Sandy Berger’s Washington

The former national security advisor on what happens when Mexico has 48 hours to live, Boris Yeltsin doesn’t get his way, and Bill Clinton schools Yasir Arafat.

Khue Bui / AP

Sandy Berger, Bill Clinton’s most trusted foreign policy adviser, died on Tuesday, December 2, at the age of 70 after a yearlong battle with cancer. Berger served for all eight years of the Clinton presidency at the National Security Council, in the first term as deputy national security advisor and in the second as national security advisor. His relationship with Clinton went back to George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign, when he met a “dashing figure ... in a white Colonel Sanders suit ... full of life and joy,” who was Arkansas to the bone. Berger never wrote a memoir, but he did spend two days in March 2005 recording a confidential oral history about his experiences with Clinton for the Presidential Oral History Program at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The following excerpts—opened to the public a year ago—provide insight into Sandy Berger, foreign policy in the Clinton White House, and Clinton’s ability as commander-in-chief. The complete spoken memoir can be read on-line at the Miller Center’s website. (The following has been condensed and edited.)

I became Bill Clinton’s senior foreign policy adviser in late ’91. One of the things that impressed me so much was, when we got to policy, Clinton would handle that part. This is not a candidate who was fed his policy framework. He knew what he wanted to say, and he would lead the discussion of what the policy direction would be. He was weaker in foreign policy, obviously, than he was in domestic policy but knowledgeable. This was the most eclectic president we’d had in many, many years. He would not necessarily stay within the box of his advisers. He would reach out beyond that.

Clinton would reach a conclusion and then he would subject that conclusion to the counter argument. When we prepared for a press conference, Clinton would give an answer and we’d critique it. I always thought it was much more efficient when we gave the answer: “Our suggestion is you answer it this way.” He’d tear that answer to shreds. He’d be the most devastating counter-questioner that you could possibly imagine.

On the 1994 Mexican Peso Crisis

I’m sitting in my office about 8 o’clock one night and Bob Rubin comes in with Larry Summers and says something to the effect that Mexico has 48 hours to live. We went into the Oval Office, and Bob and Larry laid this out quite concisely, and no one was offering the other point of view. I very often found myself in the role of the spinach-server with President Clinton. I said: “You have to understand, Mr. President, I agree with Bob’s and Larry’s position here, but this is $20 billion that you’re putting on the table. That’s a lot of housing that you don’t build in Detroit. They’re saying there’s a 60/40 chance it gets paid back. That means there’s a 40 percent chance it doesn’t. There aren’t a hundred votes in the House and 25 votes in the Senate that will support you, and if you piss this $20 billion down a rat hole, you’re going to be in trouble.”

He listened to all that and said, “We have no other choice.” End of meeting. This is the absolute opposite of the usual protracted meeting, debate, everything, for hours and hours. He said, “We have no other choice, do we?” All of us said, “No.” And he said, “Do it.” We wound up using somewhat questionable—it never was taken to court—legal authority to use this monetary fund to guarantee the loans, but the Mexicans wound up repaying the loans with interest. We actually made money on this deal in the end, although that was not the purpose.

It’s a terribly important story about understanding Bill Clinton and those people who think that he’s simply a political animal and that everything was a calculation and triangulation. He knew there was virtually no upside to doing this. No one was going to give him any credit if Mexico did not collapse. There was substantial downside. Imagine: $20 billion, with a Republican Congress—that’s a pretty big amount of money to throw down a rat hole. But he understood intellectually that we could not let Mexico fail. He was saying, “We’ll deal with the political consequences if we have to.” I left that meeting and thought to myself, I’m really proud to work for this guy.

On Clinton and Boris Yeltsin

People sometimes criticize Clinton for being too close to Yeltsin. Yeltsin was the embodiment of democracy in Russia, particularly up to 1996. He was challenged from the left and from the right, and that train was very wobbly.

