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Samuel Berger

In a Domestic President's Foreign Service, a Middleman Emerges

July 25, 1999|Doyle McManus | Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief for The Times

WASHINGTON — Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger has been Bill Clinton's closest foreign-policy advisor for almost 20 years, ever since Clinton was a little-known governor of Arkansas who dreamed of running for the White House. Today, as Clinton's national security advisor, Berger is the pivotal figure in U.S. foreign policy--most influential and closest to the president's thinking of any top aide.

During the war over Kosovo, officials say, it was Berger who held the tiller of U.S. policy, steering a middle path between a hawkish Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright and a cautious Defense Secretary William S. Cohen. Once an obscure back-room figure, he has become an increasingly visible spokesman for the administration, a role he has embraced with obvious relish.

A blunt-spoken, sardonic workaholic with no apparent ideology, Berger has established successful working relationships with both Republicans and Democrats in Congress. But he has also been attacked by conservatives and liberals--by conservatives for allegedly failing to act quickly when evidence of Chinese espionage reached the White House; by liberals for urging Clinton to be cautious about U.S. intervention in Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo.

Berger, like Clinton, has also weathered criticism for steering the nation's foreign policy by the lights of domestic political concerns. A Democratic activist since his college days, Berger met Clinton in 1972 in Texas, at a rally for Democratic presidential candidate George S. McGovern. Berger was a McGovern speech writer; Clinton was running the McGovern campaign in Texas and, Berger recalls, wearing a white suit that made him look like Col. Sanders. The two became friends and allies. When Clinton decided to run for president, Berger, by then a successful Washington lawyer, signed on as his first foreign-policy advisor. When Clinton became president, he made Berger his deputy national security advisor under Anthony Lake, whom Berger had recruited for the top job.

Berger, 53, grew up in a small town in upstate New York, where his widowed mother ran a clothing store. (His father died when he was 8.) He attended Cornell University, where one of his teachers was liberal foreign-policy historian Walter LaFeber, and Harvard Law School. He worked as an aide for several Democratic members of Congress and as a speech writer for Secretary of State Cyrus R. Vance in the Carter administration. Berger is married to Susan Harrison Berger, a real-estate agent. They have two daughters and a son. A self-described "baseball fanatic," he briefly played semipro baseball as a teenager but has since turned to golf.

Over bagels and black coffee early Thursday morning at The Times' Washington bureau, Berger sat down for a conversation about how he views the results of his wide-ranging policies and what he still dreams of accomplishing in the time remaining.


Question: Some Republicans have said you ought to resign, either over Kosovo or over the issue of Chinese espionage.

Answer: They share that goal with my wife.

I think the few people who have said that have said it in the context of the China issue. There is debate in this country about whether we should remain engaged with China, notwithstanding the fact that we have serious differences. I believe very strongly, and the president believes very strongly, that we cannot isolate China. We can only isolate ourselves from China and make it more difficult to influence the direction that China takes. That view is not shared by some on the Hill.

The report that was done by Sen. [Warren] Rudman, a Republican former senator, indicated we had done more to fix the problem with the security of the nuclear labs than anybody before us. I think there was some partisanship on the Hill in suggesting that, perhaps, we should have done more, earlier.

But I enjoy, I think, very good relations with folks on the Hill--both on the Democratic side and the Republican side. Foreign policy has to be bipartisan. It has always been bipartisan in this country, at least since World War II. If we make the mistake of turning foreign policy, whether it's China or Kosovo, into a partisan issue, we'll do great disadvantage to the American people.


Q: What are the lessons of Kosovo? Was it a model for future U.S. intervention? Have you looked at the conduct of the war--and the diplomacy before--and identified things you wish you had done differently?

A: I think there are lessons to be drawn from Kosovo, but the first lesson is not to overlearn the lessons of Kosovo, just as we should not overlearn the lessons of Vietnam or overlearn the lessons of the Gulf War. Foreign policy by analogy has gotten us into a lot of trouble in this country. Each situation is unique.

But Kosovo demonstrates that, at the end of this century, the bloodiest century in history, the American people and the global community are not going to tolerate an effort by a government to totally eliminate an entire people.

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