Albright Reshapes Role of Nation's Top Diplomat
By Michael Dobbs
Foreign policy has to be less foreign.
She has accused a Croatian government minister of "lying," walked hand in hand with a senator whom many in the administration regard as an ideological enemy, and tried to persuade Houston high school students that foreign policy can be "cool."
After less than five months in the job, it is unclear whether Madeleine Korbel Albright will transform America's global strategy in ways that will leave a lasting legacy as secretary of state. On the key issues, ranging from NATO expansion to engagement with China to involvement in Bosnia, her foreign policy positions are barely distinguishable from those adopted by her predecessor, Warren Christopher, after several years of tortuous trial and error.
But if the message is essentially the same, the manner in which Albright has delivered it is very different. A born saleswoman, she has sought to re-create a domestic political consensus on key national security goals that was severely dented by the loss of a common enemy when communism collapsed in 1991. This has involved redefining the job of America's top diplomat in a way that has not been attempted since the days of Henry Kissinger.
"She has shown very adroitly that she understands how the game is played," says Margaret Tutwiler, who was a senior adviser to Secretary of State James A. Baker III. "She understands that a foreign policy initiative can only be successful with an American public that supports it and a Congress that understands it."
In the absence of a rival superpower, a secretary of state must look for new ways to win support for the president's foreign policy positions.
In Albright's words, this means reaching out over the heads of the "priesthood that wrote about nuclear weapons" during the Cold War but is now rapidly "going out of business."
"It's no longer possible for a president simply to say, `If you don't support me, you are jeopardizing the national security of the United States,' " says Bill Maynes, president of the Eurasia Foundation and a former editor of the monthly journal Foreign Policy. "Nowadays, a secretary of state has to sell the president's policies to the press and the public and the Congress."
In this sense, Albright is not only the first female secretary of state. She is also the first real post-Cold War secretary of state. Christopher came to office after 1991, but belonged to what Maynes calls the "pre-Kissingerian" mold of secretary of state. A lawyer by training, he viewed himself primarily as the president's foreign policy counselor, and made little effort to develop a public persona of his own.
Christopher devoted much of his energy to diplomatic "problem-solving," notably in the Middle East. Albright, by contrast, has displayed real enthusiasm for drumming up public support for the administration's foreign policy goals. When asked about the personal qualities she brings to the job of secretary of state, she immediately cites her desire to overcome "the disconnect between what a president, any president, is trying to do and what the people felt is their stake in it."
"People are finding it harder and harder to relate to foreign policy," Albright said in an interview in her seventh-floor State Department office. "One of my prime jobs here is to reconnect the American people to foreign policy and make it understandable."
"It helps when the French foreign minister can send me pink roses and give me a kiss when I get out of the car."
Last December, a few days after her nomination as secretary of state, Albright invited her confidantes to her home in Georgetown for a day-long strategy session to work out a plan of action for the first four months. The group included Elaine Shocas and James Rubin, who were her two closest aides in her previous job as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Wendy Sherman and James Steinberg, two friends and veterans of the Christopher State Department who had worked with her in Congress and on presidential campaigns.
As described by participants, two key decisions were taken at the Georgetown meeting. The first was to negotiate a political cease-fire with the Republican-controlled Congress, and turn around the perception of a partisan, Democratic foreign policy. The second was for Albright to take her message to the American heartland, over the heads of the politicians and the Washington news media.
The need to work closely with Congress seemed obvious to Albright, who was a congressional aide in the 1970s and later served as congressional liaison officer to then-national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski. "It's the right thing to do, but it's also the smart thing to do," she says, noting that the chairmen of the congressional foreign policy committees are all Republicans.
The attention that Albright has lavished on Congress paid political dividends in April with a 74 to 26 Senate vote to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention. It has also earned her some unlikely admirers, such as Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The conservative Helms and longtime Democrat Albright have become the "odd couple" of American diplomacy, dancing together at a 60th birthday bash for the secretary, and walking hand in hand at the senator's alma mater in North Carolina.
"Albright has a trust level with conservatives enjoyed by no secretary of state since [John Foster] Dulles," said Dick Morris, a political consultant to both Democrats and Republicans. "They see her as one of them, even though she is a Democrat."
