Remembering Sandy Berger and the day he saved the world

Editors’ Note: In his finest hour, President Clinton’s national security adviser Sandy Berger averted a nuclear war between Pakistan and India. Berger, who died this morning, was a gentleman who knew how to handle a head of government, writes Bruce Riedel. This post originally appeared on The Daily Beast.

It was early in the morning of July 4, 1999 and President Bill Clinton was convening his national-security team in the Oval Office. Pakistan and India were at war and Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister of Pakistan, was across Pennsylvania Avenue at Blair House asking for Clinton’s help. 

Samuel Berger, the president’s national-security adviser, opened the discussion. This is the most important day of your presidency, Mr President, he said. Two nuclear-armed states are at war and locked in an escalation ladder that could end in Armaggedon. You have one shot at stopping the spiral. You must convince Sharif to back down and withdraw his troops behind the old ceasefire line.

It was Sandy at his best. He cut through the complexity of the situation to grasp its essence and to propose a clear solution. It reflected his conviction that the Office of the Presidency came with a power and authority to get hard things done and a moral responsibility to do them.

Earlier that spring, Pakistan had secretly sent hundreds of troops across the line of control in Kashmir to occupy mountaintop posts looking down on a key highway that linked Kashmir together around a town named Kargil. When India discovered the Pakistani ploy, it launched a furious counterattack with air and ground forces. 

Sandy met his Indian counterpart in Europe in June. Brajesh Mishra told him that India could not stay restrained for long; it would escalate if Pakistan did not withdraw behind the line of control. Sandy told Clinton the war threatened disaster. If India expanded the war, Pakistan would probably lose and inevitably turn to its nuclear arsenal.

The morning of the Fourth, the CIA wrote in its top-secret Daily Brief that Pakistan was preparing its nuclear weapons for deployment and possible use. The intelligence was very compelling. The mood in the Oval Office was grim.

Berger urged Clinton to hear out Sharif, but to be firm. Pakistan started this crisis and it must end it without any compensation. The president needed to make clear to the prime minister that only a Pakistani withdrawal could avert further escalation. Sandy knew Clinton better than anyone, his natural inclination was to find a deal. This time, no deal was possible, it must be an unequivocal Pakistani climbdown.

It worked. Sharif agreed to pull back his troops. It later cost him his job: The army ousted him in a coup and he spent a decade in exile in Saudi Arabia. The risk of a nuclear exchange in South Asia was averted.

It was Berger’s finest hour. He had grasped the peril of the situation early and directly discussed the matter with the Indians. He fully understood the stakes and articulated them succinctly. His advice on how to run a meeting with a foreign head of government was spot-on. 

Sandy Berger believed that the White House was a special place to work. He told his staff that if they were not a bit awed by where they worked anymore, it was time to leave. He quietly noted that his team played through injury. His dedication was complete.

He was also a gentleman. The interagency process is inherently a tough world with lots of big personalities. Getting them to work as a team is challenging and requires nonstop effort. Sandy was good at it. He will be missed.