Running the gantlet as US security adviser

Sandy Berger isn't out of the line of fire - yet - over his handling of

It's been a tough few months for National Security Adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger.

His office is often a lightning rod for criticism over foreign policy, and Mr. Berger, in particular, has taken some direct hits for his insistence that air power would be enough in Kosovo and for his handling of reported Chinese espionage.

But as the heat of the China report dissipates and the Kosovo conflict moves toward peace, President Clinton's longtime adviser is finally getting a little breathing room, and some proponents even suggest his image is undergoing rehabilitation.

"I think this is a big vindication for Mr. Berger," says Daniel Serwer, former director of European intelligence at the State Department. "He didn't want to use troops and thought the air war would be sufficient ... and now he has reason to be pleased."

White House staff members have declared a gloat-free zone to those who said an air campaign alone wouldn't work. But there is cautious satisfaction among National Security staff, including Berger, despite months of often-personal criticism from lawmakers, particularly over the China espionage matter.

"This is a highly politically charged set of circumstances and people look for someone to blame for it, and he is a clear target," says former congressman Lee Hamilton, now director of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars.

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R) of Alabama is repeating calls for Berger to come before his committee. As early as next week, Senator Shelby may ask Berger to explain why there was such a delay in his response to reports of Chinese espionage.

Untouchable?

But the adviser post does not require Senate confirmation. That means short of a subpoena, Berger cannot be compelled to testify. National Security Council spokesman David Leavy says there is a "long-standing constitutional principle followed by this administration and previous administrations that the president's national security adviser doesn't testify before congressional committees."

Some suggest that when the China and Kosovo issues are settled, criticism of the council under Berger's stewardship will continue to be that it considers public opinion too much in forging foreign policy.

Berger's sensitivity to polls is a reflection of President Clinton, known for his emphasis on domestic policy. The overarching concern with public opinion has robbed the council of a sense of activism, according to Mark Lowenthall, who formerly served on the House Intelligence Committee. "[The council] seems to be missing a certain vibrancy."

Others are even more pointed in their evaluation of Berger's stewardship.

"He's been one of the worst national security advisers this country has ever seen," says Rep. Curt Weldon (R) of Pennsylvania. "What we've done is get our troops in every trouble spot in the world while cutting the military's budget."

Even if the Kosovo deal holds, Mr. Weldon says, damage done by the strategy will be felt for years. "Our Kosovo policy, for example, has laid the foundations for ultranationalism in Russia. These policy fiascoes are going to be going on for 20 years."

The adviser post, and the National Security Council on which he serves, was created by statute in 1949. Its purpose is to advise the president on national security and foreign policy issues while acting as a coordinator for all government agencies on foreign policy.

"It's the tough problems that get to your desk. The easy ones are taken care of," says Gen. Brent Scowcroft, who served in the position under two presidents.

In the public eye

More often than not, advisers stay behind the scenes, allowing the secretary of State to articulate an administration's foreign policy objectives to the public. But Berger has been put before the cameras more often.

"Past presidents would not have put their security advisers out there," says Karen Hult, co-author of "Governing the White House."

Some believe the behind-the-scenes role of adviser will be less so in post-Clinton presidencies. "It's just now that people realize the importance of him, and they want him on talk shows and press conferences. He becomes very visible," Mr. Hamilton says.

But being out front presents a bigger target when things go wrong.

"Generally, that job should not be a high-profile job," says James Lilley, former ambassador to China. "When it becomes high profile, it becomes more vulnerable."

Aides say Berger is sensitive to the criticism. With a no-nonsense style and occasional temper flare, he is known for arriving before 7 a.m., leaving after 11 p.m., and frequently eating at his desk.

Berger is seen as a good manager and has become, in effect, the most powerful influence on foreign policy without inflaming traditional rivalries. He works smoothly with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Defense Secretary William Cohen.

"Berger has a good reputation for being a good coordinator and an honest broker, bringing all the executive branch together, communicating its views," says Ms. Hult.

Successful advisers are credited with mastery of the disparate streams of information that flow into the White House, and an ability to distill them and present them to the president without intruding into policymaking, Mr. Lowenthall says.

"It's about the most idiosyncratic job in Washington," he says. "The best were Gen. Brent Scowcroft under President Ford and Frank Carlucci and Colin Powell under President Reagan. I don't think Berger will fall into that circle."

'[Berger] didn't want to use troops ... and now he has reason to be pleased.'

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