Former United States Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has the Sunday New York Times and Atlanta Journal-Constitution spread out over a luxurious couch in her Atlanta hotel room on a brisk November day. She absorbs page after page in these papers at a feverish pace. "You must read this front page story in The Times," she says. "It is about this child with an Israeli mother and Palestinian father. It is quite moving."
Dr. Albright is in town to address a packed house at the Marcus Jewish Community Center as they celebrate their annual book festival. Atlanta is one of the many stops Albright has taken on her whirlwind book tour to promote her memoir Madam Secretary. She took a few moments to speak with January contributor Robert J. Nebel to discuss the creation of the book and the current state of the world from her perspective.
Robert J. Nebel: How did you discipline yourself to write this book?
Madeline Albright: It wasn't that organized because I had a lot of other things that I was doing. I was traveling a lot. I had help in terms of doing the research and summarizing. The foreign policy material was based on documentation from the State Department. Bill Woodward, who is my speech writer, did all of that. It was an interesting project.
The first part was the detailed part of my life and we made sure that the facts were right. The other part -- it's very hard when you are doing work like this is to keep separated from the things that you do on any given day. There are 10 different meetings and subjects. So it was a matter of separating out what the issues were and having a timeline and adding from the recollections of things.
The hardest part is leaving things out such as our relationship with Latin America. I had some things in there about that, but not has many as I would have liked such as the Central American republics or what we were doing about trade issues and how we dealt with Argentina. I had a lot of my trips to Africa [in the book], but not enough of the detail I wanted. I think there is enough material for a whole other book there.
Was this a good time to release a memoir?
With the amount of jobs that I have had, it comes with an obligation to write a book about it. To pick out the most important points and provide my version of history. I'm a professor, so I know what happens is that everyone has a slightly different take on what happened [such as] when two people can come out of a meeting and have a different impression. I wanted to do my part in terms of reporting history of the most essential parts of what we did.
The second reason was that I thought I had a pretty good story in terms of my own life. The story of an immigrant and a woman of a certain age who had to manage the various kinds of balancing acts that are required of all women, but of my age group certainly. Then I thought that my personal story has a good thread for the reader on policy activities. I wrote this at the time that events were still fresh in my mind.
What are the people saying about us in Europe now that you are on this book tour?
In Europe they are more unhappy than I thought. I know about the transatlantic rift and the seriousness about it. Seeing it in person gives me a sense of the depression about the US and that we were moving down different paths. I told them a lot of it was their fault and they were in a different mode. It is something that I hate to recognize. My whole life is about US-Europe relationships. I think it is a very important partnership. We have to do a lot to get ourselves back together. That's the strength we have together.
Do people in Europe come up to you and criticize your parents for not revealing their Jewish identity?
No, we never really saw that in Europe. As UN Ambassador, I got a ton of mail. A lot of it was about getting help on visas. A lot was automatic. Some of it was indecipherable language. A lot of it was about me personally or my family. Sometimes I had letters that would say that I'm Jewish attached with an ethnic slur. Some said I was a Jewish bitch. There were letters about my family that didn't make sense like: I went to school with your father in 1915 when he was six-years-old.
Then I got a letter that had everything in the correct order. At that point I went over everything. I was fascinated with it. I gave journalist Michael Dobbs the names of the various people and he did the profile on me. He is the one who came up with the fact that my grandparents died in a concentration camp, which was shocking piece of news. The way it was revealed was tremendous.
Are you and/or your three girls studying more about Judaism?
My youngest daughter is married to a Jewish man and my grandson goes to a temple kindergarten.
Are you still on the NYSE board?
What happened was that I was elected to the NYSE board in June. We have all been asked to resign and I am one of two people that have been asked to stay on.
Should the US do more about learning international policy in schools?
I think that is very important. It is something that I cared about all along. I have started an international relations club wherever I went. I insisted that people get together and talk about foreign policy.
One of the hardest parts is -- I think -- whenever talking about foreign policy -- especially with Americans -- is making foreign policy salient. We have been isolated. I think that. after 9-11. tragically it is evident that Americans have to learn more about the world. I think that with the number of immigrants in [the United States] it is important that people know where they came from. This is one of the reasons that during my term as secretary we had information [about learning foreign policy] on our Web site and I went to schools and did little presentations.
I always made a fuss about the fact that maps in American schools showed only the Western Hemisphere and the world is flat and America is the center of it. I always say that you have to learn about people on the other side of the globe.
It seems that we have retreated to isolationism after 9-11. Dr. Brzezinski says that 9-11 has its roots in 1979 Afghanistan. What is your take on that assessment?
In 1979, I was on the National Security Council's staff and the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and Dr. Brzezinski, who was my professor, managed to clearly explain things in a comprehensible way. He said the Soviets cross an unwritten line into Afghanistan. The Russian Czars have tried to cross for 200 years. The Czars had a major plan to get into Afghanistan. The question was how to react to that. There were a certain amount of ways to punish them, like boycotting the Olympics.
Among those things was supporting the freedom fighters in Afghanistan and opposing the Soviet invasion. I recently saw a tape where [Dr. Brzezinski] was saying to the freedom fighters: You are on the side of God.
