Madeleine's War

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WALTER ISAACSONWhat's at stake here is the principle that aggression doesn't pay, that ethnic cleansing cannot be permitted. The troops gathered in a hangar at Spangdahlem air base in Germany cheer. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, standing in front of an F-16, is explaining the war in Kosovo to them. It is, to her, a defining mission for America in the post-cold war world. It is also, for someone who had to flee Hitler, then Stalin, as a child, a very personal mission. As President Clinton proclaims when she is finished, Secretary Albright, thank you for being able to redeem the lessons of your life story by standing up for the freedom of the people in the Balkans.

The Kosovo conflict is often referred to, by both her fans and foes, as Madeleine's War. In a literal sense, of course, that's not true these days. Now that it's become an armed conflict, she plays a supporting role to the President, National Security Adviser Sandy Berger, Defense Secretary Bill Cohen and the military brass. But more than anyone else, she embodies the foreign policy vision that pushed these men into this war. And she is the one most responsible for holding the allies--and the Administration--firm in pursuit of victory.

To Albright, a stable Europe is central to our interests. Opposing ethnic cleansing is central to our values. And because of the world view bred into her bones and seared into her heart growing up, she believes that America's interests cannot be easily separated from its values. We are reaffirming NATO's core purpose as a defender of democracy, stability and human decency on European soil, she says.

Her critics argue that this has never been NATO's core purpose. For 50 years, it's been a defensive alliance, one that never before waged war against another European nation, no matter how lacking in democracy, stability or human decency. They see Madeleine's War as the latest example of an incoherent foreign policy driven by moral impulses and mushy sentiments, one that hectors and scolds other nations to obey our sanctimonious dictates and ineffectively bombs or sanctions them if they don't.

So the war in Kosovo, and Albright's determined vision of it, has become more than just another regional conflict. It has become ground zero in the debate over whether America should play a new role in the world, that of the indispensable nation asserting its morality as well as its interests to assure stability, stop thugs and prevent human atrocities.

It was early in Clinton's first term, back when she was U.N. ambassador during the first showdown with Serbia over Bosnia, that Albright showed her stripes on foreign policy. At a 1993 meeting with Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell--who gave his name to the doctrine that the military should be used only after a clear political goal has been set, and then only with decisive force--she challenged the general: What's the point of having this superb military that you're always talking about if we can't use it? As Powell later recalled, I thought I would have an aneurysm.

Thus arose the Albright Doctrine that has held sway since her ascension to Secretary of State: a tough-talking, semimuscular interventionism that believes in using force--including limited force such as calibrated air power, if nothing heartier is possible--to back up a mix of strategic and moral objectives. In an Administration that grew up gun-shy by reading and misreading the lessons of Vietnam, she's the one who grew up appeasement-shy by learning in painfully personal ways the lessons of Munich.

Ever since February 1998, when Milosevic began his gruesome campaign against ethnic Albanians in his province of Kosovo, Albright has been resolute about not allowing the West to dither as it did in Bosnia. History is watching us, she told a meeting of foreign ministers last year, in the same London conference room where Bosnia had been debated. In this very room our predecessors delayed as Bosnia burned, and history will not be kind to us if we do the same. She was in no mood to compromise. When the Italian and French ministers proposed a softening in the language they would use to threaten the Serbs, Albright's close aide Jamie Rubin whispered to her that she could probably accept it. She snapped back, Where do you think we are, Munich?

More than a year later, seven weeks into a messy bombing campaign, Albright still sees herself as a hard-liner whose job it is to restrain assorted free-lance peace-prize seekers who are eager to cut a compromise. She likens it to one of those toys where kids use both hands to tamp down characters that keep popping up as soon as others are swatted down. Up until the start of the conflict, the military served to back up our diplomacy, she says. Now, our diplomacy serves to back up our military.

Last week, diplomatic activity intensified and then became more urgent as NATO bombs mistakenly hit the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, setting off political explosions both in Beijing and at the U.N. Security Council. Albright was back at center stage: she met with Russian diplomats in Washington and Europe, traveled with Clinton to NATO headquarters in Brussels and military bases in Germany, convened a meeting of allied and Russian foreign ministers in Bonn and worked the phones to keep in line players ranging from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to Kosovar leader Ibrahim Rugova.

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It began on Monday with the arrival in Washington of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former Russian Premier tapped by Boris Yeltsin to help mediate Kosovo. We're pursuing a double-magnet strategy, Albright explains. We've been tugging Moscow toward our position of how Kosovo must be resolved and then encouraging them to tug Belgrade in that direction. There were many issues on the table, but one serves as a good example of last week's diplomatic maneuvering: the effort to get Russia to support publicly the deployment of an international military force in Kosovo and then try to sell it to Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic as part of a peace agreement.

