Albright: sidelined and undermined

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THE senior US representative at yesterday's Middle East talks, the Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, has become a familiar figure on the world scene since she became America's first female executive of foreign policy 16 months ago. International jet-setter that she has become, she arrived in London hotfoot from a gruelling Asian tour that took in Japan, China and Mongolia.

But even as she was deep in sensitive discussion in Peking on preparations for President Bill Clinton's China summit next month, an article appeared in Washington that seemed to cut some of the ground from beneath her feet. Ms Albright, said two veteran, well-connected political observers, was no longer making important foreign policy decisions, if ever she had been. She was being routinely bypassed by the President and his increasingly trusted National Security Adviser, Samuel (Sandy) Berger, and there was a risk, according to one quoted State Department official, that she was becoming "a decoration".

It is not unusual for analysts to pick on one, perhaps minor, policy discrepancy and elevate it to an expression of a bigger rift. In this case, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak said that Mr Clinton had "quietly pigeonholed" a warning from the former president George Bush to the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, threatening US military intervention if Serbia destablilised Kosovo. Not repeating the threat, said Evans and Novak, when Serbian troops started killing Albanians in Kosovo last month, "greatly reduces ... Ms Albright's diplomatic freedom of action".

Evans and Novak have their own policy axe to grind: they predict mayhem in Kosovo that could "dwarf Bosnia's bloody fighting" unless a credible US threat is in place. It is also true that Mr Berger was subsequently asked whether what has become known as the "Christmas warning" to Mr Milosevic had been abandoned, and denied it. Or rather, he said that "no option is ruled out" - which may not be quite the same thing. On the other hand, there are gathering signs that Ms Albright's impact on Washington policy- making may be developing in inverse proportion to the frequency of her travels.

Mr Berger is a consummate Washington operator with five years at the White House, and Evans and Novak claim that he and President Clinton between them are making foreign policy according to the priorities of US domestic policy. They suggest this as a reason why Ms Albright's star seems to have faded.

A more valid criticism might be that Ms Albright, in reportedly trying to persuade Mr Clinton to be tougher on Israel over the Middle East peace agreement and failing to extract from him a threat of US intervention in Kosovo, may herself have lost sight of domestic priorities, especially in an election year.

Nor has she managed to notch up any diplomatic achievement abroad that might lend her political clout at home. Iraq, Iran, Russia, Cuba - increasingly, the initiative is being taken elsewhere than Washington. Her whistle-stop tour of Europe and the Gulf this winter failed to drum up allied support for new US strikes on Iraq even from some of Washington's staunchest Arab allies. Meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials have yielded no progress.

Ms Albright's defenders would argue that the failures are not hers but reflect the intractability of remaining world conflicts. It was probably wise of State Department spokesmen, none the less, to stress in advance of yesterday's talks that hopes of breaking the Middle East deadlock looked dim.