Profile: She who knows tyranny; Madeleine Albright

The face of American diplomatic power goes armed with sweets and stetsons.
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The Independent Online
WALTON-on-Thames made Madeleine Albright. Other things, no doubt, have contributed to shaping the character of America's formidable Secretary of State but it is the memory of the Second World War that fixed her priorities. Time and again she has been quoted as saying, "My mindset is Munich". And Walton-on-Thames was where she experienced Munich's consequences, where her most vivid early memories reside.

Born in 1937, she spent the war first in London and then in the Surrey suburb, her Czech parents having fled to Britain on fake diplomatic papers after Hitler's invasion of Prague.

"I remember when we moved to Walton-on-Thames, where they had just invented some kind of a steel table," she told Time last year. "They said if your house was bombed and you were under the table you would survive. We had this table, and we ate on the table and we slept under the table and we played around the table."

It was later, first at her diplomat father's lap and then during a long academic career in the field of international affairs that she fully grasped the wretched implications of Europe's abandonment of Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in 1938. Appeasement, Saddam Hussein might be advised to understand, is not a word in the lady's lexicon. When she declares that America's response to Saddam will be "swift and forceful" if he refuses to abide by the international rules of civilised behaviour, she does so with the vim of a woman driven by the conviction that she will not be remembered in history as another Neville Chamberlain. She will not brook the prospect of more little children cowering from bombs and missiles under steel tables. Anywhere.

And that is one important quality that distinguishes Ms Albright from her predecessors in America's top diplomatic post. Unlike every other member of President Clinton's cabinet, unlike all but a tiny minority of the American people, this ex-European has experienced first-hand what it is to be a civilian at war. Americans are not taught as children about foreign invasions, for, since independence, there are none to relate. Ms Albright, whose Jewish grandparents died at Auschwitz, did not have to go to school to learn about the oppressor's boot.

That is why she has brought an edge of compassion for the plight of the suffering people of the world rarely found among those in the American foreign service.

In November, on a visit to an Afghan refugee camp in northern Pakistan, she gathered around her a group of young Muslim girls. To their amazement she informed them that she had much in common with them. "It so happens that when I was a young girl I, too, was a refugee," she said. "I know that war is very cruel and that life is harder when you aren't able to live in the place you called home." And then she did a remarkable thing. She got down on her knees to bid the girls farewell.

"We really are all sisters," she said. "I will never forget you."

Genuinely empathetic as the exchange was it contained also a blend of calculation, in the Diana style. In startling contrast to Warren Christopher, the secretary of state from whom she took over a year ago, she is flamboyant and media-savvy. Insular as Americans are, she has become by far the best- known member of the Clinton cabinet, having succeeded in portraying the business of international politics, amazingly, as sexy and fun.

During her stint as United States ambassador to the UN she famously celebrated Bill Clinton's 1996 election victory by swinging her hips and clutching her buttocks in the Security Council chamber to the tune of the Spanish dance hit "La Macarena". A bitter divorce in the early Eighties from a husband who ran off with another woman has not restrained her flirtatious impulses. Also during her tenure at the UN she surprised her 14 fellow members of the Security Council one Valentine's Day by placing on the chair of each a red bag of sweets with a note attached saying how proud she was "to sit with 14 handsome young men".

Given to wearing Stetson hats on foreign trips, she does sometimes strike the wrong note with the locals. At a conference last year in Kuala Lumpur of the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) she stood up before the assembled delegates and burst into song. "Don't cry for me Aseanies..." she croon- ed, to the tune of Andrew Lloyd Webber's international favourite.

Even if her Oriental hosts did not know exactly where to look, the stunt played well back home. Not necessarily in Washington, but out among the citizenry at large. As a European diplomat who has observed her closely remarked, "She is a brilliant communicator whose field is Middle America, not the Washington beltway."

Almost as if she were preparing the ground for a future presidential run, her impulse is to broaden her constituency, expand her power-base. To that end she has gone on a PR offensive to win the affections of Jesse Helms, the North Carolina senator who more than any other figure involved in US foreign policy-making comes across to the world as the definitive Ugly American. Ms Albright's instinct might have been to go to war with the notoriously reactionary Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Where she is worldly, he is parochial; where she speaks five languages, he struggles to speak one; where she sees it as her mission to promote decency and human rights, he has time and again made common cause with some of the most murderous tyrants in the world.

One day Mr Helms invited her to address a foundation lunch in North Carolina. She agreed, on condition that he accompanied her. She gave him a T-shirt that read "Someone at the State Department Loves Me" and, the ice broken, the two spent much of the lunch whispering and joking like two teenagers on a date.

The outcome has been Senate approval for the first increase in the State Department budget since 1993. Some differences, however, have been impossible to bridge. To Ms Albright's, and President Clinton's distress, the US has yet to pay its long overdue debts to the UN. This is largely the doing of Mr Helms, who sees the UN as once he did the Soviet Union. The last time the issue came up for debate in the Senate, Mr Helms's allies in Congress said they would deliver the UN cash on the impossible condition that the Clinton administration would alter its policy on funding. The Secretary of State went ballistic, accusing Congress in a speech last month of "legislative blackmail" and calling the decision to withhold UN contributions over abortion politics "truly ridiculous".

The Albright style is not diplomatic, in the traditional sense of the word. Neither in its razzmatazz nor in its bluntness. On one trip to the former Yugoslavia she turned upon a Croat minister who had turned a blind eye as Serbs in Croatia were killed. "I am shocked by what I have seen here," she told him. "I find it disgusting."

The toughest meeting she has had on her international travels was with the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic. When he sought to dodge a question about Serb war criminals, she lashed out at him. "Don't give me that!" she cried. "I'm from this region. I'm not naive."

Ms Albright can be emotional but her mind is always working. She is no loose cannon. In dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian question, for example, she has had to be more circumspect, restrained as all American public figures are by the powerful domestic Jewish lobby. She has upset the Arab world as well as Middle East watchers in Europe by her tendency to be more voluble in her public criticisms of Yasser Arafat than of Benjamin Netanyahu. She is reported to be still smarting over Mr Netanyahu's response after she called for an end to settlement building in Arab-occupied Jerusalem during a visit to Israel in September. A few days later he approved the construction of 300 new Jewish homes on the West Bank.

She might speak out more were she to have the backing of the President, but his thoughts increasingly centre on domestic matters. Which might present Ms Albright with an opportunity to put her stamp firmly on American foreign policy. Knowing that Mr Clinton is going to be trapped in the Lewinsky mire for a long time to come, she is in a position to cash in on the political alliances she has made and the public favour she has curried to seize the day. Right now she is spearheading diplomatic efforts to avert a conflict in Iraq but if, through little fault of her own, she fails, she still has time - assuming Bill Clinton does - to generate a focused, viable set of policies in the rest of the Middle East, Russia, Europe, Asia and Africa that respond to her conviction that America can be a force for good in the world.