Albright and Holbrooke: two conflicting Voices of America

THE US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, sets off for Israel today on the first leg of a world tour that the US administration hopes will be crowned by a formal Israeli-Palestinian pact on the terms for complying with the year-old Wye River accord. From Israel, Ms Albright will travel by a roundabout route to Vietnam on a potential dream trip for any American diplomat - sealing reconciliation and continued US involvement in two strategically significant regions.

Ms Albright, though, will not be the only high-profile US diplomat on the international stage this week. She will share the limelight with Richard Holbrooke, the newly confirmed ambassador to the UN. He sped out of New York almost as soon as he was sworn into office to try to defuse the growing tensions in his old stomping grounds, Kosovo and Bosnia.

This prospect has inevitably revived talk in Washington about the rivalry between Ms Albright and Mr Holbrooke.Foreign policy voyeurs are sitting back to enjoy what they sense could be a spectacle. "It looks like it's going to be a fun 17 months," said Arnold Beichman of the Hoover Institution.

It has also brought criticism from friends and foes of the administration alike, who fear that the effectiveness of US foreign policy could be diluted if two strong individuals send different messages from far flung parts of the world at the same time. "Unfortunately," said Frank Gaffney of the right-leaning Center for Security Policy, "the most serious damage likely to arise from these duelling egos may not be to either of their careers, but to the nation's foreign policy interests."

The personal rivalry between Ms Albright and Mr Holbrooke stems from their fight for the post of Secretary of State when President Bill Clinton was building his second administration. Despite a lobbying campaign by Mr Holbrooke and his allies, Ms Albright prevailed, partly, it was thought, because Mr Clinton was anxious to boost the number and prominence of women in his cabinet, partly because of State Department misgivings about Mr Holbrooke's maverick style.

So long as the apparently amiable and relaxed Bill Richardson was ambassador to the UN, Ms Albright had no real competition for leadership of US diplomacy. Mr Holbrooke, however, is a different character, with a track record in the Balkans - in producing the Dayton accord on Bosnia, however tormented its subsequent history - that contrasts with Ms Albright's record of confrontation. Her ultimatum to the Yugoslav President, Slobodan Milosevic, at Rambouillet is blamed by some for forcing Nato into precipitate armed intervention. Observers noted that Mr Holbrooke maintained an unaccustomed reticence during the Kosovo conflict.

What has also been noted is that although Ms Albright was quick to congratulate Mr Holbrooke on his confirmation by congress, she did nothing to ease the marathon 10-month process. "We're always on the same side," insisted Mr Holbrooke on his first day in his new job. "Everyone knows that, despite the games they want to play." And he peppered his first public statements in Kosovo with respectful references to Mr Clinton and Ms Albright. Meanwhile, the question in Washington was when, not whether, this bonhomie would break.