t happen.
Or above all the collapse of the Soviet Union…the first-ever disintegration of a nuclear power…a moment whose danger is scarce remembered now precisely because it turned out so much better than it might have.
At all these moments Brent Scowcroft was at the center, and his balance, civility, and realism brought us through safely. These things could have been very different. There are many more cases like this.
And another thing that could have been very different but for the influence of Brent Scowcroft stands before you … me.
Brent has been a mentor of mine for nearly 30 years. There are many like me too. Here’s the story I want to tell: In 1983, I was a young MIT physicist with no sense of a career in national security. But SDI or Star Wars was the issue of the day, and I was asked by Paul Nitze, then President Reagan’s arms control advisor, to accompany a small delegation to Moscow to discuss nuclear arms, including defenses. I knew something about lasers, neutral particle beams, and so forth…so Paul asked me to go as an expert.
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: Brent, me, and I remember Shy Meyer, former Chief of Staff of the Army. The Soviets took me to their space center, let me climb around the probe and satisfy myself that the laser aboard it could not shoot down missiles—I will spare you the technical details. This was the Soviet Union of the old days, and Shy and I remember all of us sharing a single bar of soap that one of us had brought, since there was no soap in the hotel.
But what I really remember was Brent’s kindness and example. He probably doesn’t remember this first trip, but I remember it vividly. 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 after I returned to academic life, and eventually brought me to the Pentagon to serve, directly or indirectly, 11 different Secretaries of Defense. So I would too have been very different but for Brent, and I’m not an isolated example…there are countless men and women, including of his generation, who will tell you that their faith in public life was strengthened by the example and values of Brent Scowcroft.
Those values are, and I want to quote what former Secretary Bob Gates once said about Brent: “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,” unquote.
Around Brent, and around these values, and around my life, I have therefore seen gather a group of people, who have included the late Jim Schlesinger, Bob Gates, Bill Perry, and many in this room, who make up the solid center for this country. And every time I despair of this center dwindling here in Washington, I’m heartened to see Brent because I know he continues to be the magnetic force that attracts people of all ages to the true foundations of our country’s security.
As Brent has always understood, our defense is so vital that we have to take the long view and how we shepherd it from strategic era to strategic era, from administration to administration, across parties, and across our government.
Defense requires a truly strategic perspective – and that requires that we understand our connections to the leaders and challenges of the past.
Cultivating the strategic perspective that Brent Scowcroft personifies means keeping the world in synoptic view, seeing all of its parts and problems at once, and using the great physical and moral strength of the world’s greatest nation wisely, to protect our people and make a better world. It means knowing which mix of the full range of foreign policy tools—including but not limited to the finest fighting force the world has ever known—is best for a given situation.
It means understanding where our challenges today fall in the broad arc of history, and how we can use history’s lessons to pursue today’s opportunities. And it means keeping ever-grounded in our national security interests … they’re our North Star whether in the Middle East, the Asia-Pacific, Europe, or elsewhere.
These interests and this strategic perspective is something Brent has always understood, but even amid all the challenges and complexity he has encountered, he has always been grounded in a fundamental kindness and decency – a kindness and decency which has touched each of our lives, and the life of this country, for the better.
And Brent, because of your kindness, because of your example and your strength of spirit, the people gathered in this room today -- and throughout this country -- are far different. And in fact, we are far stronger because of you.
So it is now my great honor to grant you the Department’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Award. On behalf of this Department, and on behalf of a grateful nation, Brent, we thank you.