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The Dilemma of Madeleine Albright

Bill Crandall
Václav Havel and Madeleine Albright at a Plastic People of the Universe concert, Washington, D.C., May 2005

In early March 1998, after the massacre of over sixty Albanian Kosovars by a Serb “anti-terrorist” force at Prekaz, in Kosovo, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright issued a statement (she called it laying down “a marker”) outlining America’s position: “We are not going to stand by and watch the Serbian authorities do in Kosovo what they can no longer get away with in Bosnia.” To rally support, Albright flew to London to meet with the Contact Group, a Balkans task force consisting of four of the five UN Security Council members—the United Kingdom, France, the United States, and Russia—plus Germany and Italy. The meeting was long and hard-fought. Albright spoke “with as much intensity as I have ever mustered,” she wrote later, arguing for tough sanctions to bring Serbian president Slobodan Milošević to heel.

The British foreign secretary, the late Robin Cook, was willing, but the French dithered, the Italians postured, and the Russians filibustered while Albright fumed. Finally, her chief spokesman, Jamie Rubin, suggested that she move things along by offering a compromise. Albright glared at him and snapped: “Jamie, do you think we’re in Munich?”

It was a telling Albright moment. She was born Marie Jana Körbelová in Prague in 1937, a year and a half before Czechoslovakia’s putative allies, France and Great Britain, shamefully agreed at Munich to cede the Sudetenland, with its population of close to three million ethnic Germans, to Hitler in exchange for an all too illusory peace. Later, as Madeleine Korbel (her father had the umlaut officially dropped from the family name after the war), she came to understand that the catastrophic consequences of that agreement—two wars, one hot, one cold—had altered the course of her life, as they had, of course, for millions of others, and she fashioned that knowledge into a touchstone for her thinking about herself and about the place and role of her new homeland, the United States, in the world.

To Albright, the murderous incursions of Serbian soldiers into Kosovo on the pretext of protecting the Serbian ethnic minority must have borne an eerie resemblance to the way Hitler had used the alleged grievances of the large German minority as a wedge to pry Czechoslovakia apart and then to occupy and dismember it in 1939. Moreover, Munich had been a major stepping stone to the Holocaust, in which at least twenty-five of Albright’s relatives, including three grandparents, were murdered. With the stench of the Srebenica massacre lingering in the air and memories of Rwanda still vivid, Albright was determined not to give ground to yet another round of slaughter underpinned by insane visions of an ethnically pure empire. For her, I suspect, Munich served not so much to guide her thinking as it did to stiffen her resolve.

Historical analogies are seductive and often treacherous. Milošević was not Hitler and the Kosovar Liberation Army was not a champion of liberal democracy. On the contrary, the Kosovars frequently proved as adept at bloodletting as the Serb militias. In early 1999, when Albright pushed their representatives at the Rambouillet peace talks to agree to lay down their arms and postpone demands for independence in exchange for NATO protection, she was told by a hardened Kosovar nationalist: “If it is necessary for thirty thousand Albanians to die, so be it.” Albright said it was “one of the more bloodcurdling conversations I ever had.” So she certainly knew that the people whose lives she was trying to protect were no saints. But she never wavered in her belief that “Milošević is the problem” and continued to push doggedly for a negotiated solution backed by a credible threat of military action.

On March 24, 1999, when all other avenues of persuasion proved ineffective, NATO aircraft began bombing Serbian positions in Kosovo, and eventually, in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, as well. Milošević surrendered ten weeks later, vanquished in a conflict that Time magazine dubbed “Madeleine’s war.”

The conflict was a watershed of sorts. Among other things, it transformed liberal attitudes to military intervention, though in often questionable ways. Albright’s compatriot and close friend, Václav Havel, observed that if any war could be called ethical, the war in Kosovo could. “This war places human rights above the rights of the state,” he told the Canadian Parliament just a month before the conflict ended. Military historian John Keegan thought it proved that “a war can be won by airpower alone.” And Michael Ignatieff, in a book on Kosovo published in 2000, said it demonstrated that war could be waged with scarcely any loss of life, at least for “our side,” though he asked, prophetically: “If Western nations can employ violence with impunity, will they not be tempted to use it more often?” All three men ended up supporting the invasion of Iraq in 2003, as did Albright. Was the “success” of the Kosovo campaign a factor in their thinking?

At the very least, Kosovo cemented Albright’s reputation as a liberal hawk. She was not the first, nor would she be the last, to invoke the example of Munich to justify military action. Yet as her new book, Prague Winter, makes clear, Munich to her was far more than an abstract idea or an intellectual construct. Without it, she would not have become who she is.

