Albright's Personal Odyssey Shaped Foreign Policy Beliefs
By Michael Dobbs and John M. Goshko
Last March, as she toured the ruined Croatian city of Vukovar, Madeleine K. Albright suddenly found herself the target of an angry Serbian mob. As protesters yelled obscenities at her and chanted "This is Serbia," the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations retreated slowly to her bus, with a grim smile on her face. Her motorcade drove off in a hail of stones.
"I think it is time to go," she murmured to an aide.
The incident in Vukovar, which was captured by Serbian forces in 1991 and will soon be returned to Croatia, illustrates several points about the 59-year-old woman President Clinton named yesterday as his next secretary of state. The first is the notoriety she has earned around the world as a result of her service at the United Nations. There are very few other members of Clinton's Cabinet who would immediately be recognized by a crowd of angry Serbs in an obscure Balkan town and attacked with stones.
The second point is her ability to conduct herself with aplomb in a difficult and potentially dangerous situation. Confronted by the mob, Albright urged her aides to walk with dignity. The third point, and one of the keys to appreciating the personal background she brings to her new post, was that she was the only member of her party who understood what the Serbian demonstrators were yelling.
"Kucko, kucko": "Bitch, bitch."
As the daughter of a Czech diplomat, who was forced into exile following the German occupation in 1938, Albright spent part of her childhood in Belgrade. In addition to her fluent Czech, French and Russian, she also understands some Serbian. The experience of fleeing her country not once, but twice the second time was in 1948, after pro-Moscow Communists staged a coup d'etat has helped to mold her foreign policy philosophy.
"She watched her world fall apart, and ever since, she has dedicated her life to spreading to the rest of the world the freedom and tolerance her family found here in America," said Clinton, as he named Albright to become the first female secretary of state in U.S. history in a White House ceremony yesterday.
Albright's experience with Nazi and later Communist tyranny helps explain the strong emphasis that she has placed on human rights as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Within the Clinton administration, she was one of the leading advocates of using force in Bosnia to end the 3 1/2 year war. In her remarks yesterday, she described America as "the world's indispensable nation" and expressed allegiance to the "core values of democracy and respect for human dignity."
Just as remarkable as Albright's personal odyssey from war-torn Europe to America she arrived in this country at the age of 11 in 1948 has been her professional journey to becoming the nation's top diplomat. Entering Democratic Party politics as a campaign volunteer in the early 1970s, she built a career that made her one of the stars of the Washington foreign policy establishment.
Albright got her first real taste of high-level politics in 1976, when she became chief legislative assistant to Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine). Two years later, she joined the Carter administration as a protegee of national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who had supervised her Ph.D. thesis on the role of the press in the 1968 Czechoslovak democracy movement known as "The Prague Spring."
From 1982 to 1983, Albright served as professor of foreign policy at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. Her personal life was troubled by her 1982 divorce from journalist Joseph Albright, heir to a major newspaper chain. Left with a generous settlement that included a town house in Georgetown, however, Albright hosted dinners for leading foreign policy thinkers.
Albright's foreign policy salon became a magnet for the leading lights of the Democratic Party, including vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro, who made her a foreign policy adviser during the 1984 campaign. This appointment led to the position of chief foreign policy adviser to presidential nominee Michael S. Dukakis four years later.
Among the people who knew her at this time, opinions are divided about Albright. Many praise her for her ability to articulate the challenges that face U.S. foreign policymakers and forge a political consensus. Others, who insist on not being quoted by name, depict her as an intellectual lightweight whose main talent lay in her networking abilities.
"She is an extraordinarily substantive person," said James Johnson, now president of Federal National Mortgage Association (Fannie Mae), who has known Albright since 1971, when she volunteered to work on Muskie's doomed presidential campaign. "I remember her for her enthusiasm, as someone who knew the difference between talking and action. When she said she was going to get something done, she got it done. She has shown that she can communicate with a broad range of people around the world, and on Capitol Hill."
