As US president George H. W. Bush's national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft became famous for sleeping on the job. The older Bush established the annual Scowcroft Award for the senior official most liable to fall asleep during critical meetings, naming Dr Scowcroft as the first recipient. His narcolepsy might have caused concern, given his pivotal role in shaping the US administration's foreign policy. It was Dr Scowcroft, more than any other adviser, who convinced the president to soft-pedal Ronald Reagan's 'Star Wars' defence initiative and to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. But it was a sign of the respect he commanded from his colleagues that Dr Scowcroft felt comfortable dozing off during meetings. The veteran Washington insider also served as national security adviser to Gerard Ford and military assistant under Richard Nixon. Interviewed in the Washington office of The Scowcroft Group advisory firm that he directs, Dr Scowcroft speaks in calm, measured tones that betray none of the ideological fervour of the second Bush administration. He remains one of Mr Bush Snr's closest friends and a symbol of the rift between him and his son over Iraq. George W. Bush marginalised Dr Scowcroft for opposing US military action. Mr Bush Snr reportedly made repeated attempts to reconcile the two men. For his part, Dr Scowcroft says simply: 'It's just rumour.' In August 2002, after failing to dissuade the George W. Bush administration through private talks, Dr Scowcroft published an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal, headlined 'Don't Attack Saddam'. Mr Bush's irritation at the editorial is imagined in Oliver Stone's film W and was probably a factor in his failure to reappoint Dr Scowcroft as chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in 2004. Dr Scowcroft says he hasn't seen W but has been averse to Stone since his 1995 biopic Nixon, which he argues caricatured the 37th president. Asked how he felt about being essentially fired from the board, Dr Scowcroft declined to comment. Nor will he be drawn into criticising US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, whom he hired as a Soviet specialist on the National Security Council in 1989. His one-time protegee is said to have phoned Dr Scowcroft after reading his editorial, yelling: 'How could you do this to us?' Yet Dr Scowcroft professes to feel no dismay at her right-leaning political trajectory. 'I offered her a chance at what could have been a critical point of her career and she's gone on to bigger and better things,' he says. The Bush-Cheney crowd proposed a revolutionary form of foreign-policy idealism in which the US would topple dictatorships and remake the world in its own image. Dr Scowcroft takes a more sober view of the use of military force. 'I've always considered myself an enlightened realist,' he says. 'Realism without some ideal towards which one would realistically work is fake. But the notion that, if we just turned all the countries of the world into democracies, we would abolish war, is idealism that is dangerous.' Born in Ogden, Utah, the son of a grocer, Dr Scowcroft enjoyed a distinguished career in the armed forces and military academia, rising to lieutenant general. He served in three Republican administrations, but the former Republican stalwart will not disclose whom he voted for in the November election. At the start of the year, Barack Obama wasn't even favourite to beat Hillary Rodham Clinton, let alone John McCain, and Dr Scowcroft is surprised that he was elected. 'This was a very difficult year for the Republicans,' he notes. 'But, in view of the fact that Senator Clinton was better known, and had most of the establishment working for her, it was something of a surprise.' He worried that American voters would be deterred by Mr Obama's mixed ethnicity. 'The fact that the United States could elect somebody as president who represents no more than 10 per cent of the ethnic division of the population is dramatic,' he says. Mr Obama is said to have been extensively in touch with Dr Scowcroft following his election victory. Dr Scowcroft, however, denies that their communication has been extensive or that he has offered Mr Obama advice. Whatever he told Mr Obama, Dr Scowcroft is adamant that the new administration urgently needs to restore America's reputation as a benevolent power committed to leading without dominating. 'We are the only power around which nations of the world can gather to pursue great things like addressing climate change,' he says. 'We've not been able to play that role in recent years.' One of Mr Obama's first moves, he says, should be to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process: 'The outlines of a settlement are broadly known; most of them were agreed in one way or another at the end of the Clinton administration with the Taba Accords.' His main concern is that Mr Obama's plans to withdraw troops in Iraq are premature. 