In the crowded field of memoirs written by former secretaries of state, Madeleine Albright’s books stand out. Since leaving public office in 2001, she has written five, all in collaboration with her former speechwriter, Bill Woodward. Her books seem to be genuinely popular, and it’s no wonder: Albright is a charming and entertaining storyteller with an often self-deprecating sense of humor. Reading her is like being in the presence of an attentive hostess who makes sure you are never bored and your glass is always topped up. She has a refreshing habit of straight talk, an ability to bring the arcana of diplomacy down to earth without sacrificing subtlety or intellectual substance, and a generosity of spirit that allows her to convey other points of view without surrendering her own ground. As far as I can tell she is, in her books, as she is in person.

Madam Secretary, her first book, was more than just a memoir of her time as secretary of state; it was an engaging autobiography that gave readers their first more detailed glimpse of the Czech part of herself and of her rise to power. In Prague Winter, she confronts that part of her legacy head on.

The first twelve years of Marie Körbelová’s life were unsettled. Shortly after the Nazis marched into Prague in March 1939, her parents escaped to England with her, where they spent the duration of the war. She returned to Prague in the summer of 1945, only to leave again for Belgrade when her father, Josef Korbel, became ambassador to Yugoslavia. Shortly after that, she was off to boarding school in Switzerland, where she began calling herself Madeleine. When the Communists seized power in 1948, her father, who had good relations with some of the Communists in government, stayed on until the end of the year, meanwhile quietly arranging for himself and his family to emigrate to the United States. Madeleine, her younger sister Katie, her brother John, and her mother, Mandula, sailed for the United States on the SS America, arriving in New York on Armistice Day, November 11, 1948. Madeleine was eleven years old. The family soon moved to Colorado, where Josef joined the faculty at the University of Denver.

Albright’s sense of herself as a Czech, therefore, likely had little to do with a physical place called Czechoslovakia, and everything to do with her parents and their powerful identification with the fragile liberal democracy of the First Republic between the two world wars. It was a democracy personified in the country’s first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, and to a lesser extent in Masaryk’s protégé and successor, Eduard Beneš. But it was in America—in Denver—that she experienced her first real, stable, geographical sense of home.

At first, Madeleine worked hard to lose her accent and fit in. She came to realize, however, that, far from being a handicap, her Czech heritage was something to be proud of, something that could serve as an asset and an anchor as she found her way in the United States. Czechs and Americans apparently held so many democratic values in common that, far from clashing, her two heritages seemed to complement and reinforce each other.

In college and afterward, Albright worked hard, both to deepen her understanding of her background and to embrace her new homeland. As an undergraduate at Wellesley, she wrote her dissertation on Zdeneˇk Fierlinger, a Czech Social Democrat who had spent most of the war years in Moscow and then became Czechoslovakia’s first postwar prime minister, preparing the way for the Communist takeover. On graduating in 1959, she married Joseph Albright, the scion of a wealthy media family. His career took them to New York in the early sixties, where Joe worked on a family-owned paper, Newsday, and where their twin daughters, Anna and Alice, were born in June 1961.

When Joe was transferred to Newsday’s Washington bureau, Madeleine threw herself into the capital’s social life, becoming what she called “a class A volunteer.” She also started graduate work at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, completing her MA (a study of Soviet diplomacy) in 1967. At Columbia, she enrolled at the Russian Institute in an effort to better understand “the mysteries of the Soviet system.” She took a course in comparative communism from Zbygniew Brzezinski, another refugee from the Soviet bloc, and graduated in May 1976, after completing a doctoral thesis on the role of the Czech press during the Prague Spring.

That summer marked the beginning of her serious apprenticeship as a Washington insider. She served as Senator Edmund Muskie’s chief legislative assistant until 1978, when Brzezinski, now President Carter’s national security adviser, hired her as his congressional liaison officer. She and Joe were divorced in 1983. In the 1980s, in addition to teaching at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and hosting a well-attended salon at her house in Georgetown, Albright served as foreign policy adviser for Carter’s former vice-president, Walter Mondale, and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro, in their 1984 bid for the White House. She did the same for Michael Dukakis in 1987–1988. That campaign brought her in touch with Bill Clinton, who eventually named her US ambassador to the United Nations in 1992, and ultimately secretary of state in 1996. She was the first woman and the second foreign-born citizen (after Henry Kissinger) to hold that position. Given that the secretary of state is fourth in line to the presidency, she had, in effect, become the most powerful woman in the country.

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