With Albright, Clinton Accepts New U.S. Role
By Michael Dobbs
It is difficult to imagine two more different personalities than Warren Christopher and Madeleine K. Albright.
The contrasting styles, backgrounds and political outlooks of President Clinton's two choices for America's top diplomat provide an insight into the shifts that have taken place in U.S. foreign policy over the past four years and the changes that could lie ahead. By selecting Albright, a refugee from communism and Naziism, to replace Christopher as secretary of state, Clinton is acknowledging the need for American leadership in the post-Cold War world more explicitly than ever.
As U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for the past four years, Albright has been a forthright, sometimes controversial figure. In contrast to Christopher, who frequently seems ill at ease in public and rarely says anything memorable, Albright has displayed a talent for packaging foreign policy for the masses. Her speeches are full of quotable sound bites, such as:
White House officials hope that Albright will help Clinton persuade Congress and the American public to devote more resources to foreign policy at a time when the country's interest in the rest of the world seems to be declining. Departing White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said yesterday that Albright's communications skills were a pivotal factor in her selection from a field that included former senator George J. Mitchell (D-Maine), retiring Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and former Bosnia peace negotiator Richard C. Holbrooke.
In an interview, Panetta said that Clinton is ultimately responsible for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. As Clinton's "experience" and "confidence" in foreign policy grow, Panetta said, "he's going to be doing more than just listen. He's going to be driving policy." He added, however, that Albright's forceful style may make her "more of a spokesman . . . than Christopher was."
In a sense, Albright's selection is the reflection of Clinton's changing attitudes to the use of American power around the world. At the beginning of his first term, Clinton had an uncomfortable relationship with the U.S. military, caused in part by his own lack of military service and the gays in the military controversy. He deferred to the views of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin L. Powell, who believed that the United States had no business intervening militarily in regional crises such as Bosnia.
Albright was an early opponent of the Powell doctrine that the United States should restrict its military interventions to situations in which its vital interests are threatened, and should always insist on using overwhelming force. In his memoirs, Powell recalled that he almost had "an aneurysm" when Albright challenged him to explain "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?"
Albright's sometimes confrontational style, as exemplified by her campaign to prevent U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali from getting a second term, has generally gone down well domestically. But she also has her critics.
Former secretary of state Lawrence S. Eagleburger said that the Boutros-Ghali affair has been "monstrously handled."
"She is like a bulldog who gets its teeth into the bone and won't let go," he said. "We may well get him out, but at a huge cost to ourselves, both in the U.N. and internationally. There is a good chance that whoever takes his place will be even worse."
Both Christopher and Albright are internationalists, but their internationalism has different roots. A fifth-generation American whose ancestors came from Norway, Christopher was the son of a small-town bank clerk in North Dakota. His predominant childhood memory is the Great Depression. The family moved to California when Christopher was 13, and he continues to regard himself as a citizen of the West Coast.
In 1950, when Christopher was clerking for liberal Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, the 13-year-old Albright was settling into a new home in America. Her childhood was shaped by the western sellout of Czechoslovakia to Hitler at the 1938 Munich conference, which gave birth to the word "appeasement." The daughter of a prominent Czech diplomat, Albright went to boarding school in Switzerland and learned to speak fluent English and French. Her outlook is East Coast/Europe.
"She has a real sense of history," said Holbrooke, who allied himself with Albright on both the Bosnia debate and the issue of enlarging the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to include former Soviet bloc countries. "Her view of central Europe is shaped by her own experiences, which go back to the period before Communism. As someone who was born in pre-Hitler Czechoslovakia, she knows that these countries are ready to be part of the West."
Since Clinton is committed to expanding NATO by 1999, Albright's role will be confined to implementing existing policy. While she focuses on bringing countries like Poland and the Czech republic into the alliance, her deputy, Strobe Talbott, will attempt to prevent NATO expansion from causing a rift with Russia. Their efforts are intended to be complementary.
While administration policies on NATO enlargement, Russia, and China are firmly in place, and unlikely to change significantly in the next four years, Albright will be tested by unforeseen foreign policy crises. What will happen in Bosnia after the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. peacekeeping troops 18 months from now is still unclear. The next four years could see an implosion in the totalitarian regime in North Korea or a political upheaval in Saudi Arabia which, together with Israel, is America's most important Mideast ally.
Holbrooke says that foreign policy is "much more reactive" than domestic politics. "You don't choose the moment when a Saddam Hussein invades Kuwait. The trick is to be creative in your reactions. Madeleine's reactions will be framed by her personal experiences throughout her life, which could not be more different from those of her predecessor."
Staff writer John F. Harris contributed to this report.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company