By Jim Hoagland
For the second time in a quarter-century, American leadership in world affairs risks being undermined by domestic political furor. But legal vulnerability for a president and a media siege of the Oval Office should not, and need not, cause demoralizing American weakness in foreign policy.
This in fact is the moment for Big Diplomacy for a focused and concerted effort to tie together the major strands of U.S. foreign policy into a more cohesive whole.
This in fact can be Madeleine's Hour.
A combination of circumstance and her own outgoing, highly visible persona now make Secretary of State Madeleine Albright the key figure in Bill Clinton's Cabinet. She has a golden opportunity to reach for and attain a goal that has eluded her in her first year in office: putting her personal stamp on U.S. foreign policy.
That wish was a guiding star as she went about assembling a highly respected and energetic team on the State Department's seventh floor. But until now her role has been articulating and explaining policy more than running or originating it.
The long, debilitating and potentially dangerous political struggle the country now faces changes the equation.
President Clinton has demonstrated that he will fight as hard and as long as he must to stay in office. His attention and energy will flow away from a foreign policy arena that never deeply engaged him anyway. He is now likely to need the foreign affairs surrogate he has always spurned.
In his first term, the president resisted turning over full authority for foreign policy to any other single figure almost as vigorously as he resisted being a foreign policy president. His Cabinet-level choices in this area showed that he did not want a Henry Kissinger, a figure whose own prominence and political skills could force Clinton's hand on foreign questions. (Bosnia, a perceived basket case, was a partial exception.)
Clinton chose Albright partly as a matter of history, to name the first woman secretary of state. He was also enormously impressed with her clear, punchy explanations of U.S. policy in television interviews. His comfort level with her as someone who would not spring great innovations on him or dissent publicly if her advice was not heeded was said to be high.
But with the president's predicament threatening to create a vacuum at the top and several major foreign problems coming to a head, quiet teamwork and interagency consultation are not likely to still doubts about U.S. engagement and purpose abroad. The opportunity and need for a larger, even dominant role for the State Department on foreign policy is now there for Albright to seize.
She appears to have felt the need to assert the State Department's authority even before 24-year-old Monica Lewinsky managed to shake the White House to its foundation. Administration insiders and some diplomats here had concluded in recent weeks that she was determined to erase the image of stumbling ineffectiveness that the November diplomacy over Iraq had created.
A key example: As the Asia monetary crisis unfolded, senior State Department officials became concerned that the Treasury Department was making both decisions and pronouncements about Asia with minimal input from, or credit to, State and the Pentagon, despite the implications of those decisions for global security and stability.
An early Treasury decision not to help Thailand left a longtime U.S. ally stunned and resentful. Foggy Bottom was left to pick up the pieces. Similarly, Treasury called the shots on the rapidly moving crises in Indonesia and South Korea and informed State after the fact until Albright dealt herself into the picture.
In Washington, one of the clearest signs of departmental friction is often the sudden issuing of public assurances that two departments have never worked more closely in the history of the republic. At an unusual meeting with four Washington columnists on Jan. 23, Albright and Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin appeared jointly to emphasize how smoothly and intensely their fiefdoms had handled Asia.
Albright went first and spoke forcefully. Rubin calmly reiterated points he had already made publicly. But what happened next underlined the new importance to Clinton of Albright, and perhaps of the other women he has named to senior governmental posts:
Albright and Rubin left to take part in the first post-Lewinsky Cabinet meeting headed by Clinton. Albright then led a Cabinet team that came out to vigorously defend Clinton's reputation. Rubin, who has been the dominant figure in the Cabinet and enjoyed the unfettered authority and prestige in financial matters that Clinton has not delegated on foreign affairs, had more pressing business elsewhere. He did not appear before the cameras.
A rival once described Albright as "bulletproof" in her job, in part because of her role as the first woman secretary of state. That description seems an understatement today. Equally important, Albright has been biding her time, looking for the right moment to turn her views on Iraq, Iran, Europe and Russia into viable policies.
An enhanced role for Albright will work only if Clinton is prepared at last to support fully a strong secretary of state. That may not be what he had in mind; but the demands of history and his own problems may give him little choice.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company