The Dilemma of Madeleine Albright

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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 …

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