The president went to Russia on more than one occasion and tried to talk to the Russian people. He gave one great speech in Moscow. It was actually, a town-meeting format. The question, he said, is not whether Russia is great; the question is how Russia defines its greatness. Does Russia define its greatness by the amount of territory it controls, or does Russia define its greatness by the opportunities it’s creating for its people to have better lives? Clinton often said, “Yeltsin is able to see a different future.” Yeltsin was able to see that there was a different greatness that Russia could regain by modernizing, not by trying to maintain the Baltics, although he continued to fight us.

When we went to Helsinki—the summit in 1996—basically, we were saying to Yeltsin: “Give it up on NATO enlargement. All you’re doing, Boris, is creating a defeat for yourself. We’re going forward.” Yeltsin at the last moment said: “But not the Baltics. You have to commit to me that you will not open up NATO to the Baltics.” And the president said: “No, I will not make that commitment, and you should not define Russia in those terms. All you’re doing is moving the line of the divide between East and West. You’re moving the line father to the east. You should define a different relationship with the West.” It was a dramatic moment. Yeltsin was obviously very troubled by Bosnia, by our intervention there, very troubled by NATO enlargement, but Clinton was very firm with him on that.

On Kosovo

When you are committing American troops into harm’s way, it’s an awesome responsibility, and you want to be right. You know some of them are not going to come home. The president said: “We’re going to stop this from happening. We’re going to do what it takes. We’re going to convince NATO.” Tony Blair is given a lot of the credit for Kosovo, but Blair did not convince Clinton. They were basically together in their determination to stop this from happening. He was solid as a rock. We had a 78-day bombing campaign in Kosovo, which nobody except Bill Clinton, Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, Bill Cohen, and our spouses believed would work.

On Terrorism

I gave the 9/11 Commission a 271-page, single-spaced copy of what Bill Clinton said about terrorism in his two terms. That’s a lot of talking. This became more and more of a concern of his. It began to focus more around al-Qaeda by ’96, ’97, particularly as Osama bin Laden issues his fatwas and his rhetoric becomes much more hysterical and threatening. But Clinton spent a great deal of time on the nexus between terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and drugs. It turned out the third leg of that hasn’t emerged quite yet, but there’s a lot of drug money in Afghanistan today.

I said to [Condoleezza Rice] during the transition—this has been reported, and I told this to the 9/11 Commission—that the number-one issue that she would deal with as national security advisor was terrorism in general and al-Qaeda specifically. The president said to President [George W.] Bush during their meeting that there were five priorities. The first one was terrorism. Then he listed North Korea, the Middle East, Korea, and Iraq. The president said: “I know you think that the most important priorities are national missile defense and Iraq. I think the most important priorities are those five, with terrorism being the first.”

On Clinton’s Efforts for Middle East Peace

Had Camp David succeeded, Clinton’s skill in that negotiation would have been in the history books. In these negotiations, he was very calm, very determined. I noticed this at Wye and at Camp David—he would explode usually once. It was always warranted but a huge shock because he had been so steady when the parties around him were screaming and yelling at each other. At some critical moment, when he knew he had to shake up the table, he would just unload.

In one case, the Palestinians were putting maps on the table that were just ridiculous given the progress that had already been made. They were taking things back. The president said, “You can’t expect me to do this if you’re going to behave in such a ridiculous way.” He wasn’t yelling, but he was obviously angry. He just got up and we all left. It was a jolt of electricity at a critical time. By the end, the Israelis had on the table an extraordinary offer that involved almost all of the West Bank and Gaza. It involved the division of Jerusalem and a Palestinian capital. The division of the old city, the most sacred part of Jerusalem, was really explosive in Israel. All of the elements in terms of the refugee issue, a very limited right of return by the Palestinians. It was the kind of offer that I don’t know the Palestinians will ever see again.

