Madeleine Albright

Taking stock of people and ideas in the news.
April 25 1999 3:30 AM

Madeleine Albright

The diplomat who mistook her life story for statecraft.

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Click here for Slate's complete Kosovo coverage.

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The Bush administration's approach to the unfolding disaster in Yugoslavia might be characterized as inaction backed up by indifference. Until last month, the Clinton administration preferred calls for action backed up by indecision. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Mark Danner has argued that the administration's predilection for tough talk, coupled with its political timidity, did much to make matters worse in Bosnia. In 1993, Clinton, urged on by Albright, rejected out of hand the Vance-Owen plan for partition of the country, saying that it rewarded Serb aggression. Two years later, after the massacres at Srebrenica and Vukovar, the slaughter and displacement of tens of thousands more Croats and Muslims, the decimation of Sarajevo, and the Serb conquest of more territory, the administration pushed through the Dayton Accords. This agreement, which gave the Serbs a great deal more than Vance-Owen would have, was puffed as a Nobel-worthy diplomatic accomplishment. In the meantime, Albright had promoted the United Nations' disastrous "Safe Havens" policy, which placed masses of unarmed Bosnian civilians under the "protection" of minuscule numbers of U.N. (but no U.S.) troops--that is, left them at the mercy of Serb paramilitaries, who systematically set about driving them from their homes and killing them.

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The administration's failure to act effectively in Bosnia (or in Rwanda) can't be blamed entirely, or even primarily, on Albright, whose job at the time was peripheral to the making and implementing of policy. Nor can the Kosovo campaign be called "Albright's war," even though it was the utter failure of her attempted diplomacy at Rambouillet (along with the failure of her one-time rival Richard Holbrooke in Belgrade) that helped to precipitate the current conflict. But the NATO campaign against Milosevic is often, and rightly, viewed as the victory of Albright's interventionist position over the more cautious views of colleagues such as National Security Adviser Samuel Berger and his predecessor Anthony Lake. The genesis of that position, Albright has insisted, lies in her own life story: Her view of the world, she repeats as though it were a mantra, was formed not by Vietnam, but by Munich, by the failure of the great powers to check totalitarian aggression in Central Europe. But as the war over Kosovo escalates, such analogies prove to be of limited and rapidly diminishing use. It is likely that future secretaries of state will say that the formative experience of their lives was Kosovo. What they mean when they say that, rather than how she got to be where she is, will determine Albright's place in history.

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.