It was under President George H.W. Bush that the “Scowcroft model” took hold. It was in those years that Mr. Scowcroft (and others) articulated the notion of a national security adviser who steps back, coordinates and lets the cabinet secretaries take center stage. Condoleezza Rice, who had worked for Mr. Scowcroft and considered him a mentor, specifically cited him as a model even before she took the job for President George W. Bush. Ms. Rice was far from alone. Over the years, I’ve listened to various national security advisers of both parties, including one of President Barack Obama’s national security advisers, Tom Donilon, say that they were trying to do their jobs in line with the Scowcroft model.
The record shows that in real life, Mr. Scowcroft himself was both far more opinionated and more of an activist than the model bearing his name would suggest. He was not merely a neutral referee. He was a man of determined beliefs, who sometimes voiced strong disapproval of those whose ideas were different.
The best example was China. Mr. Scowcroft believed deeply in perpetuating the secretive, anti-Soviet relationship with Beijing that had been forged under Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger, and he saw most things connected to China through that lens. Early on, he angrily rebuked Winston Lord, the U.S. ambassador to Beijing, for inviting a Chinese dissident to a large dinner with the president — and Mr. Lord, once a rising star, never got another job in the administration.
In June 1989, after China’s bloody crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests, the Bush administration announced a suspension of all high-level exchanges with Chinese officials. That was the public policy. In private, Mr. Scowcroft made a secret visit to Beijing that same month for talks with the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Mr. Scowcroft made a second trip six months later, and, to his later regret, was photographed clinking glasses at a banquet with top Chinese leaders.
On these China trips, Mr. Scowcroft was carrying out the wishes of his boss, President Bush. Other officials in the administration, notably Secretary of State James Baker, had reservations about the China policy, but Mr. Scowcroft didn’t try to draw them out, and they knew better than to question too much on China.