Most Americans take their system of government for granted, as if Moses himself had delivered the Constitution engraved on marble tablets. However, for outsiders, apart from the circus of primaries and the system of institutionalized bribery and corruption that passes for campaign
finance, perhaps its strangest anomaly is the Cabinet, which, unlike in a parliamentary system, contains people who may never have been elected to any public office. Like the hereditary principle, this arrangement occasionally throws up outstanding incumbents, but as generations of Windsors and Hapsburgs proved, they are the exception.
Reading Madam Secretary, one is forced to the conclusion that Madeleine Albright is no such exception to the rule. Before she joined the Clinton Cabinet, initially as US ambassador to the United Nations, Albright’s highest elected office was to the board of the Beauvoir School–a private establishment catering to the first three grades, affiliated with the National Cathedral in Washington. One suspects that it was not a contested election, but it certainly was a good place for an uncertain arriviste with social and political ambitions to network with the capital’s elite.
A desire for social respectability has always been intense in Albright, a former Catholic who became an Episcopalian after marrying into money, and who long suffered from a curiously convenient amnesia about her Jewish relatives. Her claim never to have heard or suspected that her family died in the Holocaust and her belated public acknowledgment of her Jewish origins are thoroughly unconvincing. But then she was dealing with real politics. In his bean-counting mode, Bill Clinton had lots of Jews but not many women in his Cabinet, and it could actually have tipped the balance against her appointment.
A noticeable aspect of her memoirs is the convenient lacunae whenever she tries to cover her own rear and secondly Bill Clinton’s–and she does often. But her prejudices come through loud and clear. As the child of Czech refugees, she had more justification than most for her reflexive anti-Communism and perhaps even for her Eurocentrism, which accounts for her enthusiasm for intervention in the Balkans and her absolute (and carefully skirted) scuppering of any intervention in, say, Rwanda.
It is true, as Albright has argued, that sometimes the American liberal school of foreign policy really does forget the big stick that Teddy Roosevelt advised should accompany soft talk. One need only look at Jimmy Carter’s redemptive embrace of every bloodthirsty tyrant as soon as an ultimatum matures. But the other wing of Democratic foreign policy, the Scoop Jackson school, is based on a visceral anti-Communism, often tinged with uncritical support for Israel. Its difference from the official Republican version of the same has been that it is more cosmopolitan and less isolationist–and often more ideological. A pragmatic Republican like Bob Dole saw no reason for Kansas grain farmers to suffer because some of the East Coast policy-makers had a feud with Moscow and wanted sanctions.
Madeleine Albright’s problem was that she was working with the wrong President. Her ideological roots made her strident and tough-talking, but Clintonian caution meant that her tough talk was usually backed up by only the tiniest and most detumescent of sticks. Ironically, Albright tried to spur Colin Powell into committing the US military and met far more resistance from him than he has offered to the hawks in the Pentagon since he succeeded to her position.
But then Powell told her, with unwitting prescience, “we do deserts,” not mountains. In fact, it is during the Clinton Administration that we saw the consolidation of the present Pentagon lock on American foreign policy. Luckily, the actual generals were aggressive only about their budgets then–and even now it is the civilians in the Pentagon who are the militarists. But you will search in vain for Albright’s explanations for Clinton’s opposition to the treaties on landmines, child combatants and the International Criminal Court, and its countenancing abrogation of the ABM treaty and investment in Star Wars, all motivated by its preparedness to throw overboard its liberal principles to feed the conservative crocodiles in the Pentagon and Congress.
Reading Albright, one quickly understands why British Prime Minister Tony Blair saw Bush’s foreign policy as a continuation of Clinton’s. Clinton was more prepared than Bush to use multilateral means–what Albright called “assertive multilateralism.” But policy decisions in both cases were made exclusively in Washington, based on the current Administration’s conceptions of US interests.
Both Clinton and Bush (and of course Albright) regarded the UN and a multilateral system as an expedient tool to be used or disregarded as needed. Albright recalls that Clinton “shared with me his enthusiasm for making the UN more effective.” Here, of course, “effective” actually means responsive to American wishes, in the same way that the organization’s refusal to give carte blanche to the current Administration’s invasion of Iraq led so many pundits to write its epitaph.
In any case, a lot of dead people in the Balkans and Rwanda could legitimately question the way the shared enthusiasm of Clinton and Albright worked. “In Somalia we tried to do too much. In Rwanda we did too little. In Haiti and Bosnia, after false starts, we eventually got it right.”