'I don't believe we should draw down troops based on a calendar,' he says. 'We should draw down troops based on the situation on the ground. The calendar seems purely artificial. What it says is, 'we don't care what the situation is, we're leaving'.' But isn't the US presence in Iraq part of the problem? 'The Iraqis don't want us to stay there, but they didn't want us in, either. We didn't ask them before we went in, and we have a responsibility to the Iraqis to leave that country and the region in as good shape as is possible.' Mr Obama's proposal to redirect troops from Iraq into Afghanistan troubles Dr Scowcroft, who doubts that more forces in Afghanistan would make much difference: 'Afghanistan is not going to be a military conflict won by arms.' The difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is obscured by Mr Obama's policy, he suggests. 'Afghanistan historically is a collection of tribal lands, warlords, ethnic groupings, joined together loosely by a weak central government. If we're trying to build a strong unified central government, which can dominate the country, I'm afraid we have a problem which dwarfs that in Iraq.' Mr Obama's decision to retain Mr Bush's defence chief, Robert Gates, disappointed some supporters. Does Dr Scowcroft see the appointment as inconsistent with Mr Obama's opposition to Republican strategy on Iraq? 'Maybe on Iraq it sends a puzzling message,' he concedes, 'but, on the whole, Obama keeping him on is a solid gesture of solidarity that he is moving forward as a leader of the country, not just of the Democrats.' Mr Obama's campaign was sketchy on foreign policy, but Dr Scowcroft was still struck by how little China featured - especially, he noted, given American anxieties about Beijing's intervention in the currency markets. He is optimistic that Taiwan's growing economic ties across the strait will help alleviate tensions with Beijing. In America and the World, a recently published book of conversations with former Democratic national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, Dr Scowcroft predicts the emergence eventually of 'a greater China of which the mainland is a part, Taiwan is a part, Hong Kong, Tibet, and so on ... a kind of brotherhood of indistinct relationships'. Ever since Dr Scowcroft accompanied Nixon on his visit to Beijing in 1972, US administrations have maintained a bipartisan policy of engaging with the Chinese leadership. 'It is one of the greatest successes of US foreign policy over the last almost 40 years now,' Dr Scowcroft says. His enthusiasm for amicable relations with China led to controversy when, six months after the Tiananmen Square massacre, he attended a banquet in Beijing and toasted China's rulers. Dr Scowcroft knew he'd face condemnation for participating in the toast, but felt that it would have been too damaging to US interests to walk out rather than follow protocol. Confident that Mr Obama also recognises the importance of solid relations with America's rivals, Dr Scowcroft suggests that his conciliatory manner will be an asset in dealing with a resurgent Russia. Moscow's aggression stems from its feelings of humiliation at being ignored after the end of the cold war, he says. 'What Russians need is a sense that we do take their views seriously, believe that they're an important power and want to co-operate with them.' Some are concerned that Mr Obama will not be sufficiently hawkish to deal effectively with Iran, but Dr Scowcroft believes that diplomacy is far preferable to using force. 'While Iran is not much liked by the Arab world, attacking Iran would confirm that the US really is anti-Islam,' he says. 'If for no other reason, we must try diplomacy.' He wagers that Iran can be persuaded to abandon its nuclear programme. 'We have to demonstrate to Iran that we don't require them to surrender before we'll talk to them. And we have to make sure that our negotiating allies - the Europeans, the Chinese and the Russians - are with us wholeheartedly, so that the Iranians can't play one party off against the others, as they're so skilful at doing.' Falling oil prices could be an advantage for the Obama White House in bargaining with Iran, Dr Scowcroft suggests, though he also points out that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has shown himself relatively impervious to economic circumstances. The phone rings to summon Dr Scowcroft to his next appointment, occasioning a final question. How is he sleeping these days? 'Very well,' he boasts, smiling. 'I deserved the award, and I practise to make sure that my skills are up to it.'