Commentary Magazine


Madame Secretary by Madeleine Albright

Madame Secretary: A Memoir
by Madeleine Albright (with Bill Woodward)
Miramax/Hyperion. 562 pp. $27.95

What is the proper match between ends and means in U.S. foreign policy? This is one of those perennial questions that crop up, inter alia, in the reminiscences of U.S. Secretaries of State, there to receive a more or a less satisfactory answer. The post-World War II era has produced a number of such memoirs. Dean Acheson’s magisterial Present at the Creation and Henry A. Kissinger’s monumental three-volume trilogy could serve as book-ends, bracketing such significant volumes as George P. Shultz’s Turmoil and Triumph and Cyrus Vance’s Hard Choices.

Madame Secretary is a fascinating addition to the genre. Madeleine Albright served under President Bill Clinton for eight years, in his first term as U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and in his second as the first woman ever to preside over Foggy Bottom. Her memoir, however, does not confine itself to this period, but is instead a highly personal story of an entire life. Written in a disarmingly self-deprecating voice, it reveals a great deal about many things, if also surprisingly little about the question with which we began.

The first 120 pages of Madame Secretary take us on a candid tour of Albright’s childhood, adolescence, dating life, marriage, parenthood, and divorce. The daughter of Czechoslovak diplomats who fled the Nazis, young Madeleine Korbel was repeatedly uprooted as her parents made their journey from her birthplace in Prague to the United States. From her father, she acquired an abiding interest in world affairs along with a powerful antipathy to tyranny Communism and Nazism alike. From some other deep but unidentified source, she acquired burning ambition.

Attending Wellesley, Madeleine met, fell for, and married Joseph Albright, “an American prince” who was the scion of a wealthy newspaper family. Alongside the task of raising their two daughters, she earned a Ph.D. in Communist affairs at Columbia under Zbigniew Brzezinski and mastered such upper-crust arts as croquet and quail-hunting. Moving to Washington with her husband, she became an avid social striver, entertaining fellow strivers who, she tells us here, could be overheard sniping “It’s not wool” as they inspected her upstairs carpets.

Eventually, Albright’s diligence at raising funds helped land her a desk in the office of Senator Edmund Muskie. Then, in the late 1970′s, two years into Jimmy Carter’s presidential term, Brzezinski, the new National Security Adviser, gave her a position on his staff. From that point on, her career went only upward.

By the time Bill Clinton came into office a decade later, Albright was already a notable in the Democratic party; installing her at the UN was a logical move for a President visibly determined, as Albright puts it, to “shatter the glass ceiling for women in foreign policy.” (Jeane J. Kirkpatrick had actually shattered this particular ceiling long before.) From her perch on the East River, she came to serve as a kind of global spotter, skilled at locating foreign-policy brushfires though lacking the wherewithal to put them out.

With Warren Christopher’s retirement as Secretary of State in 1996, Clinton chose Albright to replace him. The frustrations of the UN post were behind her, but, as she relates, far greater frustrations lay ahead. Some of them were personal: her term began with the Washington Post‘s discovery that, presumably unbeknownst to her, three of her four grandparents were Jewish and had been murdered by the Nazis. This disclosure was particularly disconcerting to one who, upon her marriage, had already converted from Catholicism to Episcopalianism.

Well before the furor over this revelation had died down, Albright was engaged in real firefighting, the chronicling of which takes up the rest of her book. Saddam Hussein was creeping out of his “box” and acquiring weapons of mass destruction. So too were North Korea and Iran. Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda were blowing up U.S. embassies in Africa. Bosnia and then Kosovo were ablaze. Innumerable pressures were building on other fronts as well: NATO enlargement, the continuing aftermath of the destruction of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, violence between Palestinians and Israelis.

These were some of the issues clamoring for the attention of Secretary of State Albright for the remainder of her term. To make her life even more difficult, as all this was going on, attention was continually being deflected by the dalliances of Bill Clinton. The “new era” that the President inaugurated in our national life is acidly dubbed by Albright “All Monica, All the Time.”

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Albright’s tale contains the ingredients of a powerful memoir. Here, after all, are the great issues not only of the Clinton decade but of our own, for in many respects the international diplomacy conducted during those years helped build the foundations of the exceptionally perilous world in which we now dwell. And Albright tells her story smoothly and for the most part frankly, complete with amusing anecdotes and often insightful aperçus.