As she herself admits, in Somalia the United States ignored UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s advice to disarm the warlords and conducted a military operation without even telling local UN commanders, who then had to rescue them. Of course, Boutros-Ghali suffered the fate of those who have the temerity to emulate the little boy who tells the emperor how his wardrobe really looks. As we see now with Iraq, being proven entirely correct does not provide an amnesty from imperial displeasure.
In Haiti and Bosnia, untold thousands died and suffered while the Clinton Administration dithered. In the former Yugoslavia, the US-imposed solution left the génocidaires in control of lands they had ethnically cleansed. And in Rwanda, Albright herself stopped the Security Council from reinforcing in any way the beleaguered peacekeeping force. Admittedly, many other members were happy to hide behind her callous invocation of Presidential Decision Directive 25.
She disingenuously explains this as “establishing criteria” to make UN peacekeeping “more successful abroad and supportable at home.” This is not simply evasion; it is blatant falsification. In the interpretation that she used over Rwanda, PDD-25 committed the United States to using its veto against any UN peacekeeping force that did not positively advance US interests. The document, still officially secret, was more about pandering to the Jesse Helms brigade in Washington than a sober consideration of Washington’s multilateral responsibilities. As Wisconsin Congressman David Obey said at the time, PDD-25’s restrictions were intended to meet the American need for “zero degree of involvement, and zero degree of risk, and zero degree of pain and confusion,” which could almost be a definition of Clintonian triangulation as applied to external affairs.
Since PDD-25 did have to cope with reality, it allowed that occasionally US troops may come under foreign control, so it failed on the pandering front, and the loony right still sees it as an instrument of surrender of US sovereignty. It was thus in its way archetypically Clintonian, in that the President pandered himself into a policy pillory where his domestic enemies could still throw garbage at him.
A useful corrective to Albright’s retrospectively Panglossian evasions is Samantha Power’s “A Problem From Hell”, which details the Clinton Administration’s squirming to avoid admitting the genocide that it knew was happening in Rwanda, and Albright’s work in insuring that neither the UN nor the United States became involved. Albright claims to be “struck by the lack of information” about the killings in the first week. Apparently she did not read the Washington Post, the New York Times, Human Rights Watch reports or, Power points out, the report of a reconnaissance team of US Special Forces, who came back “white as ghosts,” at the scale of slaughter.
To be fair, Albright did fight within the Administration over its supine responses, but if one wants to find out what happened in Rwanda, Power is the source to consult, not Albright’s self-justifying evasions. Equally, on many issues Albright is indeed aware of the contortions of Clinton’s foreign policy, as he sought to juggle the demands of the military and of the conservative right at home while living up to his commitments to allies abroad. As she describes it, this incoherent approach reached its nadir in Bosnia, where Clinton had promised non-involvement of US troops–about the only threat that Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic feared–but had pledged them as cover if the NATO allies decided to retreat, thus abandoning the Bosnians to their fate.
Perhaps Albright’s best legacy is her support for the appointment of Kofi Annan as UN Secretary General. Still, one wonders what her reaction would have been to his temerity in suggesting that Washington broke international law in Iraq if he had done so on her watch! But her reasons for vetoing Boutros-Ghali were neither selfless nor sensible. “He is not committed to, or capable of achieving, our urgent reform goals,” she quotes herself. In fact, on the organizational side, he had done almost everything that the American government wanted, such as appointing US nominees to look after management and finances, despite the complete lack of reciprocation as America withheld its dues. However, in his arrogance, Boutros-Ghali had assumed that the job of a Secretary General is to represent the UN, not the White House.
The veto was typical of the Clinton Administration, which she represented so faithfully, and it helped build resentment against US unilateralism, which had repercussions when the time came for the Kosovo war, and indeed right up to now. It was in fact an interesting precursor of the Bush position on Iraq. Having totally failed to win support diplomatically from the rest of the world, she went ahead and used the US veto to achieve the unilateral result. And it still took poor Kofi Annan several years to get any significant portion of the dues paid off.
Albright had convinced Clinton that deposing Boutros-Ghali was necessary to get Congress to approve Washington’s dues payments to the UN. In fact, despite her denials, it had more to do with her pre-emptively placating Senator Helms–which paid off when she was one of the few Clinton nominees to glide through the Senate on a fast-track confirmation.
