Clinton's comrade in arms

Profile: Madeleine Albright: From immigrant to White House, she's done it the American way, says John Carlin
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The Independent Online
European diplomats at the United Nations have coined a couple of nicknames for Madeleine Albright. One is "Halfbright". The other "Not At" as in not-at-Albright.

America's ambassador to the UN is having the last laugh. Albright's detractors remain diplomats. She will soon become the most powerful woman in the history of the United States. Bill Clinton named her last week as his next Secretary of State, theoretically positioning her fourth in line for the presidency.

Clearly there is more to the lady than meets the eye of the European sneerers, a male-dominated bunch whose self-esteem she threatens on two fronts. In the single superpower age the US ambassador at the UN, whoever it might be, is always going to provoke a measure of peer envy. To appoint a woman as ambassador is to rub salt in the wound.

Not that Albright has gone out of her way to avoid making a herself a target for jokes during her nearly four years at the UN. Her behaviour is not always characterised by the gravitas taught in the Foreign Office or the Quai d'Orsay. Take the manner of her celebration on the night of Clinton's election victory, when she swung her hips and clutched her buttocks in the Security Council chamber to the tune of the Spanish dance hit "La Macarena". Or her celebrated riposte to the Castro regime in February after the Cuban air force shot down two light planes piloted by Miami-based Cuban exiles. "Frankly this is not 'cojones', this is cowardice," she told the Security Council. Politely translated by the US media to mean "testicles", cojones is best rendered in English as "balls".

A number of Spanish-speaking diplomats described themselves shocked, shocked. Yet crass and unladylike as the outburst might have been, it turned out to be a stroke of genius. It might not be an exaggeration to say that it was the word that clinched her nomination for the post of Secretary of State. President Clinton, who identified the extremely conservative Cuban-Americans in Florida as a constituency he needed to win over, praised Albright for having uttered "probably the most effective one-liner in the whole administration's foreign policy".

A couple of weeks later she and the President appeared together at the Orange Bowl, the stadium of the Miami Dolphins, addressing a crowd of 60,000 Cuban-Americans. She battled to make a speech, such was the noise from the crowd. "Madeleine, libertad! Madeleine, libertad!" they cried. Clinton, who barely a month earlier had been denounced by the Cuban-American leadership as soft on Castro, was delighted. Grinning afterwards, he said, "We thought she was running for mayor of Miami."

Clinton won Florida, a Republican redoubt. It is possible that Albright's loyalty helped him secure a few decisive swing-votes in other states. Revealing herself to be a fast learner in the Clintonite school of have- your-cake-and-eat-it politics, Albright was the voice behind an election message that contrived to portray the Clinton administration as being anti-UN, but not really. She spared the institution in her public utterances but made a scapegoat out of Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who two years earlier she had said she could "really admire".

Diplomats at the UN, even those who agree that Boutros-Ghali has been a failure as Secretary-General, have been appalled at the ham-fisted manner in which Albright has campaigned for his removal. But she appears to have won. And even if, as many in the UN fear, Boutros-Ghali's successor turns out to be a disaster, the short-term White House objective was met. Clinton succeeded through Albright in neutralising Republican claims that he was not standing up for US interests. Jesse Helms, the arch-conservative who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was moved after Albright's appointment on Thursday to declare that she was "a tough and courageous lady".

Albright's perceived diplomatic weaknesses have turned out to be domestic political strengths. The sensibilities of London, Paris or, for that matter, Kigali, were not uppermost in Clinton's mind when he chose her for the top foreign policy job over heavyweight rivals such as Richard Holbrooke and George Mitchell. Clinton was thinking Washington. He was thinking loyalty and he was thinking team-player - two qualities he will require in his immediate subordinates if, as expected in the coming months, he comes under intense political pressure over his role in Whitewater and other alleged misdemeanours. And, undoubtedly, in selecting Albright Clinton was thinking that America's women should be rewarded for having voted in such overwhelming numbers for him over Bob Dole.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT is, by her own lights, "a very political animal" whose confessed regret is that she never ran for public office. Yet she is no bloodless Washington mercenary. Like Clinton, the consummate political animal, she sees high office as an opportunity to do good. Using language unfashionable these days, she speaks of US foreign policy in terms of "a moral imperative". She made no secret of her distress at the hesitancy of White House policy on Bosnia. Clear that the Bosnian Serbs were the aggressors in the conflict, she was a passionate advocate of American intervention long before this became the conventional wisdom. Colin Powell recalls in his memoirs a high-level national security debate when Albright "exploded". "What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?"