Still, from an American Secretary of State one expects something more, some deeper reflections on the purposes of American power. There is a bit of this—but only a bit—in Madame Secretary. At various junctures, Albright, a relative hawk among the Clinton doves, expounds sensibly on the dangers posed by aggressive tyrannies and the dangers that would accompany American withdrawal from the world stage. But these are only occasional ventures, offset by innumerable diversions.

One such diversion concerns the Fourth World Conference on Women staged in Beijing in 1995. We learn from Albright about the wonderfully various set of NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) that came to China to participate in this event, and about Hillary Clinton’s inestimable contribution—her presence was “sheer oxygen,” her speech a “stunner,” the “high point” of a conference where “much hard work was done, including adoption of a Platform for Action.” This UN feminist gabfest receives the same quotient of attention in Albright’s pages as the threat posed by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and one gets the unfortunate sense from her recitation that it was a pinnacle of her diplomatic career.

Another diversion is the emphasis Albright places throughout on her own pioneering role as the first female Secretary of State. Fair enough, to a point. What is dismaying is the extent to which she still seems to see herself less as a Margaret Thatcher or a Golda Meir—that is, a woman who made it to the top by dint of experience and sheer mental candlepower—than as a somewhat undeserving beneficiary of affirmative action who must be perpetually on guard for slights.

“I had to deal with the problem of operating in a predominantly man’s world,” she complains at one juncture. “I found it hard to argue” with a bemedaled Colin Powell at Cabinet meetings, she grumbles at another. At still another, she is left wondering “whether gender played any role” in causing National Security Adviser Anthony Lake to drum his fingers impatiently on the table as she spoke.

That there may have been more valid reasons for her feelings of insecurity is suggested by other passages in this book. In one of them, she locates “the tiny nation of Moldova” in the Caucasus, when it lies almost 1,000 miles to the west—a disturbing slip from a specialist in Communist affairs. More seriously, even as the U.S. was facing unprecedented challenges around the globe, our first female Secretary of State seems to have been as intent on continuing a journey of personal discovery as on her official duties—and is now intent on sharing with us the details.

“I made my stage entrance in a long black dress,” she writes about a skit she performed before the assembled notables of the ASEAN nations, “with crimson lipstick, a shawl, and a large flower in my hair. . . . I serenaded the crowd.” Recounting life following her divorce, she worries aloud that “If I were ‘involved’ with someone, I had to deal with the specter of herpes and later AIDS.” Dining with the UN Secretary General in an overheated room, she confides her fear that “I was having a hotflash.” And then there is her never-ending struggle with her waistline, repeatedly brought here into national focus.

All of this gives inadvertent meaning to Albright’s candid statement: “I tried to avoid doing anything inconsistent with the dignity of the office, but I was also determined to be myself.” Emphasis very much added.

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It would, of course, be both unfair and churlish to judge Albright’s conduct of foreign policy by any of this. But one cannot help wondering about the connection between such displays of unseriousness and the visible difficulties of the Clinton team, from the distracted President on down, in matching the means of American power with its proper ends.

In the first term, there was Somalia, where, Albright writes, “we tried to do too much” and insufficiently armed U.S. soldiers were badly bloodied. Then there was Rwanda, where “we did too little” and, although U.S. troops were not bloodied, the local Tutsis were, in near-genocidal numbers. In Haiti, the Navy’s Harlan County was ordered to make an about-face: “a low point in Clinton-administration foreign policy.” In Bosnia, “[w]e employed a combination of half-measures and bluster that didn’t work.”

The second term offered more of the same. When Iraq defied UN inspectors, the Clinton administration initiated a pinprick attack on military facilities but left intact the murderous regime of Saddam Hussein. In Kosovo, a major war was fought without ground troops and with American aircraft confined to altitudes above 15,000 feet; enough force was applied to “win,” but not enough to stop the Serbian army’s depredations on the ground. In Afghanistan, al Qaeda’s deadly attacks on American targets were answered with a salvo of cruise missiles that did nothing to curtail the menace posed by Osama bin Laden. Iranian efforts to acquire nuclear weapons were addressed, fruitlessly, by initiatives to foster the “good will” of “moderate” ayatollahs. North Korean attempts to acquire nuclear weapons were countered equally fruitlessly, this time with the help of the credulous Jimmy Carter.

In putting this record before us once again, Madeleine Albright has unwittingly written a withering exposé of herself and the administration she served. For anyone wishing to look back at the Clinton years to find seeds of our current troubles in the world, Madame Secretary is an excellent place to start. Admittedly, it is one of many.

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About the Author

Gabriel Schoenfeld is senior editor of COMMENTARY.