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New Security Adviser Berger Is Known as Consensus BuilderBy John F. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 6, 1996; Page A27
Bill Clinton and Sandy Berger were young men with a mutual disdain for the Vietnam War when they first met during George McGovern's presidential campaign in 1972. Clinton was a field organizer, Berger was a speech writer -- both were ambitious future lawyers, with a keen interest in politics.
They stayed in touch. In 1987, Berger was among those in Little Rock when then-Gov. Clinton announced that he wasn't seeking the presidency. Four years later, Berger was Clinton's chief foreign policy adviser when he did run, and helped Clinton decide who would fill the administration's top foreign policy posts in the first term.
So it came as little surprise yesterday when Clinton announced that his old friend -- whose given name is Samuel R. Berger -- will be holding one of those top posts himself in Clinton's second term. Berger, 51, was tapped to be national security adviser, a logical and long-anticipated step up after serving as top deputy at the National Security Council for four years.
Little known to the general public, Berger has been a familiar figure in Democratic foreign policy circles for two decades. The new job will test whether Berger, who is widely praised within the administration as a consensus-builder and problem-solver, can fashion a broader reputation as a foreign policy strategist and public advocate for Clinton's views.
There are distinctly different models for the job of national security adviser, the person the president relies on the most to forge a consensus among his national security team. Henry Kissinger cut a swashbuckling figure in that post during President Nixon's first term, establishing himself as the administration's dominant foreign policy player even before he became secretary of state.
Anthony Lake, who is relinquishing the job to head the Central Intelligence Agency, has been a much quieter and less domineering figure. While Lake has exerted policy influence, he had almost no public profile and saw his primary role as that of broker -- helping Clinton organize and bring focus to ideas generated from the cabinet agencies.
As Berger described it yesterday, his role will be something of a hybrid of these two models. He said he plans to be visible before Congress and the media arguing on behalf of Clinton policies. But he said he will not try to eclipse the secretaries of state and defense as foreign policy principals.
Berger described the new foreign policy team Clinton named yesterday -- including retiring Sen. William S. Cohen (R-Maine) as secretary of defense and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine K. Albright as secretary of state -- as an "eclectic and strong-minded group.
"Part of my job," Berger said, is to force this "creative diversity toward a unity of purpose."
As a lawyer at the blue-chip Washington firm of Hogan & Hartson, Berger worked on international trade issues, a background that has clearly shaped his view of foreign policy. In his Oval Office remarks yesterday, Berger boasted that the administration has "a new international economic architecture for expanding trade and creating American jobs in the global economy."
As Berger's impending promotion was rumored in recent days, there has been some grumbling in foreign policy circles that Berger's trade interests and his practiced lawyer's ability to broker disputes and massage the bureaucracy don't add up to a grand vision.
But Berger's allies within the administration describe this as something of a bad rap, saying he is a deeper strategic thinker than he might have appeared to outsiders while he was serving as number two.
"Sandy Berger is the glue of the Clinton foreign policy team," said CIA director John M. Deutch, a close friend, who will be replaced by Lake in the second term.
Deutch, who was formerly the number two official at the Pentagon, was was a participant in the little-publicized meetings between second-tier foreign policy officials held at the White House -- once a week in quiet times, sometimes every day during a crisis. The core group was Berger, and the deputy secretaries of defense and state, with the number two officials at other agencies coming on other occasions as different issues arose.
During the long run up to the 1994 military intervention into Haiti, this so-called "deputies group" was the place where deep disagreements were resolved between the State and the Defense departments over whether forcibly dislodging the Haiti regime was wise policy. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot was strongly in favor of sending troops; Deutch was deeply skeptical. Berger's views were closer to Talbot.
Over a succession of meetings run by Berger, the differences were resolved -- with Deutch finally coming around after winning assurances that the military would be allowed to use overwhelming force and would have its mission precisely defined.
Berger said yesterday that he was an early advocate for aggressively using NATO military force to quell the violence in Bosnia and to encourage a negotiated agreement. He has also occasionally played the role of diplomat, traveling in January to Pakistan to negotiate with the government there on nuclear proliferation and arms-transfer issues.
But most of Berger's diplomacy has been within his own government. With an affable, good-humored personality, he has proven well-suited at getting the various agencies and officials of the administration to work from a single script.
"He does not force consensus, he encourages it," said Deutch, a manager with something of an opposite reputation. "He cajoles it, he has a soft hand."
"He is the ultimate honest broker," said Talbot, who said Berger could be counted on to share with Clinton "the most lucid and fair presentation of everyone's position."
Berger also possesses a political acumen and personal connections that made him in many ways more Lake's equal than his subordinate. Berger served as Lake's deputy at the State Department in the Office of Policy Planning during the Carter administration, but several aides said Berger was effectively Lake's sponsor for the job.
On sensitive issues with deep political ramifications, such as trade sanctions for Cuba, it has often been Berger who played the critical role in White House deliberations. Lake's relationship with Clinton, while close, always maintained a certain level of formality, according to people in the White House. His relationship with Berger is warmer and more spontaneous.
In 1995, some White House aides favored taking advantage of this rapport by moving Berger out of the National Security Council and making him Deputy White House Chief of Staff. Among those who helped scuttle the move, according to administration officials, was Secretary of State Warren Christopher, who appealed directly to Clinton that Berger was more valuable where he was. Clinton agreed, and Berger stayed put.
But Berger has made it clear, according to administration officials, that he had no interest in staying on in a deputy's post. For the second term, it was either up or out.
While Clinton has agonized over some the choices he made yesterday, aides said the NSC posting has been Berger's for several weeks, after Talbot made it clear he was happy to stay put at the State Department and endorsed Berger's promotion. Talbot's decision prevented Clinton from having to choose between two old friends for the NSC post.
Although Berger has a McGovern connection, unlike many from that campaign, Berger said he was never particularly left-leaning in his foreign policy views, and never dabbled in that era's counter-culture experiments.
Instead, he describes himself even in his youth as "a very conventional guy." He grew up in the small Hudson Valley town of Millerton, and had an early affinity for baseball. He once played semi-pro ball (with the accent on semi; some on Berger's team were paid salaries, but not him).
Bob Odle, managing partner of Hogan & Hartson, said Berger's collegial personality has served him well. "He's quietly persuasive," Odle said. "Before you know it, he's brought you around to his view. . . . He's not a tantrum-thrower, he's not a self-promoter."
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company