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Albright is particularly defensive--she brings it up in conversation--about charges that her ill-fated peace conference in Rambouillet last February was a mistake. She threw herself into the conference personally, hiking up and down the French chateau's drafty stairs with proposals. But it ended in close to humiliation. She never forced Milosevic to attend personally, and the Serbs yielded little. The Kosovars were also initially recalcitrant. The U.S. and NATO found themselves committed to an unwieldy committee-directed bombing campaign with no good contingencies for using ground troops or coping with a brutal refugee crisis if the air war failed.
But what were the alternatives? Perhaps an all-out ground war, though there was no political support for that on either side of the Atlantic. Or instead of bombing, the U.S. could have tried to slow the Serbs' village-by-village campaign in Kosovo through more monitors and brokered cease-fires. Or it could have resigned itself to the situation being resolved, as conflicts in a messy world sometimes are, by a civil war in which NATO focused simply on preventing a refugee crisis and providing humanitarian relief.
For Albright, standing aside in the face of atrocities was not an option. The Rambouillet meeting, she feels, was necessary to persuade the Europeans, who had never been comfortable aiding the Albanian Muslims, to use force to stop Serbia. By that criterion, Rambouillet succeeded: it enabled Albright to compel the Europeans (and her Washington colleagues) to act.
Indeed, Albright's greatest success so far has been to create and then maintain unity among NATO's 19-headed coalition. Every morning she gets up at 6 to begin her daily round of hand-holding phone calls. Some are made from her cozy working office at State, others from her Georgetown home. Sometimes she calls a wavering minister directly to tamp down a renegade plan; at other times she will do a bank shot by having Britain's Robin Cook or Germany's Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer call them. The goal is simple: make sure that no country wavers from NATO's aims or sends mixed signals to Milosevic.
She has also been developing a long-term strategy for the Balkans: a mini-Marshall Plan to promote lasting stability through economic rebuilding. She pitched the idea--contained in a long memo prepared by the State Department's policy planners and European experts--at a White House meeting. The President invited her to send him what is called a "night note," a proposal that bypasses the slow-moving nsc bureaucracy and goes straight to the Oval Office. That was important, since Albright does not enjoy the privilege of previous Secretaries to meet often with the President alone.
Although tough in asserting her views, Albright has a good rapport with National Security Adviser Berger. They have a direct phone line to each other, bypassing secretaries, which they use three or four times a day. She and Defense Secretary Cohen differ a bit ideologically--Cohen has the Pentagon's traditional caution about tossing around military might--but so far they have had no major clashes. One of her sources of power has been her odd-couple kinship with Republican Jesse Helms, the courtly but cantankerous conservative who is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But she has been either unwilling or unable (how much of each is a subject of fevered speculation) to use her bond with Helms to push through the troubled nomination for U.N. ambassador of Richard Holbrooke--the high-octane negotiator of the Bosnian peace plan, a philosophical soulmate with whom she has a relationship that could be described diplomatically as "intense and complex."
On the way back from Europe Thursday night, Albright sits in a swivel chair in the small situation room next to the President's office on Air Force One. "It's been a very fluid and interesting week," she says, with a spunkiness only partly masked by exhaustion. "It was important to bring Russia into what we were doing. We didn't want Russia to be isolated. There were two tracks: keeping NATO together and bringing the Russians in closer. I think we've managed to do that."