According to her biographer: 'For a significant number of middle-aged male WASPs, who consider American foreign policy their private province, the day Madeleine Albright became Secretary of State will go down in history for one reason: it was the day they were beaten by a girl.'
Albright is the highest-ranked female US official of all time. Whether she will go down in history for anything else remains to be seen. She claims to feel 'very strongly about a certain set of principles, and that is democracy and human rights. They have been the lodestars of my entire life.'
And it's not hard to imagine why. When she was a child, her wealthy parents fled their native Czechoslovakia twice, from Hitler and then from Stalin. Only after her appointment as Secretary of State did it emerge that her parents had been Jews who had converted to Catholicism; her grandparents were victims of the Holocaust.
However, there are strict limits to her principles. 'I am also a pragmatist,' she adds. As a result, she's about to leave the job very much as she found it, and the rest of us are still lumbered with the world's one remaining, unrepentant and unreconstructed superpower. Or, as Albright would have it: 'The indispensable nation.'
What this means in practice became clear during her stint as US Permanent Representative at the UN from 1993 to 1996. In 1994 she prevented UN reinforcement in Rwanda before the genocide. When France, China and Russia were pushing for the relaxation of sanctions against Iraq, she flew to the capital cities of the remaining 11 Security Council members and, behind closed doors, showed them CIA photos purportedly of weapons Saddam was trying to hide. In 1995 she talked the UN into accepting for the first time a US invasion - of Haiti. In every case, American 'vital interests' came first.
Her American 'boosterism' led her to fall out with UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali over the appointment of an American to head UNICEF. She then orchestrated his sacking, 'all the while showing a serene face, wearing a friendly smile and repeating expressions of friendship and admiration,' grumbles Boutros-Ghali.
At the UN, her eyes were firmly fixed on the next step up on Washington's ladder of power. This meant cultivating the military. She flew to Mogadishu when US troops were in Somalia, driving through town in an armoured personnel carrier and wearing a flak jacket. She toured Sarajevo in helmet and body armour. She spent free weekends with army boss General John Salikashvili, visiting US troops overseas on peacekeeping missions.
In particular, she had to court the 'courtly porcupine', Senator Jesse Helms. As chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee he could veto any new appointment to Secretary of State after Clinton's re-election in 1996. Helms had a soft spot for Albright as a fellow 'full-throated' anti-communist. He took delight in her ousting of Boutros-Ghali and loved her regular attacks on Cuba. Inviting her to his home state of North Carolina to speak at a luncheon, Helms draped his napkin over his arm like a waiter, grabbed a dish, bowed and said: 'Madame Ambassador, may I serve you some dessert?' Albright was confirmed unanimously by the Senate.
She now divides her world into four categories: the largest is 'countries that understand and function in the international system'; then come 'societies in transition', followed by 'those we used to call rogues, what we now call states of concern'; bringing up the rear are 'those that are totally falling apart'. All nations will 'either organize with us or against us. But we are the organizing principle.'
On occasion, some have other ideas. When Albright torpedoed the Rambouillet talks on Kosovo in February 1999 - thereby clearing the way for bombing - she paid a late-night call on the Albanian delegation. Dugagjin Gorani, one of the delegates, recalls: 'She just showed herself at the door. One member of the delegation, who didn't realize who she was, and was probably thinking she was some cleaning lady because it was after midnight, simply said to her: "Give us five minutes and please go away".' Her response was untranslatable into Albanian.
There is just one clear break she has made with the past. She is a vigorous advocate of the 'Son of Star Wars' anti-ballistic-missile system originally dreamt up by the Reagan administration and previously opposed on principle by Democrats. The ramifications of this lavish programme - which would militarize space and breach the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty - are only now beginning to emerge, as both Russia and China talk openly of a 'new Cold War'.
Albright invited more than 100 countries to join a 'Community of Democracies', which met for the first time in Poland last June, but there are doubts about whether it will survive her departure. She knows, however, what she feels 'best about and proudest of' - the enlargement of NATO in Eastern Europe. So the lodestars of her ambition have eventually led her, like so many of her predecessors, on to the siren rocks of the 'military-industrial complex' - in other words: business as usual.
Sources: Ann Blackman, Seasons of Her Life; The New York Times; The Los Angeles Times; The Washington Post; Time; Newsweek; The Guardian; abcnews.com
If infamous or not-so-famous big shots are beating up
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