In her new memoir, Madam Secretary, Albright has few kind words for Arafat, calling him at various points, a “professional victim,” and a “manipulator and survivor.” During a visit to her farm in Virginia, her two-year old grandson let out a “piercing scream” at the first sight of the Palestinian leader. Such colorful touches are common in this often plodding and pedantic memoir focusing on Albright’s four years, from 1997 to 2001, at the height of power. For example, she recounts how she learned of her Jewish ancestry from Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs. Unfortunately, the book does not offer much in the way of news. We do learn that in 1998, Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammed Khatami sent word to Arafat that Iran would support a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians–a position at odds with the charter of Iran’s Islamic Revolution. She also confirms that, at the request of South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, President Clinton was indeed ready to travel to Pyongyang at the end of his presidency. But anyone expecting a persuasive rebuttal of the toughest charges frequently leveled against the Clinton administration’s foreign policy–for instance, that the president was not as committed as he should have been to hunting Osama bin Laden, or that the United States failed to stop the Saudis beheading the two prime suspects in the 1996 bombing of Khobar Towers that killed 19 Americans–will be disappointed. Reading this book, Albright’s conservative critics will be tempted to gloat that they were right about her all along.
Yet they do so at their own risk: As the Bush administration encounters one snag after another in Iraq, it is becoming clear that, at least as of today, Albright has proved a more successful regime-changer than the very neocons who coined the phrase. For all her efforts to cut deals with Arafat, Kim Jong Il, and the Iranians, this Czech refugee whose family escaped both Nazism and communism, demonstrated not only moral clarity but also effectiveness in opposing a ruthless and wily tyrant, Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic. Albright’s patient multilateral diplomacy, combined with forceful moral rhetoric and quiet funding for the opposition, may prove a far better model for ridding the Middle East of its dictators than last March’s invasion.
Albright’s crowning moment came on Oct. 5, 2000 after Slobodan Milosevic clumsily tried to steal what turned out to be his final election and found himself overwhelmed by popular outrage on the streets of Belgrade and international condemnation abroad. I was on Albright’s plane when CNN began broadcasting images of ordinary Serbs swarming into the parliament building in Belgrade. “You wouldn’t believe what’s happening,” she told members of the press at the back of the plane. And she was right: We didn’t. Or at least we hadn’t. Months earlier, in September, her assistant James O’Brien had briefed reporters on the upcoming Yugoslav elections and how they fit into Albright’s broader plan for driving Milosevic from power. Many reporters marveled at the secretary’s navet. After all, they reasoned, the Serbian strongman would just steal the election and be done with it.
But as her memoir makes clear, Albright was playing a much longer game than many people then imagined and with far more moving parts than they knew. Her plan to topple Milosevic took shape as the Kosovo Liberation Army began its summer offensive against Serb security forces in July 1998. Milosevic responded with town-to-town sweeps which drove militants and civilians alike from their homes. It was those images of terrorized refugees flooding over the border into Albania, recalls Albright, that helped her persuade a reluctant President Clinton and NATO to threaten force against Milosevic if he did not halt his attacks on the Kosovars.
But while Albright was laying the groundwork to make war on Milosevic’s security forces and Yugoslav National Army in Kosovo, she plotted his overthrow in Belgrade by other means. Part of her strategy was to sow divisions between him and his key constituencies. “We needed to send the message,” she writes, “to Serb businesspeople that he was bad for business, to the Serb military that he invited the destruction of their institutions, and to the Serb middle class that he was wrecking their hopes for a peaceful and prosperous future.”
Before executives and the middle class, she dangled the carrot of joining Europe–offering for instance at the Rambouillet negotiations full normalization in exchange for the right to send a peacekeeping force into Kosovo, after she approved a plan to bolster Milosevic’s opposition–an offer he ultimately rejected. That turned out to be a clever maneuver because it allowed her both to offer Milosevic a credible way to avoid war while also alienating him from one of his key constituencies in Serbia. Not only did it strengthen her hand with wobbly NATO allies, but it also helped her isolate
Albright further laid the groundwork for Milosevic’s fall by bolstering the fractious internal opposition which he had always been able to divide and conquer in the past. Between 1998 and 2000, U.S. agencies like the International Republican Institute and the C.I.A. poured a little over $150 million into Milosevic’s opposition, which went for pollsters who helped craft an opposition election message, expanded free media like the radio station B-92 and training for poll monitors, who eventually played a key role in discrediting Milosevic’s claims to have won the election. State Department funding for the opposition included training in nonviolent action–which helped build a small student organization, Otpor, that became the backbone of the coalition that elected Vojislav Kostunica to the presidency. All the while, Albright continued to meet with anti-Milosevic Serb politicians and used her bully pulpit to make clear that the United States wanted “Milosevic out of power, out of Serbia, and in the custody of the war crimes tribunal.” By the time Serbs and Montenegrins were ready to vote on Sept. 24, 2000, Europe and the United States were reading from the same page: the only way the country could join Europe was without Milosevic. By the spring of 2001, Milosevic was in a cell at the Hague, and Serbia was taking its first steps toward a democratic, European future.
Belgrade, of course, is not Baghdad. In Yugoslavia, there was enough political space to hold an election, albeit an imperfect one, and sufficient freedom to mobilize the forces of opposition. Force may have been the only way to topple Saddam’s regime. But there’s little doubt that had it been possible for him to have been overthrown from the inside rather than by foreign arms, many of the problems Iraqis and American soldiers are facing in the country today would be diminished. Moreover, Albright’s Balkans strategy fundamentally relied on the military power and moral force of relatively coherent unified alliances. It is too soon to say whether the second Gulf War will spark a wave of democratic movements throughout the Middle East, as the president promised in his speech to the American Enterprise Institute before it began. But if it does, it would be infinitely preferable for those revolutions to be more of the Belgrade style than that of Baghdad.
In Iran, at least the neocons appear to recognize that the Albright approach may hold promise. Since June of 2002, the Pentagon’s civilians have quietly pushed a plan to humiliate the mullahs, by publicizing some of their seamier overseas investments while, at the same time, funneling money and assistance to the country’s democratic opposition. But the United States can’t finish this job alone. To prompt the day when Iranians’ aspirations for democracy are realized, the president should take another page from Albright’s playbook: leveraging diplomatic pressure to corner noxious regimes in the diplomatic arena, not just on the battlefield. To date, the Europeans, to their shame, have enjoyed an active trade with Tehran, but as the Iranian nuclear weapons effort speeds ahead, they have grown increasingly wary, and the Bush administration should turn that wariness into a unified front. Mobilizing our European allies to isolate and destabilize the mullahs’ regime could be as important a step as it was in the Balkans.
During her tenure, Albright often spoke about a Europe “whole and free.” Despite her failures in the Middle East and Rwanda, she managed to advance that vision by removing the most wicked regime in Europe. President Bush has set himself an equally noble but far more difficult goal in the Middle East. It might be time for him to pay attention to how Albright achieved hers.