Albright had been working almost daily with Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on this issue since January, when she flew to Moscow to tell him--during an intermission of La Traviata at the Bolshoi Theater--that NATO was issuing a bombing threat. Four weeks ago, they met in a bare, beige room at the Oslo airport, where Ivanov plucked a silk flower from the table arrangement to give her. He also pulled from his breast pocket a paper with 10 principles for a solution. Albright noticed some coincided with NATO's. She proposed that they get out pencils and mark the ones they could agree on. After three hours, Ivanov still had not accepted Washington's core demand for a NATO-led peacekeeping force. But there were enough points of agreement for Albright and Ivanov to emerge with a joint statement.

Since then, Vice President Al Gore and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott had worked on Chernomyrdin, Clinton had spoken three times to Yeltsin, and Albright had spoken almost daily with Ivanov. When he arrived last Monday, Chernomyrdin made it clear that Russia was willing to accept, at least privately, the idea of an international security force, though not necessarily a NATO-led one. The discussions continued throughout the evening at Gore's official residence (while Albright attended a state dinner) and resumed there Tuesday morning.

When he appeared for breakfast on Tuesday, Chernomyrdin spent a few minutes chatting with Albright in Russian, one of six languages she understands, about her days in Belgrade as a child when her father was the Czechoslovak ambassador. She described meeting Tito, giving him flowers. Chernomyrdin argued that the Russians would not publicly support anything the Serbs opposed. That was absurd, she told him bluntly. The Russian role should be to push the Serbs, not merely convey their positions. The U.S. insistence on a NATO-led force was a matter not of theology but of practicality: everyone agreed the Kosovars should return home, but they wouldn't do so without a robust force guaranteeing their safety. When the meeting was over, Albright called Ivanov in Moscow to make sure both Russians got the same message.

That evening she left on an overnight flight to Europe with the President. In the conference room aboard Air Force One, after Berger and Cohen briefed Clinton on military issues, she presented her plan for getting Russia to accept publicly an international security force for Kosovo at a G-8 (the seven major industrial nations plus Russia) foreign ministers' meeting she had convened in Bonn.

Their first stop was in Brussels for a NATO briefing. But midway through General Wesley Clark's discussion of how a peacekeeping force could be structured, Albright got called out. Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini of Italy was phoning with the somewhat surprising news that Milosevic had decided to allow Ibrahim Rugova, the Kosovar Albanian leader, to leave the country. On Serbian TV five weeks ago, Rugova had criticized NATO's bombing, presumably speaking under duress. Albright wanted to make sure that once he arrived in Italy, he would support NATO's position. She dispatched Ambassador Christopher Hill to be there when he landed in Rome.

At Spangdahlem air base in Germany that afternoon, Albright seemed to draw energy from the spirited response of the soldiers and airmen she met. It put her into her feisty, no-nonsense mode. She peppered an F-16 pilot about whether his plane was carrying a maximum payload. Yes, sir, the pilot responded, then stammered, I mean, I guess, yes, ma'am.

She relished the celebrity and in fact was the focus of more attention at the air base than even Defense Secretary Cohen or Joint Chiefs Chairman Hugh Shelton. Thank you for making us proud of what we do, said a serviceman. But a more senior official, standing back in the crowd, gave a cautious critique: We're being pressed to become the world's policeman, but we don't have the will or the military structure to do it right. Nor do we have a rational method of picking where we'll get involved. Give us a clear job to do and we can usually do it--witness Bosnia and Korea. But you have to set priorities. China and Russia are Class A priorities. Kosovo would have been a C. But we made it a test of our credibility.

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Later that evening, when they moved on to visit troops at Ramstein air base, Albright donned a leather bomber jacket. But while Clinton spent hours mingling and talking, Albright went off to work her cell phone. She talked to the Ukrainian Foreign Minister about Russia's evolving position, then the French and British foreign ministers about the statement she hoped to get at the G-8 meeting, and finally a conference call of key NATO ministers for an update on Rugova's release.

Most important were two calls to U.N. Secretary-General Annan. A potential problem was brewing: Annan, who had remained on the sidelines, was suggesting that he appoint a group of negotiators to deal with Belgrade. Annan had been reliable from the outset in supporting the NATO position, which Albright appreciated. But the last thing she wanted was a pod of U.N.-anointed diplomats pushing compromises. Kofi, we don't need negotiators running all over the place, she said. They agreed to keep discussing ways in which the U.N. envoys could be helpful in working on the political and humanitarian aspects of implementing a settlement without authorizing them to broker with Belgrade in a way that could compromise NATO's positions.

On Thursday morning, Albright and her entourage broke away from the President's tour and took their own Air Force jet up to Bonn for the G-8 meeting. With a red folder marked INTEL on her lap, she conducted her regular morning staff meeting on the short flight. Slobo's feeling the heat, she said, a twinkle in her eye, as she glanced up from a memo on how Milosevic was putting some former top military men under house arrest.

