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Mutual Loyalty Helps Clinton’s ‘ABC’ Team Tackle ABCs of Foreign Policy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

These have not been easy times for President Clinton’s three-member foreign affairs brain trust.

The “ABC” team--Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, National Security Advisor Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger and Defense Secretary William S. Cohen--took a broadside of verbal hits first at a public meeting in Ohio as they steered the United States toward armed conflict with Iraq, then from congressional Republicans when they accepted an ambiguous, eleventh-hour agreement brokered by U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Outside the United States, commentators painted the administration’s dealings with Iraq as arrogant, highhanded and trigger-happy.

The tightknit team--a trio chosen in part because of mutual compatibility--pulled together in ways their predecessors rarely managed. That has lent Clinton’s second-term foreign policy an internal coherence that has helped it weather blistering attacks.

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Despite heavy criticism, Albright believes that the team handled the Iraq crisis well.

“I hope this will be seen as a classic case of how the threat of force can support diplomacy,” she said.

At least partially because of the cooperation, foreign diplomats say the number of mixed signals they receive from the administration on important issues has dropped significantly during the first year of Clinton’s second term.

“The signals are much clearer,” a senior West European diplomat said. “There are no ambiguities.”

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Foreign affairs specialists within the administration say bureaucratic infighting has also diminished.

The confrontation with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, easily the most demanding international crisis Clinton has faced during his second term, also put the ABC team to its stiffest test--and a sense of humor got the trio beyond the Ohio debacle.

“It’s not something we’d want to repeat, but immediately afterward we had a laugh about it,” Albright said.

“I’m just very glad that we had a year together, getting accustomed to each other’s working and thinking styles,” she said. “I can’t imagine having personal tensions when you’re trying to deal with this kind of a difficult situation.”

Certainly, many of their predecessors could.

The Albright-Berger-Cohen style marks a sharp departure not just from previous presidencies but from Clinton’s first term, when contrasting personalities frequently complicated relations between former Secretary of State Warren Christopher and then-National Security Advisor Anthony Lake.

“They never quite meshed,” one senior administration official said. “I don’t think they ever spoke on the phone unless they absolutely had to.”

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This threesome meets frequently, both formally and informally, and consults by telephone so often in times of crisis that one aide likened them to “stockbrokers dealing with a market surge.”

Berger and Albright maintain especially close contact, building on a personal friendship that extends back two decades and through several Democratic presidential campaigns. They have a direct phone line linking the secretary’s office in the State Department with Berger’s room in the West Wing of the White House.

“It’s a different bell, so even if you’re not in the same room, you know it’s her calling,” a White House staffer said. “The calls are usually brief, but they go all through the day. If something like Iraq is going on, the frequency can double.”

During Albright’s recent swing through Europe and the Middle East to build support for a hard line against Iraq, the two still talked several times daily, aides said.

Berger has also been careful to bring Cohen, a former Republican senator, into the dialogue.

The focal point of the link between the three is an informal lunch in Berger’s office each Monday, at which the trio work through an agenda of 10 to 20 issues without aides.

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The three try to clear an array of what Berger calls “second-tier issues,” ranging from a review of administration policy on China’s human rights record to discussions on additional funding to support new Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic.

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“We each come in with five or six things that need to get resolved,” Berger said. “Sometimes we cover everything, sometimes we focus on one issue. The lunch is a little bit of catch-your-breath time as you hurtle through the day.”

In addition, the three also gather for Wednesday morning breakfast in Berger’s office with three other officials--CIA Director George J. Tenet, vice presidential National Security Advisor Leon Fuerth and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Henry H. Shelton.

“It sometimes sounds like there’s a riot going on in there,” one White House staff member said of the meetings. “They’re yelling at each other, particularly Madeleine and Sandy, but they get it out on the table, work through it and move on.”

While Cohen rarely raises his voice, Berger said that “doesn’t mean he doesn’t get angry.”

Those who know all three believe that good personal chemistry, a secure relationship with the president and a similar view of the United States’ role in the world are what makes them mesh.

“They can differ, yet they can still get along,” one official said.

Differ they certainly do.

“We clearly have disagreements because of where we sit in our jobs,” Albright said. “Some struggle has to happen, otherwise it’s not a good process.”

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Cohen and Albright came to office differing strongly on what the depth of U.S. involvement in Bosnia-Herzegovina should be.

After an in-depth policy review a year ago, Cohen quietly dropped his call for an end to the U.S. troop presence there by June and helped preside over a deepening American involvement and an end to any deadline for a U.S. withdrawal.

“Even when you had a split like the Cohen-Albright differences on Bosnia, there were no hard edges,” said Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), one of the most respected voices on foreign affairs in Congress. “You didn’t get a sense there was a power struggle going on.”

The often spirited discussions contrast sharply with those of predecessors Christopher and Lake, whom foreign policy specialists cannot recall ever exchanging a sharp word.

The relationship also is a notable departure from previous presidencies, when at times secretaries of State and national security advisors had virtually no contact.

In the early 1970s, President Nixon’s secretary of State, William P. Rogers, is believed to have had no knowledge of National Security Advisor Henry A. Kissinger’s yearlong secret meetings with the North Vietnamese in Paris to end the Vietnam War, or of strategic arms limitation talks with the Soviet Union.

While President Carter’s secretary of State, Cyrus R. Vance, was traveling in the Middle East, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski pushed ahead with the sensitive issue of American recognition of Communist China.

One of Ronald Reagan’s several national security advisors, Frank C. Carlucci, said he was chosen because he could get along with Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger.

But Carlucci quickly ran afoul of Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who wanted to reduce the status of the National Security Council.

“He’d object when I saw an ambassador,” Carlucci said.

By contrast, Albright and Berger sometimes share or divide such diplomatic tasks, although there are clear divisions of labor.

As secretary of State, Albright is clearly the team’s leader.

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Last week, it was Albright who stepped up to the microphones to counter stinging criticism of Clinton’s policy on Iraq leveled by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss). In Ohio, only Albright took questions from reporters before the three went out on stage.

Her ability to shape the administration’s foreign policy goals in terms that Americans can quickly grasp has helped build support for an active U.S. role in international affairs. But in a departure from Clinton’s first term--and from many previous administrations--this task is often shared.

Berger’s primary role is that of an insider, a coordinator and an occasional mediator who makes certain that all voices are heard, that arguments are aired and that the process keeps running.

But he is also ready to push the White House line in public. It was Berger who first set out the administration’s case against Iraq in a detailed statement last month at the National Press Club in Washington.

When the three appear separately on Sunday morning network talk shows, they confer in a conference telephone call beforehand--going over the message and tone they want to convey, sharing ideas.

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For example, Berger and Cohen together cooked up Cohen’s most memorable television moment, an eye-catching gesture on ABC-TV’s “This Week” in November in which the Defense secretary held up a small bag of sugar, noting that if the contents were anthrax, they would be enough to wipe out most of Washington. Berger did another show the same day, but without the prop.

Berger noted that the greatest institutional tensions stem from the media.

“You pick up the morning newspapers and find some State Department official is quoted taking a whack at the White House, or some Defense official is saying something out of a meeting that was supposed to be private,” he said.

“We’ve developed rules, and one of them is ‘Pick up the phone before the ax,’ ” he said. “You have a basic trust between the three of us and a sense of common purpose. I think we all realize we sink or swim together.”


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