Samuel Berger

Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief for The Times

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.

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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.

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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.

In World War II, what we knew was through a glass darkly during the war. But in this communications age, we saw what was happening. We had no plausible deniability. We could not choose to not know. We could only choose to not act.

The fact that the international community acted, that NATO as an alliance for the first time in its 50 years engaged in a sustained military action, that it was able to maintain its coherence despite the fact that you had in Germany a government that has not fought a war since World War II, with a foreign minister from the Green Party; in Italy and Greece, countries that have much closer relations to Serbia; the fact that the 19 democracies could remain united--all of that, I think, was extremely important.

So we demonstrated there is a line beyond which we will not tolerate the kind of brutality that we saw. It means that NATO is as relevant today as it was when it was founded, although perhaps in new ways. I think it demonstrates that when the United States draws a line and says, "We're going to take a stand," we will stick with it until we prevail, even against withering criticism from many people here.

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Q: How much did you know at the outset about Milosevic's plans for ethnic cleansing? One criticism has been that the first phase of the air war was measured, not all-out. Could you have impeded ethnic cleansing more effectively if the first strikes had been more robust?

A: First of all, we certainly knew. We had Bosnia as a graphic historical precedent. . . . Did we know that he was amassing, getting ready to move into Kosovo? Yes. Did we hope that we could stop it by acting? Yes. Did we realize we might not be able to stop it by acting? Yes to that, as well.

In the president's speech to the American people on the night the bombing began, he said we hope to deter this by this action, but in any case we hope to reverse it; we hope to destroy his military capability. So we were perfectly aware that we might not be able to deter it.

As to your question about the intensity of the battle, the first job was to clear his air defense. . . . If we had gone in without to doing that job first, we would have sustained substantial casualties. . . . It was a military judgment that we needed first to get rid of his air defense so that, as we went deeper into the campaign, we were able to absolutely fly and continue the bombing with impunity. I think it was the right judgment.

There were some start-up kind of drags that come from working as an alliance. Could we have done this more rapidly by ourselves? Yes. Should we have done it by ourselves? No. For the United States to have taken this action in Europe without Europe is unthinkable.

So there was a cost to operating with an alliance, particularly at the beginning. How do you select targets? How do you make those decisions? I think it took us a while to raise the level of consensus in the alliance. But I don't think it was decisive. In the end the alliance stayed together and prevailed.

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Q: So on the moral question of whether you did everything you could to deter and eventually stop ethnic cleansing, your conscience is at rest?

A: In Bosnia, it took us three and a half years to really be able to bring sustained power to bear. I regret that. I wish we could have acted more quickly.

The Europeans were there, as you remember, as U.N. forces on the ground. They were unwilling, therefore, to use air power without pulling out the humanitarian ground forces, and it created this kind of bizarre situation in which the humanitarian force on the ground almost was protecting the Serb assault. So when I look back on Bosnia, I do wish we had been able to push our allies more quickly to get involved.

But I think here we acted about as quickly as we could.

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Q: Since the end of the war in Kosovo, President Clinton has said the international community should act, as a general principle, to stop ethnic cleansing and genocide. Is this a "Clinton Doctrine"?

A: I instinctively resist doctrine, but I think it is a principle that we have established in Kosovo: There are some activities that governments engage in, such as genocide or ethnic cleansing, that we cannot ignore. That doesn't necessarily mean we have a military response in every situation. We have to have the capacity to act, as the president has indicated.

In Kosovo, we had a national interest as well: 1.8 million refugees awash in Southeastern Europe is inherently unstable. There's no question in my mind that it would have destabilized Albania, Macedonia, perhaps Hungary, and we would have had a wider war in Europe. We would have been faced with a bigger mess that we would have had to deal with later this year or next year. Where there is genocide or ethnic cleansing, where we have the capacity to act as we did here with NATO, where we have a national interest, I believe we should act.

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Q: How do you respond to critics who say you wouldn't have done it anywhere other than Europe?

A: As I said, a military response is one way to respond to these situations; in other situations there may be other kinds of responses that are diplomatic or peacekeeping or sanctions or other forms of international pressure.

The president has often raised Rwanda [where ethnic Hutu extremists killed more than 500,000 people, mostly ethnic Tutsis, in 1994] and said he wishes we had acted more quickly. But we certainly couldn't have acted in Rwanda militarily. It's difficult to stop people going after each other with machetes with an F-16.

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Q: But didn't the U.N. commander in Rwanda say 5,000 Western troops could have had a significant impact just by patrolling?

A: I think those are things we need to look at. That is: In that situation or in future situations, could a safe haven of some sort that the international community would set up under U.N. auspices have been beneficial?

In Europe, we have NATO that has the capacity to act. That capacity does not exist in some other parts of the world. That's one reason we have tried to build what we call the African Crisis Response Initiative, training individual units in African countries so they can come together as a peacekeeping or peace-enforcing force, to give Africa a greater capability to deal with some of the crises and some of the conflicts taking place there.

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Q: One global effect of the war in Kosovo was to confirm the enormity of America's power, something that has unsettled Russia, China, even our European allies. Is that a problem for the United States?

A: This is one of these arguments that takes place in one of two forms. Either there is a cry from Europe that America is not exercising its influence and is retreating behind a shell: Where is America? America is on the wane. Or there's a cry saying America is too strong and too influential.

We obviously have military capability which the others don't have. I think when most countries think about that, they're darn happy we have it because they know we don't intend to use it for militaristic purposes.

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Q: What do you hope to do in the next 18 months?

A: At the outset of the second term, I laid out five strategic goals. . . . We have the job of rebuilding Kosovo and integrating southeastern Europe as a kind of final piece of Europe that is not yet fully a functioning and healthy part of an undivided Europe. Obviously, there is still a great deal of work to do on the Russia front.

The second goal I said . . . was to have helped make a stronger, more stable, integrated Asian-Pacific region. . . . We've maintained a strong relationship with Japan . . . [and] we came to grips with Korea's nuclear program . . . and established a policy of engagement with China. . . . We have to stabilize our relationship with China in the wake of some of the roiled waters after [the bombing of the Chinese embassy] in Belgrade and given what is going on between China and Taiwan.

We have a possibility of a North Korean missile test, which could have a detrimental effect on the stability of the region. But we also have a promising possibility in Indonesia, where we could be on the front edge of a real democratic transition in Indonesia, or we could be on the front edge of a chaotic situation.

The third goal was how America uses its influence to be a decisive force for peace in the world. . . . The Northern Ireland peace process is a bumpy road [and] we've got to get the car going again.

In the Middle East, we have a tremendous new opportunity with the election of Prime Minister Barak to realize the vision he articulated while he was here: to complete the peace process throughout the region over the next, perhaps, 15 months. We certainly want to play an active role.

The fourth goal was to try to integrate and give more priority to the transnational threats facing the United States: terrorism, drugs, environment. . . . Terrorism remains a pernicious threat and now begins to merge with weapons of mass destruction to be, perhaps, one of the greatest threats we'll face over the next 20 years. We would very much like to get the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty ratified over the next 18 months, and stop nuclear testing, and to get approval from Congress to greatly expand our efforts to help Russia control its nuclear materials.

Finally, I said we wanted to continue to build an open and modern international trading and financial system. . . .

We'd like to get Congress to pass a new trade enhancement bill with Africa, with the Caribbean. Get fast-track legislation so we can initiate a new international round of trade talks in Seattle, when all the trade ministers meet later this year.

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