Madeleine's War

  • What'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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