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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The President's triggerman

By Douglas Waller/Washington

TIME magazine

Though it wasn't on public display during the tense times at the White House last week, Sandy Berger is known for wielding one of the more puckish wits at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. After watching the Harrison Ford thriller Air Force One, in which the National Security Adviser is killed, then The Peacemaker, which portrays the aide as a flaccid functionary, Berger quipped at a National Security Council meeting: "Well, at least there's an improvement! In Peacemaker I was powerless, but I was still alive."

In the Iraq crisis Berger has been very much alive and at the center of the Clinton foreign policy team, as he has been so often this year. It was Berger who sprinted back and forth between his West Wing desk to the Oval Office and even to the President's putting green, working to muster all the pieces for a strong strike against Saddam. And it was Berger who went on TV to explain that Saddam's capitulation wasn't good enough. His co-workers call him a maestro--the man who puts together foreign policy and helps the President choose actions.

However, at week's end Berger was taking a few shots from detractors. In particular, the notion that Saddam is still playing a game of "cheat and retreat" has reinforced criticism that Clinton has no coherent strategy for containing Saddam. "The problem with the Administration's foreign policy," says Richard Haass of the Brookings Institution, "is there's not enough of it."

In the past two years, the 53-year-old Berger, a lawyer, has remade the national security staff. He is a detail man who puts in 15-hour days and spends Sundays making lists of issues he wants to tackle. He has a keen eye for the domestic politics that shape foreign policy and offers up a range of views leading to different options. That satisfies the President's need to keep his own finger on the trigger.

When Clinton pulls, however, it is Berger who moves into action. While media-savvy Madeleine Albright grabs most of the headlines for selling American foreign policy, Berger most often crafts it--and carries it out. Last month he waded deep into the Wye Plantation talks between Yasser Arafat and Benjamin Netanyahu. In August he helped orchestrate a strike against Osama bin Laden. Says Energy Secretary Bill Richardson: "People don't realize how much he's increased the stature and scope of that job."

Berger cringes at the spotlight, fearful of bruising other egos, but there is no denying his insider status and influence. He and Clinton have known each other since 1972 when they worked together on George McGovern's presidential campaign. At the end of their daily national security briefings, they often swap jokes or answers to especially nettlesome crossword clues.

Nettlesome dictators remain a more intractable problem. As the White House team struggled last weekend to choose between force and diplomacy, Berger was the tough face of U.S. resolve--and mostly kept his sense of humor behind closed doors.


Cover Date: November 23, 1998

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