She was sardonic, sometimes amused, occasionally impatient, always crisp. We've got to talk to Kofi again to make sure he doesn't have negotiators proliferating. But she knew how to use the initiative to her advantage. When I see Ivanov, I'll stress the U.N. component to him. An aide takes issue with a scheduling decision. You've given me three options, Albright says, and I've picked the least bad one. If that's no good, give me more options.

Business done, she switched from CEO mode to professor. It's important to keep in mind Russia's complex history with Serbia, she lectured, leaning back in her seat and propping her glasses atop her head. There are long-standing cultural and religious ties, but Tito broke with Stalin and even supported the liberals in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring of 1968. Our fight with Serbia has dangerously alienated Russians, she noted, and it would be useful to allow them to be the ones to help solve it.

As soon as she arrived at the Petersberg conference center, a castle overlooking Bonn, Albright held a private meeting with Russia's Ivanov. It was planned with three aides for each side, but they decided to do it one-on-one, without even interpreters (each understands the other's language). They wrestled over the wording he would accept in the G-8 statement, which would be Russia's first public endorsement of an international force for Kosovo. Albright proposed calling it a military force. Ivanov replied that he would agree only to calling it a presence.

You have to agree to the word security, Albright said. Igor, will you make me happy and just say yes to that?

Yes, he answered, with the hint of a smile, but when will you make me happy? I keep waiting for my turn.

Ivanov took a piece of paper and sketched out the possible composition of a security arrangement, using circles to represent the role various forces would play. Albright used her pen to show how NATO had to be involved, but Ivanov didn't agree. This isn't for the two of us to do, she finally said. We ought to leave it to our experts to start work on this.

As she left the Ivanov meeting with half a triumph, Albright was handed a phone. Christopher Hill was at a villa outside Rome with Rugova, who wanted to speak to her. Yes, Rugova told her, he would support NATO's bombing and negotiating positions in his public statements. I'm glad to hear that, she replied. We've been concerned about where you stood ever since your appearance with Milosevic on TV. Albright was relieved: if he had opposed the NATO mission, it would have been a public relations fiasco. In the grand solarium of the Petersberg center, the formal meeting of the G-8 went as planned. Over fish and fruit, British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook and Albright teamed up on Ivanov for one last attempt to push him to accept something stronger than security presence. Albright persuaded him to accept the added adjective effective. Cook suggested adding the phrase including a military force in parentheses. Ivanov wouldn't go that far. I'm sorry, he said. This is all I can do today.

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For Albright, it was enough, the culmination of a month of nudging the Russians to call publicly for an international force as part of any solution. Each of the key allied ministers stepped up to microphones afterward to stress that NATO had to play a core role. Gore, Talbott and Albright encouraged Chernomyrdin to go to Belgrade to see if he could negotiate with Milosevic an agreement based on the G-8 statement. Russia's concurrence also opened the way for a resolution in the U.N. Security Council endorsing a security force.

Late Thursday evening Albright and her crew reunited with the President, who had been visiting refugees in Germany, for the flight home on Air Force One. Relaxing in a Shetland sweater in his airborne office, Clinton describes Kosovo as an example of a policy in which America's values and its interests are intertwined. It's to our advantage to have a Europe that is peaceful and prosperous. And there is the compelling humanitarian case: if the U.S. walks away from an atrocity like this where we can have an impact, then these types of situations will spread. The world is full of ethnic struggles, from Ireland to the Middle East to the Balkans. If we can convince people to bridge these tensions, we've served our interests as well as our values.

Although he allows that U.N. mediators might play a useful role if they continue to adhere to NATO's principles, Clinton expresses more enthusiasm for allowing the Russians to be the lead negotiators with Belgrade. This situation has led to the rise of nationalism in Russia and caused them to drift away from the West. The best outcome would be if Moscow helps get a good settlement that brings the Russians back into the international mainstream and closer to us. The U.N. should not undermine Russia's role.

Although Clinton appreciates Albright, they have not become close pals. She still resents that he allowed her to go before cameras early in the Lewinsky scandal and proclaim his innocence. Asked if he owes her a public apology, if he has anything to say about that, the President stares coldly for a few seconds and his face hardens. No. Long pause. No. I have nothing to say on that. He is more expansive on the personal qualities she brings to her role. She not only learned the lessons of Munich, but also of Czechoslovakia under communism.

Indeed, Kosovo has illustrated how much Albright's outlook and style are rooted in her personal history. Her father, the wartime Czechoslovak diplomat Josef Korbel, was witty and gregarious, with a knack for survival. Madeleine, who as a child spent two lonely years in Belgrade when he was ambassador there, developed an instinctive antipathy toward thugs. As TIME's Ann Blackman explains in her Albright biography, Seasons of Her Life (Scribner), she mirrors him: she has a deep reservoir of intelligence and wit, but sometimes seems to wear blinders to protect her from things that clash with her self-image. For example, for years she almost willfully hid from herself, as her father had hidden from her, evidence that her family was Jewish and that many perished in the Holocaust.