"She comes to this job from central casting," says Allan Goodman, executive dean of the school of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, where Albright worked in the 1970s and early '80s. "She has done it all: raised a family of [three] brilliant daughters; worked for two brilliant minds, Brzezinski and Muskie; earned a doctoral degree in this field; worked in three political campaigns. She is going to be someone who is credible selling foreign policy to soccer moms and Middle East potentates and Bosnian warlords."
Albright was not Clinton's first choice for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Before offering it to her, he had offered it to Democratic Party chairman Ronald H. Brown, who turned it down in favor of the Department of Commerce. But Albright's public relations skills stood her in good stead at the United Nations, at least in the eyes of the American public.
In an administration where other major foreign policy players such as Secretary of State Warren Christopher and national security adviser Anthony Lake either hugged the background or seemed stiff and awkward in their public appearances, Albright stood out because of her ability to make a point in brief, pithy sentences, and often undiplomatically earthy terms. She quickly became an expert practitioner of what some call "sound bite diplomacy."
Typical was Albright's performance last February when she successfully shepherded a resolution through the Security Council censuring Cuba for the shooting down of two unarmed planes manned by Cuban exiles. She noted that a Cuban jet fighter pilot who fired a missile into the civilian plane had bragged of shooting in the cojones Spanish for "testicles."
"Frankly, this is not cojones; this is cowardice," Albright told the council.
The remark was greeted with outrage by the predominantly male diplomats at the United Nations, but it went down well with Clinton who called it "probably the most effective one-liner in the whole administration's foreign policy."
Albright proved to be more than just an adept public spokeswoman, however. She also used her position to exert influence on the administration's foreign policy.
This was especially true of Bosnia, where Albright was an early and strong advocate of using air power to deter Serb aggression. Senior U.S. officials say that Clinton was impressed by the clarity and passion with which she expressed her views. Albright played an important role in moving the president to adopt the tougher line toward the Serbs that eventually led to the Dayton peace agreements, and her advice on Bosnia first caused Clinton to start thinking seriously of her as a potential secretary of state, officials said.
Ironically, Albright comes to the summit of American foreign policy at a time when she has played the most visible role in stirring widespread anger among the United Nations' 184 member states because of what they regard as the Clinton administration's brutal and unreasonable treatment of Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.
In New York, Albright has been the point person of Washington's unyielding campaign to deny Boutros-Ghali a second term in the United Nations' top job. And, although U.S. officials say the accusation is oversimplified and unfair, many delegations at the United Nations believe that Albright was single-handedly responsible for the U.S. decision to oppose him.
When her nomination was announced yesterday, diplomats at the United Nations almost tripped over each other in their rush to laud what was variously called her "diplomatic skill" and "broad world vision." But only a few hours earlier, many of the same diplomats privately were citing the Boutros-Ghali affair as the ultimate example of what they regard as her frequent resort to strident rhetoric and bullying tactics.
Assuming she is confirmed, Albright will face several urgent tasks, which have been left incomplete by her predecessor, Christopher. At the top of her list will be reversing the steady decline in the resources that are made available by Congress for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.
Albright's supporters argue that the time she spent on Capitol Hill during the 1970s will help her in her negotiations with the Republican-controlled Congress over the budget.
A second priority is articulating a new foreign policy strategy for America to reflect its position as the world's sole remaining superpower. She made a stab at developing such a philosophy at the United Nations, enunciating the "doability doctrine." America cannot possibly intervene everywhere in the world, but it has a duty to take the lead in resolving the toughest crises, such as Bosnia.
Albright's personal background as a refugee from communism and Naziism makes her more disposed to an activist foreign policy than some of her colleagues. Her main historical reference point is Munich in 1938, when the Western allies abandoned Czechoslovakia to Adolf Hitler.
"Albright has known first hand what tyranny and totalitarianism can do to ordinary people," said Czech ambassador to Washington Michael Zantovsky. "The lesson of Munich is that you do not appease aggressors, you stick by your friends, and you take a stand for values and principles that you really believe in."
Goshko reported from the United Nations.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company