Helms aides praise Albright for working with their boss on causes he favors such as the merging of foreign policy agencies into the State Department, a step opposed by Christopher. "There has been a strategic shift in thinking toward the Senate Foreign Relations Committee," said a GOP staffer. "During the first two years of the first term, they fought us on every issue, and the result was a train wreck. Albright has taken a completely different tack."
Not all conservatives are enamored of Albright. Kim Holmes, director of foreign policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, complains that she engaged in "demagoguery" during the chemical weapons debate, accusing opponents of the treaty of lining up on the same side as Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi. He wonders about her "strategic vision."
"Obviously, she has a good background in European issues," says Holmes, referring to Albright's Czech background. "But our biggest challenges are in Asia right now. She needs to show that she is not just a glib academic who is good on her feet, but someone who can connect the dots on seemingly unconnected issues and put together a coherent foreign policy strategy."
In pursuing her goal of "reconnecting the American people to foreign policy," Albright has not been shy about making the most of her "novelty" value as America's first female secretary of state. Being a woman, she says, "makes me more accessible" and helps to overcome the widespread notion of foreign policy as an "arcane science . . . carried on by stuffy diplomats."
According to her aides, Albright has consciously played on her femininity to win over her male colleagues. Apart from Helms, her biggest success so far appears to have been former French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette, whose relationship with Christopher was notoriously prickly. De Charette insisted on treating Albright with old-fashioned Gallic courtesy, presenting her with flowers and kissing her hand.
"We live in an image society. Speeches are not what anybody cares about; what they care about is the picture."
It was one of the defining moments of the 1988 presidential campaign: Michael S. Dukakis trying to look tough on national security issues by riding in a tank. But the pictures of the Democratic nominee almost vanishing beneath a helmet made him look ridiculous. His chief foreign policy adviser at the time was Albright, and she has drawn abiding lessons from the experience.
The image reinforced the notion of Dukakis as weak on foreign policy, in Albright's view. "Dukakis did not have the national security credibility to deliver [his] message, because people did not see him as having originally crossed the threshold of machoism," she told an interviewer in 1989.
Albright, by contrast, has put a lot of effort into projecting a consistently "macho" image of herself. The United Nations proved to be an ideal stage for waging rhetorical battle against the world's "bad guys," from Fidel Castro to Saddam.
In the view of Mandy Greenwald, a Democratic consultant, Albright is one of the few top female politicians who has succeeded in projecting "an image of strength without being called a bitch. Think about other prominent female politicians, women like Dianne Feinstein, Christie Whitman, Geraldine Ferraro. Sooner or later that word tends to follow them around."
Associates say that Albright's penchant for wrapping herself in the American flag works because people sense it is genuine. Her views on American leadership are rooted in her experience as a child growing up in Europe during World War II and the early stages of the Cold War, and as a refugee from Nazism and communism. By contrast, Dukakis was an exchange student in Peru in the 1950s.
"Michael saw the dark side [of American power]. Madeleine saw its light side," said a fellow campaign worker.
Albright says she pays a lot of attention to the art of combining "the right picture and the right words." That way, she says, the message is "doubly strong." She delivered a major speech on Bosnia aboard an aircraft carrier, against a backdrop of military leaders in full dress uniform. Making her international debut as secretary of state, she was frequently photographed wearing a Stetson, like a sheriff riding into town.
At the same time, she insists that some things just happen, without any real planning. "Only my daughter," she says, understood the black Stetson's real significance. "She called me up and said, `Mom, tell me the truth. You put on the Stetson coming out of the plane the first day because your hair didn't look right. Is that correct?' And that's exactly what it was."
For the most part, Albright's early reviews have ranged from good to adulatory. Questions have been raised, however, about whether her tough rhetoric has raised expectations that will be difficult to fulfill, particularly in Bosnia.
In addition, to the extent that doubts remain about how Albright will do, they center on the fact that she has yet to be confronted with a major foreign policy crisis. It remains to be seen whether her talent for rehearsed spontaneity will stand her in good stead during an emergency.
"In foreign policy, crises tend to be where the lasting perceptions are set," said Tutwiler. "When you think of Jimmy Carter, you think of the failure of the Iran rescue mission. George Bush and Desert Storm. Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam. The new foreign policy team has not yet faced such a crisis, so the jury is still out on how they will deal with it."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company