People generally come out of such experiences in one of two ways. Some, like Albright, develop an aggressive moralism and idealism, pledging never again to let the world turn a blind eye to atrocities. Others--Henry Kissinger, another refugee from the Nazis, is an example--become hardened realists with a fingertip feel for the nuances of power, a vision of how interests clash on the world stage and a disdain for what they view as sentimental impulses and ideological fervor.

Albright does not have Kissinger's ability (or desire) to conceptualize overarching strategic frameworks and analyze how an action in one corner can ripple around the world as through a spider web. Nor does she excel at the cautious contingency planning that marked, and sometimes paralyzed, many of the corporate lawyers--Cyrus Vance, James Baker, Warren Christopher--who once held her job. Consequently, she urged intervention in Kosovo without worrying too much about either the geostrategic ramifications (how it would affect Russia, China, Macedonia, Greece, et al.) or about game planning all the contingencies (how to cope with a horrific tide of refugees and be ready to use ground troops if Milosevic was defiant).

The most scathing recent criticism along these lines was particularly painful. Peter Krogh, who had been her close friend and mentor when he was dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service during her tenure there, wrote two weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal, I cannot recall a time when our foreign policy was in less competent hands. The bombing of Iraq has only entrenched Saddam Hussein's power. The bombing of Serbia has likewise entrenched Milosevic and contributed to a refugee debacle. To make matters worse, these involvements have come at the expense of America's primary strategic interests: integrating Russia and China into the international system.

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More broadly, Krogh accused Albright and her colleagues of conducting a policy based on scolding other nations. They instruct the Russians and the Japanese on their economics, the Chinese on their politics, the Iraqis on their military, the Serbs on their provinces, the Latin Americans on drugs and the U.N. on reform...It is a foreign policy of sermons and sanctimony accompanied by the brandishing of Tomahawks. The article, which Krogh had passed around in advance to fellow members of the foreign policy elite, set Washington buzzing. Albright, brittle about her image, was furious.

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.

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Do Kosovo and other morally inspired interventions represent a new view of American interests after the cold war? I think threats to our national interest come from a variety of problems, [including] the creation of chaos and instability that come about as a result of ethnic cleansing. How do we pick and choose such fights? Why Kosovo and not Rwanda? I don't think you can make a very simple matrix. You have to look at the immensity of what is happening. I happen to believe, and argued so at the time, we should have done more in Rwanda. We get involved where the crime is huge, where it's in a region that affects our stability--the stability of Europe is something that has been essential to the U.S. for the last 200 years--and where there is an organization capable of dealing with it. Just because you can't act everywhere doesn't mean you don't act anywhere. We're evolving these rules. There's not a doctrine that really sets this forth in an organized way yet.

For someone so proud of being tough, she seems touchingly eager for approval, anxious about how the article on her will turn out. (Rest assured, I say, the pictures are good.) Yet both in her mind and heart, she betrays no self-doubt about her views. Madeleine's War? Well, I don't think it's solely mine. But I feel that we did the right thing, and I am proud of the role I played in it. Now, after a week that advanced the possibility of peace, her challenge is to show that she is as good at getting out of a war as she is at getting into one.

With reporting by Douglas Waller/Washington


Number of miles she's flown since becoming Secretary of State

Number of years she lived in Belgrade

Number of languages she understands (Czech, English, French, Polish, Russian and Serbo-Croat)

Number of times she received the teacher of the year award at Georgetown University


At the start of the air war, NATO laid down five core demands. But last week, as the U.S. brought Russia on board, some of those non-negotiable points became more fluid.

1 THEN: Stop Serbian military action, violence and repression.
NOW: No change.

2 THEN: Withdraw all Serbian military, police and paramilitary forces from Kosovo.
NOW: Key word all was dropped, leaving it unclear if every one of Belgrade's soldiers has to get out, or only some of them.

3 THEN: Accept a NATO force stationed in Kosovo to protect the province's ethnic Albanians.
NOW: The key point. NATO force replaced by vague effective international civil and security presences, endorsed and adopted by the U.N. Uncertainty about the exact makeup of the force may give Milosevic enough wiggle room.

4 THEN: Allow unconditional, safe return of Kosovo Albanian refugees and displaced persons.
NOW: No change.

5 THEN: Grant autonomy to the Kosovo Albanians according to the Rambouillet agreement and disarm the troops of the K.L.A.
NOW: Instead of Rambouillet-style autonomy, the new agreement calls for a framework for a substantial self-government in Kosovo. The vague proposal leaves room for a compromise that can be sold to both Milosevic and the Albanians.

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