With newspapers announcing Clinton advisor Sandy Beger’s death on Wednesday, the 70-year-old leaves a mixed legacy behind him.
Though living the quiet consultant life now, Berger was at the heart of American politics, particularly foreign policy, for over a decade. As a friend and ally to former President Bill Clinton, he transformed from trade lawyer to National Security Advisor to the Clinton Administration.
Berger was a major player in determining America’s role in the post-Cold War era as a Clinton advisor. He served under President Clinton, first as his deputy National Security Advisor. He was promoted to the lead role in Clinton’s second term.
He left office with his friend’s administration. Yet, he has remained active in Washington. The day before his death, he received an award from the World Food Program USA. He was still working until 10 days before he passed.
Although he was a lawyer and not a career politician, Berger had one of the most successful careers in office since the reign of Henry Kissinger as a Clinton advisor. His legacy did not end with Clinton, but lives on through those who currently occupy the White House. The current hemming and hawing about the threat of certain radical groups until it is too late is characteristic of a Berger approach. It is this that begins to reveal the mixed legacy that he leaves behind.
Berger was smart about his policy. He knew precisely how to formulate it. He played a crucial role in the use of American influence to end the Yugoslav War after five years of bloodshed.
Prior to joining the Clinton administration, he was a trade lawyer who had done deals with Poland, China, and Japan. He used his experience in trade to work on building American relationships with countries it had previously avoided.
Berger was at the forefront of the push to bring China into the World Trade Organization. Berger’s shrewd strategy was to draw China into Western-based rules in order to force more control through peer pressure. While some wonder whether this was a good strategy, it is still in use today.
But Berger did have his faults. His work in Afghanistan in the 1990s came back to haunt him after September 11, 2001. When he was called to testify in front of the 9/11 commission, he illegally removed a set of classified documents from the National Archives. He was fined for the act in 2005. He was also sentenced to community service. Berger maintained that it was an “honest mistake.”
His mistake at the National Archives may have been regrettable. But it was not as regrettable as tracking Osama bin Laden for a decade and failing to do anything about it.
Back in the 1990s, bin Laden was very much on Berger’s radar. But he worried that there was no real evidence against the al-Qaeda leader. Inaction in this sense was the real, honest mistake that Berger committed during his reign as NSA.
But Berger should not have been making these decisions. After all he was the national security advisor to the President of the United States. It was President Clinton who let Sandy Berger down. It was the administration as a whole that let down the American people.
Of course, this should not stand in the way of Clinton advisor Berger’s reputation who dies as a lawyer and a patriot. He was arguably exceptional in both of these categories.
But upon his passing, it is important to reflect on the duty of the American people to remain vigilant in the face imminent danger. After all, President Clinton may have been in charge of Sandy Berger. But the American people were in charge of President Clinton.
[Photo By Shaun Heasley/Getty Images]