There was a session the president had with [Yasir] Arafat, just one-on-one. There was one of those swinging doors to the kitchen with a little window in the door, and Madeleine and Dennis [Ross] and I were behind the door, looking through the window, opening the door just a notch so that we could hear the conversation. It was a funny scene if you captured it on film, the three musketeers straining to hear what was going on. Clinton was [Lyndon] Johnsonian. It was a combination of persuasion and cajoling and intimidation. Arafat looked like he was ready to die. He just kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller as Clinton kept getting larger and larger and larger. But at the end of the day, Arafat would not put on the table a counteroffer that enabled Israel to really negotiate.

On Clinton’s Strengths and Weaknesses

Let’s start with his strengths. Bill Clinton is the most unusual combination of head and heart of anybody I have ever met—certainly anybody in political life. An intellect that is world-class—very few people I’ve dealt with are smarter than Clinton. And a tremendous compassion, a real generosity of spirit, infused what he did. He loved people. He was late all the time because the Secret Service would always take the president in through the kitchen, which was safer than the public entrance. Clinton would stop and say hello to every cook, chef, and dishwasher. He’d get in a conversation with a dishwasher about why his son couldn’t get into college. He connects with people. He has tremendous joy for life.

He’s curious. When we traveled, we thought about trips in three parts. One was the official part: what were we trying to get done, what do we have to do for protocol—a state dinner, meeting the prime minister… The second part was people. Clinton always wanted to go into the marketplace, have some event where he was very visible, connecting with the people of that country. Third was the cultural side. He always wanted to see “the pyramids”—the archeological or natural sites. He wanted the people to see that the United States respected their heritage. Once, we were in Mexico City at a great archeological museum. We were supposed to go for half an hour. After about three and a half hours, [Mexican President Ernesto] Zedillo’s chief of staff said, “If President Zedillo doesn’t leave in the next 15 minutes, he will not be at the state dinner in time.” So I had to say to Clinton, “Mr. President, it’s time to go.” He would have stayed six hours.

His Southern heritage is important. He is courteous, and that was very important in how he dealt with foreign leaders. When [Chinese President] Jiang [Zemin] dropped his papers accidentally on the floor. Clinton went over and picked up the papers. I’ve been told by many Chinese that Jiang was enormously moved by the fact that the president of the United States would go over and pick up his papers. If that had happened in China, flunkies would have come out and picked up the papers. That was a natural thing for the president to do—but not necessarily a natural thing for anybody to do. So those are the strengths.

Weaknesses. When he asked me to be national security advisor, Clinton said: “The first four years I drove you crazy by what I don’t know. The next four years I’m going to drive you crazy by what I think I know and I don’t.” There was a lack of discipline in recognizing that we had to do things within a certain kind of a box. He was always resisting the box. We didn’t always set priorities as sharply as we could. Because he’s a person of such eclectic interests, he wants to do everything, and you can’t do everything.

On the National Security Advisor’s Workday

I had an inbox that was a foot high. My intention was never to go home without emptying the inbox. I didn’t want a bottleneck for anything that needed to go forward. So I’d work from 7:00 until usually 10:00-10:30, going through my inbox, going through paper, and get home about 11:00. The kids are asleep, my wife is asleep. Macaroni and cheese in the refrigerator at best. I’d say three nights a week, the phone would ring between 12:00 and 6:00, because most of the world is awake while we’re sleeping and most of the world is sleeping while we’re awake. We’d suddenly have a problem that they’re taking over our embassy in Karachi and we’ve got to dispatch the Marines or whatever. Saturday and Sunday, I tried to work at home. I don’t think I took a day off in eight years.

I was very famous on my staff for a couple of things. I insisted that everybody wear pagers. We didn’t have cell phones at that point; we had pagers. My view was, if you’re working for the president of the United States, you’re working 24/7. You have no such thing as private time. If there was a crisis in Asia at 2:00 in the morning, I wanted to be able to reach you. So you slept with a pager next to you. You had sex with the pager attached to you. There was no excuse.