Depending on your gullibility/cynicism index, Albright’s courtship of Helms was either good practical politics or outrageous pandering to insure her smooth confirmation. “He was…known for his southern courtliness, especially towards women,” she purrs. She forgets that Helms’s courtliness included such Klannish behavior as declaring, “I’m going to sing ‘Dixie’ until she cries” when he found himself in the elevator next to Senator Carol Moseley Braun. Then again, Albright seems to have been all but indifferent to domestic policy, unless you count the Lewinsky scandal. Welfare reform, race relations, poverty and healthcare are not, it seems, issues she ever considered in her eight years in the Cabinet. Unlike many of her colleagues in the Administration, Albright had no antiwar skeletons hidden in her closet from the 1960s. She did, however, pick up a nominal attachment to feminism, although one cannot help suspecting that this had more to do with self-advancement than with principle. Her memoirs conspicuously omit her vindictive and partisan summary dismissal from the UN mission of April Glaspie, the fall girl for the first Bush Administration’s failure to stop Saddam Hussein’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
Similarly, when she discusses Kosovo, Albright misses the inherently self-defeating stupidity of Clinton and the Administration in ruling out the one option that Milosevic feared–ground troops. The war is presented as if it were won by the long, messy and almost counterproductive high-altitude bombing missions that caused so many unnecessary casualties and did so much to erode international support for it.
Albright omits the crucial turning point, when Blair, Gen. Wesley Clark and the Europeans won their argument with a reluctant Clinton to prepare for a ground offensive. Although she quotes military historian John Keegan’s description of Kosovo as the first war won by airpower, what finally impelled Milosevic to run up the white flag was the decision to prepare a ground invasion before the winter. But that decision negated the previous three months of Clintonian reliance on bombing as a quick fix. Once again, “collateral” civilian deaths caused by high-altitude bombing was “worth it” to avoid the domestic political repercussions that US casualties would have brought.
In a similar case of selective omission, Albright’s description of the Middle East displays a spurious neutrality that carefully avoids upsetting the Israel lobby. She knew there was nothing to be gained on Capitol Hill from pressuring Israel, much less showing respect for the Palestinians. When she was America’s ambassador to the UN, she made a point of avoiding an encounter with Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi, whom she spotted while shopping for a new gown for the inaugural ball. Even so, Sharon was, she says, “despised” by many, “especially Arabs for his role in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, during which allied Lebanese militia massacred hundreds of unarmed Palestinian refugees.” However, even that admission is far from candid. She is, of course, referring to the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, executed by Sharon’s surrogate Phalangist militia as Israeli soldiers monitored their activities and provided military cover from the boundary of the camps, even firing flares so that the Phalange could continue killing after the sun went down. Albright’s coyness about Sharon’s responsibility is telling, coming as it does from someone who can be so explicit and precise about Saddam Hussein.
She draws a similar veil over Clinton’s retaliatory bombings of the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan, where successive independent observers have failed to detect the slightest sign of the military activities alleged by US intelligence to justify the bombing. It should have taught policy-makers not to rely on “intelligence” reports. Instead, it seems to have convinced them that the intelligence agencies are like corporate lawyers, there to give the opinion you want, when you need to justify otherwise dubious activities.
On the whole, one cannot help wondering whether Madeleine Albright would not have been happier working with Donald Rumsfeld and George W. Bush than with Clinton. Her interventionist approach and rebarbative diplomatic style would be much more in harmony with them than Colin Powell’s, even if she does share the latter’s realist appreciation of the need for allies and multilateral support when possible.
Indeed, apropos Iraq, she has opposed the timing of the war, but she was “nod[ding] in agreement” with Bush’s speech to the UN on September 12, 2002, when to anyone with any feeling for subtext the speech had a strong one of impending war. When asked by Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes about the alleged death of half a million Iraqi children as a result of sanctions, Albright said calmly, “We think the price is worth it.” However, while she now admits that her answer was a political mistake, she does not seem disturbed by the level of casualties inflicted by the sanctions, nor does she seem aware that the sanctions are a major reason neither the United States nor the UN has received a warm welcome in Iraq, even among Saddam’s Shiite opponents.
And that is where there is an essential identity and continuity between the Bush and Clinton foreign policies. The latter, by pandering to the dark forces of American reaction, paved the way for them to consolidate their hold on this White House. If fate had not landed her in the Clinton White House, Albright would have made a fine soulmate for the neoconservatives whom Christopher Hitchens admiringly calls “the Pentagon intellectuals.”