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Albright's State Deportment | The Nation

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Albright's State Deportment

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Blackman also records that her globetrotting protagonist was not going to attend the Copenhagen UN Social Summit at all, considering the war against global poverty too soft a subject for her consideration. Until, that is, Al Gore announced he was going, whereupon Albright, then UN ambassador, decided to hitch a lift with him. As Blackman says, she "understood that if she were to have any chance at higher office, she would need to spend time with people who could influence the decision." Brown-nosing becomes an art form in these pages, which occasionally read like Diary of a Nobody in the third person, as they record Albright's delight at getting this or that invitation, or mortification at being left off this or that power list.

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Ian Williams
Ian Williams is The Nation's UN correspondent. In addition to his work for the magazine, he frequently comments on...

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Despite the log-cabin-to-State-Department nonsense that she and her spinmeisters have woven, it is clear that Albright came from a relatively affluent and privileged background. No amount of spin can transform a privileged, upper-middle-class upbringing, with governesses and Swiss private schools, into a life of deprivation.

Few people would regard being the daughter of a college professor and having to take a scholarship to Wellesley as swimming against the social stream. After marrying into money, Albright used her wealth to consolidate her position as a Georgetown hostess whose rabidly hawkish cold war sentiments, seemingly picked up through hero worship of her Czech émigré father, could always find a popular echo among Democratic movers and shakers. (Albright was an outsider of her own creation, since she had set herself on being rich, WASP and Wellesleyan and remade herself in this image, renouncing Catholicism for a comfortable Episcopalianism.)

At least we are spared any hint of a radical past. Albright, it seems, was a proto-neocon from the beginning. During the sixties, when, Blackman stereotypically tells us, "antiwar radicals who grew their hair long and smoked pot" and "black-power advocates sporting 'Afros'" besieged college presidents, Albright found the demonstrations at Columbia "a pain in the neck." Albright, we deduce, neither wore an Afro nor smoked the demon weed; instead, she struggled with her postgraduate work and wrestled with the dilemma of whether to leave the children at home with the housekeeper.

Interestingly, and once again reflecting the dissonance between the biographer's task and this volume's contents, the body of Blackman's text takes seriously Albright's amazing amnesia about her Jewish ancestry and the price her grandparents paid for their ethnicity. Blackman does record in her introduction that she found "very few people who believe [Albright] was truly ignorant of her family heritage." As Blackman herself says, it "stretched the imagination." Within months of her appointment as Secretary of State, in other words, Albright was revealed to be someone who was either suffering premature Alzheimer's or who was pathologically covering up knowledge of her family history. On the face of it, neither is an optimal characteristic for running the foreign policy of the world's only superpower. Blackman fails to consider what the effect of these revelations would have been if they had surfaced before her appointment: Discussions made public at the time reveal that Albright might have found herself scoring more negative points for her Jewishness than positive points for her womanhood at a bean-counting White House.

There is much in this book with the ring of truth--but what rings out loudest is the sound of silence when it comes to examining the record of Albright's public life as opposed to her personal history. Blackman disclaims any attempt to analyze her subject's approach to US foreign policy in favor of following "the path Albright walked to shatter the glass ceiling." Would it be conceivable for a biographer of Henry Kissinger to write about his struggle with his Austrian-Jewish origins in an administration that was frequently tinged with anti-Semitism--and not mention Vietnam or Cambodia?

Yet in Seasons of Her Life, Blackman gives almost as much prominence to Albright's presidency of the trustees of the Beauvoir Elementary School in Washington, DC--an affluent private establishment not much patronized by the majority population of the District--as she does to her career at the UN. In one way this is reasonable, since it was the nearest thing to public office Albright held before becoming ambassador to the UN in 1993.

There is much talk of facials, hairdos, dating and dresses, but not one single mention of Rwanda. In fact, in 1994 Albright fought single-handedly in the Security Council to stop any UN reinforcements whatsoever from going to Kigali while somewhere between half a million and a million Tutsis were being massacred. All agree that loyalty to Clinton has been one of her virtues. She was never more loyal than in this championing of Presidential Decision Directive 25, which ruled that the United States would veto any UN peacekeeping operation that did not directly benefit US interests. Her pride in her Czech origins is continually stated, but in this case it was ironically justified. "The crocodiles in the Kagera River and the vultures over Rwanda have never had it so good," Karel Kovanda, the Czech ambassador to the UN, reprimanded his colleagues on the Security Council (and by implication one in particular) in an attempt to get reinforcements for the tiny UN contingent in Kigali.

In another example of diplomacy by soundbite and photo-op, Blackman reports that Albright went to Somalia to wear a flak-jacket with US troops for the cameras and that she decided Boutros Boutros-Ghali should be fired as Secretary General of the UN because of that organization's failure there. However, Blackman does not mention her heroine's role in pushing the UN to fight a vendetta with Somali warlord Mohammed Farah Aidid, which could be regarded as the cause of the debacle in which eighteen US Rangers were killed. Nor does she mention that the key incident in which the soldiers were killed was an American operation initiated and carried out without even informing, let alone consulting, UN forces on the ground.

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