Then the Reagan administration went beyond that and began to arm a lot of the people with Stinger missiles and train them in a variety of ways to fight the Soviets. Among those groups were the Mujahahdeen and Osama bin Laden. Today they are saying in the papers about the most recent shoot downs of the helicopters in Iraq are similar to the way the freedom fighters fought the Soviets.
There is no count on how much "United States Reagan era" weaponry and ammunition is out there?
I guess not. It is a free-for-all bazaar of weapons. Some of the weapons come from Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union. There is just a free market of Kalishnikov rifles and shoulder held missiles for sale. There is a huge market for this.
You, William Cohen and Sandy Berger went to Ohio State to sell the case for doing bombing runs in Iraq for not coming clean on its amount of weapons. Do you see the similarities with the 9-11 story of today with your dealings with Iraq in the late 1990s?
It is not an easy case to make to the American people, as we found. I think frankly that the American people misunderstood what Iraq was all about. They do not have a soft spot for Saddam Hussein. He did invade another country and trashed it. He gassed his own people. He tortured the Shiites in the south.
There is a lot of history about American support for Saddam's Iraq and Iran at different times during the Reagan years which was cynical. It's a long complicated story. The truth is Saddam invaded another country and the first Gulf War was to push Saddam back. There was a cease fire agreement that he didn't look up to. I thought we had him in a strategic box. Now, I can agree with the why of the war. I said the same things about Saddam. I do not agree with the why now or what next of the war.
President Clinton said the current Iraq war is unilateral, but the Bush administration says this is a multilateral action?
I think this is unilateral. There are those who say a number of countries went with us, which is true. This is different because they did not go through a multilateral organization. Some people are arguing that they are doing what we did in Kosovo and it's not true. On Kosovo, there had been a previous UN resolution that said that Kosovo and the Balkan situation was a threat to our peace and security. We went in with NATO, which is not easy diplomatically or militarily. Then immediately after the war we got UN support for having an international press conflict regime and the UN and EU were in it.
It is much different from the "coalition gathering" that went on for this war?
Candidate Kucinich is saying that the US should pull out of Iraq unconditionally and let the UN takeover. What's your take?
We cannot. I'm willing to believe that things are working in certain parts of Iraq where people are going back to school and are working in and around Baghdad and the so-called triangle. Overall, it looks very chaotic. I never believed that there was a link between Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda and Saddam. I do think that the gathering of their freedom fighter-type people is happening like Afghanistan. The UN does not want to go in there. What needs to happen is we need to get other countries to help us and get the UN to be involved in the civilian and humanitarian reconstruction of Iraq. I think the suggestion that NATO should go in is good.
Is General Powell between a rock and a hard place? Is he going along with the White House script?
It's hard for me to get inside of his head. He is a very fine person and the job of Secretary of State is a very hard job. It's hard for me on the outside to judge his performance.
I liked the fact that you gave personal vignettes on Barak and Arafat in Madam Secretary. You do not normally see that in the mainstream press.
The reason I wanted to do that was to show that diplomacy is not just mechanical. I wanted to show that there are real people involved in these negotiations. People need to know that someone is in a bad mood that day or they don't like so and so.
What more do you wish you could have done in the Mideast peace negotiations in 2000?
I wish we had more time. It's hard because you play with the hand you are dealt. The tragedy is the assassination of Rabin. He believed that Arafat could have been a partner for peace. There are different ways to negotiate. You either take the whole package or just pieces. The decision was to take pieces and to make a functional cooperation -- so that Israelis and Palestinians could work together and develop a sense of respect for each other. When Netanyahu took over, he was like sandpaper. It was a less than generous approach. Barak had incredible ideas that were bold.
Unfortunately, he had a different political calendar. We just ran out of time. Everybody makes mistakes along the way on how we set up the situation with Camp David -- it wasn't about legacy.
What can the Bush Administration do to salvage a peace process?
The US needs to get involved. There are some good plans out there and they need to be a part of it. We all have to do more for this peace process.
What is your take on Election 2004?
I think things are really bad. I hope that there is a really good Democratic candidate. Respect for the US is falling. One of the main themes in my book is about American engagement. In my case it is about the goodness of American power. I want to see the US engaged again. I just think that we need to have a different approach.
What can the American people do to make things better?
I think that we need to have a good energy policy that whether you start with global warming and realize that we are polluting the earth or whether we are dependent on Middle East oil. We should find alternative sources of energy instead of drilling in Alaska. Something you said earlier: we cannot live in terror all the time. We cannot have codes that tell us what level of fright we should be involved in. It would be sad that the horrible lesson of 9-11 was completely lost and all of sudden we were into just thinking about ourselves.
Ultimately, the way of life of the United States is dependent on what happens in the rest of the world. Whether it is an imminent threat of terrorism or a fuel supply or genocide -- the US has to realize that they are not the center of the map. There are people on the other side of the globe who affect our way of life.
Do you remember a time when dissent was labeled "Un-American"?
Yes, it was McCarthyism. Asking questions of the government is the patriotic thing that can be done. People need to speak up. We are about to have an election. I consider it stunning that Max Cleland [the Georgia Senator who was defeated for voting against some anti-terror measures in the Senate] was labeled UnAmerican. | 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 others. Robert has written a number of feature profiles, opinion essays, travel pieces, theater and book reviews
January magazine version of book review
January magazine version of interview