Three Musketeers of US Foreign Policy

Cooperation - on display in Ohio this week - is a hallmark of this troika.

At least one morning a week, usually Wednesday, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright meets Defense Secretary William Cohen and National Security Adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger at the White House for breakfast.

The private, informal agenda-setting session over croissants is one example of how the Clinton foreign policy triumvirate - nicknamed the "ABC" by staffers - has built a close rapport.

Their unity was put on display this week as the three top officials rallied public support - during a televised (and ultimately contentious) meeting in Ohio - for a possible military strike against Iraq. Yesterday, Ms. Albright spoke to college students in Tennessee and South Carolina.

It is a level of foreign-policy partnership that some experts consider unprecedented. "Albright, Cohen, and Berger have achieved a degree of cooperation and consensus that is unusual and unique," says Allan Goodman at Georgetown University in Washington.

In the increasingly complex and nuanced world of post-cold war diplomacy - and particularly as a showdown with Iraq approaches - it is vital that senior US officials speak with one voice to avoid sending mixed signals to allies and foes alike, experts stress.

"This team has the uncanny ability to realize that foreign policy does not depend on where you sit, but on the needs of the nation in a particular crisis," says Professor Goodman, executive dean at Georgetown's School of Foreign Service and a former colleague of Albright. Past team members, by contrast, "have been the nation's chief rivals in making foreign policy."

Other experts are less glowing, however. They say the threat of war against Iraq has led to a show of unity, overshadowing discord among the three over other issues and day-to-day tactics.

"The potential for war has a way of concentrating the mind," notes Casimir Yost, head of Georgetown's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.

Still, most observers would concede that American foreign policy today suffers far less from the vicious ideological struggles and political turf battles that plagued it during much of the cold war.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, for example, a bitter rivalry existed in the Nixon administration when National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger took charge of foreign policy at the expense of Secretary of State William Rogers.

Tensions were also legendary during the Carter presidency between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, who was more accommodating toward the Soviet Union, and the hawkish security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

In contrast, the post-cold war era has defused stark ideological conflicts and related power struggles, while paving the way for a greater consensus of world views. Yet it has also made the job of plotting out America's diplomatic course far more complex, experts say.

Unlike in past decades, responsibility for foreign policymaking is now widely dispersed throughout the government rather than concentrated in a few departments, Prof. Yost says. For instance, the staff of US embassies overseas is no longer composed mainly of foreign service officers from the State Department, but instead is made up primarily of employees of other agencies such as the Justice Department, Treasury, Central Intelligence Agency, and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

It was a lack of coordination, rather than policy disputes, that troubled the first Clinton foreign policy team, say observers. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, and Defense Secretary William Perry "pretty much divided up the world according to their interests and proclivities," Goodman says.

The current combination of Albright, Mr. Berger and Mr. Cohen is in better sync partly as a result of their shared experiences and years spent working together, say administration officials and lawmakers who work closely with the troika.

Albright, the cosmopolitan daughter of a Czech diplomat, emerged in the 1980s as a Soviet and East European expert who taught at Georgetown University and conducted high-powered foreign policy gatherings at her Washington home.

Considered by many a Washington insider and fiercely loyal Democrat, her salon guests included influential Democratic politicians whom she would later advise on foreign affairs. One of those guests was then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton.

In 1992, Albright first collaborated closely with Berger when both helped formulate the Democratic National Committee's foreign policy platform. The two remained in close contact when Albright served as UN representative and Berger worked at the National Security Council (NSC).

Today, Albright and Berger "talk together on the phone several times a day if not in person," one NSC official says. "It's a very close collaboration."

A shared history of involvement in Democratic politics is another bonding factor between Albright and Berger. Berger's relationship with Clinton dates back 25 years to when they both worked for the presidential campaign of George McGovern. Albright made her political debut in 1975 as a fund-raiser for then Sen. Edmund Muskie.

"They [Albright and Berger] go back a long way in Democratic politics," says Rep. Lee Hamilton (D) Indiana, the ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee. "That's not true of Bill Cohen, of course, but he seems to have fit right in," he says.

"I've been in many meetings with them and my impression is they work very well together," Hamilton says.

Cohen's political background meshes less well with that of his two colleagues. And there have reportedly been tensions between Cohen and Albright over keeping US troops in Bosnia. Nevertheless, as a former GOP senator from Maine, he has a reputation for being a moderate-to-liberal Republican who often voted across party lines.

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