Sandy Berger, Former Clinton National Security Adviser, Dies At 70

Sandy Berger, who served as political confidante and eventual National Security adviser to former President Bill Clinton, has died at the age of 70:

Samuel R. Berger, a political confidant of President Bill Clinton who became his national security adviser, died early Wednesday in Washington. He was 70.

is death was announced by Tara Sonenshine, his longtime aide and friend. Mr. Berger, known as “Sandy,” was given a cancer diagnosis more than a year ago. On Tuesday, he wrote to his colleagues at the Albright Stonebridge Group, an international consulting firm he ran with former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, that his condition had worsened and that “time is not on my side.”

A stocky, sometimes temperamental, frequently humorous political operative and trade lawyer, Mr. Berger helped oversee American foreign policy during a remarkable time. He played critical roles in the strategy to use American power, including airstrikes, to end a war with Slobodan Milosevic, then the president of Yugoslavia.

Mr. Berger turned to his upbringing on Capitol Hill to lobby to allow China into the World Trade Organization, part of a big gamble on the part of the Clinton administration that it could entwine the world’s fastest-growing power into a web of Western-based rules, and tame its behavior – a strategy that many still question.

He also broadened the definition of what constituted “national security,” charging his expanding staff at the National Security Council with addressing the implications for American security of water shortages, global warming and epidemics. And he accompanied Mr. Clinton on the last big trip of his presidency, to Vietnam, marveling with the president over lunch in an upstairs noodle shop that “we’re sitting here in Saigon, and there are people outside cheering.”

“Sandy brought enormous smarts and pragmatism to the job, along with a lawyer’s precision and sense of process,” Susan E. Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, who worked for Mr. Berger from 1993 to 1997, said on Wednesday. “He also had a political sense of the environment in which foreign policy is conducted. He was a role model for many of us here. If you are in the Obama National Security Council and you are 50 or older, you probably learned all this by sitting across from Sandy 20 years ago.”

Mr. Berger also had his share of critics, including Henry A. Kissinger, a predecessor in the post, who bristled that “you can’t expect a trade lawyer to be a global strategist.” Some friends agreed that he was not a grand strategist — but argued that it was a moment for managing alliances and adjusting global expectations of America’s role, not a Kissingerian reordering of global power.

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After the Clinton presidency was over, there was new examination of lost opportunities. It was on Mr. Berger’s watch in 1998 that the Clinton administration fired a Tomahawk missile at an encampment in Afghanistan where it believed Osama bin Laden was meeting. The attempt to assassinate Bin Laden failed – the C.I.A. later reported that the leader of Al Qaeda had been there, but left shortly before the attack, and a related attack on a plant in Sudan was based on faulty intelligence.

Mr. Berger testified before the Sept. 11 commission on the question of what kind of warnings were passed on to his successor, Condoleezza Rice, and the Bush administration – and by implication whether Mr. Berger and his colleagues did enough to address the rising threat of Al Qaeda in its sanctuary in Afghanistan.

The 9/11 Commission’s investigation led to Berger being accused of taking documents from the National Archives that he had been reviewing in preparation for his testimony, an incident that led many on the right to accuse him of seeking to scrub the historical record of evidence that the Clinton Administration had ignored signs of the rise of al Qaeda in the years before the attacks. As it turned out, the documents that Berger took were copies rather than original documents, but he was still charged with a criminal offense in connection with the incident and ended up pleading guilty to a charge that caused him to lose his security clearance for a time. The incident nonetheless marred Berger’s post-Clinton reputation and apparently led to many of his former close associates distancing themselves from him at least for some period of time.

FILED UNDER: National Security, Obituaries, Quick Takes
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.