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Albright From the Trenches

Reviewed by Robert J. Nebel

Defending an out-of-power administration is a fulltime occupation for former presidents and cabinet members. Six figure speeches that they give at universities and other institutions are peppered with self-congratulatory praises for their work during their glory years in Washington. There is also no shortage of criticisms within these speeches directed at the current occupants of The White House. Former President Clinton and his underlings have been following that tradition by speechifying for the past two years with tales of investments in education, military, Americorps, a sound economy and record surpluses. It is enough to make listeners who hang onto every word at these speeches pine away for the 1990s.

Clinton's second Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright is no exception. Like her former boss, Albright has been on the speechmaking circuit. Most recently, she bolsters her positions in her memoir, Madam Secretary. The book could not have come at a better time for this media-savvy former Clinton employee who has been facing mounting criticism for supposedly being milquetoast on terrorism, border security and foreign policy during her term as Secretary of State. Albright successfully refutes this perception with large chapters outlining an agenda mixed with compassion, engagement and the use of force when necessary.

Each international policy encounter is beautifully woven with personal stories that the mainstream press did not disclose. Albright reveals that former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is a classically trained pianist and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat watched one of her grandchildren swim during one of the countless Israeli-Palestinian negotiation summits. She goes through her adventures with then-Yugoslav President and current war criminal Slobodan Milosevic and North Korean President Kim Jong-Il. The reader can relate the nauseating feelings Albright experienced while visiting North Korea as she was treated to a display of unabashed Communism in the Pyongyang stadium.

The centerpiece of Madam Secretary is the Kosovo conflict, which was dubbed her war and brought criticism from many corners. The Kosovo chapters come off as a personal and a human rights crusade. It was personal because Albright learned firsthand the wrath of tyranny as she helplessly watched her childhood home of Czechoslovakia fall to the Soviets in 1968 thereby sending its citizens underground.

It was geopolitical for Albright because her arguments for bringing down Milosevic, ending genocide and restoring human rights to this region are emotional, logical and cohesive. It is also a lesson in multilateralism and diplomacy, which the current President, Vice President and US Defense Secretary could learn from as they wage their own brand of unilateralism in Iraq. The Kosovo chapters of Madam Secretary are also a study in a serious balancing act whereby Albright brought together warring factions in a solid and efficient manner.

The ability to appease a diversity of lawmakers extends to Albright's dealings with the US Senator from North Carolina, Jesse Helms, known as "Senator No" for his many dislikes including The United Nations. Although they deplored each other's politics, both Albright and Helms maintained a cordial and professional relationship during her confirmation hearing and tenure as Secretary of State.

Neither strong hawk nor weak dove, Albright's body of work in the UN and State Department shows that the she and her colleagues strengthened defense while employing diplomacy in the world's most troubled regions including Haiti, North Korea, Israel and China where the Clintonistas opened the markets to this mammoth Communist nation. Albright vociferously argues that awarding China permanent normal trade relations status has engaged the nation toward a democratic future.

Madam Secretary is an impressive volume filled with personal behind-the-scenes accounts including Albright's divorce from husband and journalist Joseph Albright to her tirelessness under mentor Zbigniew Brzezinski, the National Security Advisor to President Carter. Aside from Brzezinski, Albright does her utmost best to credit to everyone involved with every step of her life within the text and in massive footnotes that are also filled with wonderful anecdotes. Albright's late father, Joseph Korbel, who served as a Czech ambassador to Yugoslavia, receives a generous amount of praise for shaping his daughter's politics and work ethic. A fierce anti-Communist, Korbel authored many pieces of literature that continues to inspire Albright and countless others worldwide.

Madam Secretary fascinates for the most part as Albright recounts the revelation of her Jewish roots during the early days as Secretary of State. She tells of letters of praise as well as criticism of her parents for supposedly hiding their identity for survival purposes. Little is devoted to the personal side of former President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. We also learn little of where Albright drew her strength to survive the personal setbacks in her life. While she may be rightfully guarding her privacy, more revelations would provide future female leaders with more inspiration. The political junkie will love the book, while the novice might be a bit bored with the details in Albright's policy discussions. Overall, Madam Secretary is an intelligent, tightly written book that is sure to please a wide range of readers. | November 2003

Robert J. Nebel is an Atlanta-based writer whose works have appeared in several publications including, The Atlanta Constitution, USA Today, CNN.com, Alternet.org and many other publications. Robert has written a number of feature profiles, opinion essays, travel pieces, theater and book reviews.

Robert J. Nebel's interview with Madeleine Albright

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