The personal animus that Albright has displayed on Bosnia, expressed also in the zeal with which she led the drive at the UN to institute the international war crimes tribunals, has its origins in an unusually dramatic childhood. Born a diplomat's daughter in Prague in 1937, she fled the Nazi occupation with her family and spent the war years in London. After the war her father, Josef Korbel, was appointed to the Czechoslovakian embassy in Belgrade where he hired a governess to teach his daughter because he wanted her to avoid the contagion of a Communist education. When she was 10 he sent her to a boarding school in Switzerland, where she added French to a linguistic repertoire that already included English and Czech. The next year, 1948, the Communists took over Czechoslovakia and the family fled to the US.

The memories of fleeing first Nazism and then Communism before being welcomed into the warm embrace of the United States have never left her. She says repeatedly: "Some people's historical context is Vietnam; mine is Munich," and "For me, America truly is the indispensable nation." Indispensable, that is, as a power for good. Which is not to say that the world must brace itself for four years of US foreign policy as social work. Post- Cold War Washington remains wary of involvement abroad, unless the national interest is unarguably at stake. Albright, aware of this consensus, has coined a description for the approach she will take to international problem- solving: "do-ability".

Clinton may rely on her to navigate between the Scylla and Charybdis of the Senate and the House of Representatives, both Republican-held, with shrewd, practised caution. For the strength the President sees in her, and which outweighs her shortcomings as a strategist in the Kissinger mould, is that she understands Washington. As she herself acknowledged in a candid quote to the New York Times recently, "I am not a diplomat. I am such a political person."

She set about learning the Washington game in 1982 after a painful divorce from Joseph Albright, the wealthy heir of a newspaper business, who suddenly announced he was leaving her for another woman. She and their three grown- up daughters took over his sumptuous townhouse which she transformed into a salon of high-brow entertainment for the brightest of the capital's foreign policy community. An active Democrat who had already worked as a foreign policy aide in the Carter White House and assisted in a number of failed presidential campaigns, she networked assiduously while rising to a professorship in international relations at Georgetown University.

By the time the Democrats won the presidency in 1992 Albright had manoeuvred herself into the first ranks of those eligible for a big job in the administration. The UN ambassadorship came, but she did not rest on her laurels. She became good friends with Hillary Clinton, accompanying her on her world travels, and with the Clinton White House's favourite Hollywood star, Barbra Streisand, with whom she goes shopping. She made herself highly visible, making speeches and doing the television talk show circuit, capitalising on the diffidence of her predecessor, Warren Christopher. She emerged as the sound-bite queen of US foreign policy.

And, no less critical in her campaign to replace Christopher, she would shuttle three or four times a week between New York and Washington to attend National Security Council meetings at the White House. As Jeanne Kirkpatrick, US ambassador to the UN under Ronald Reagan, observed: "You do it to protect your own power base."

If, in addition, you deploy your energies to the task of helping your President build up his power base, you might even see all your dreams come true. Five years ago, when the only political role she could boast of was her junior position under President Carter, she said in an interview, "I have had this fantastic life. For someone like me, who came to this country when I was 11 years old, to end up working in the White House and having all these amazing opportunities ... I mean, I am kind of this American story."

Today Albright is an American story in spades. She owes her success not to her skills in international diplomacy, nor even - as she likeably owns - to her intellect: "I'm not that smart. I work very hard." The girl from Prague has triumphed in America because she has done things the American way.

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