Albright's Old World Ways : Is the Secretary of State --Accustomed to Seeing Things in Black and White-A Cold Warrior Caught in the Wrong Decade?

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Two recent scenes from the life of Madeleine Korbel Albright: Independence, Mo., the home of the Truman Library, part of the iconography of the American Century. Albright--the most media-savvy secretary of State since Henry Kissinger--has fussed over every detail of this event. With a triumphant flick of her pen, she signs three former Soviet satellites into NATO, the mighty alliance created by Truman and his secretary of State, her personal hero and model, Dean Acheson. To a standing ovation, Albright holds the treaties aloft like trophies, her aquiline face beaming. She wipes away tears and in a triumphal speech yelps, "Hallelujah!" The signing is at once a coda to the cold war and the culmination of Albright's personal journey. A child of Munich (she was a toddler in Prague when Neville Chamberlain gave Czechoslovakia away to Hitler), she saw her homeland lost a second time to the communists. Now, as America's top diplomat, she has brought the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary into the fold on the eve of NATO's 50th anniversary next month. For Albright, says a close aide, the Mar. 12 event was "pure joy."

Scene Two: Rambouillet, France, late February. Standing atop a makeshift podium in a musty school gymnasium, taking questions, an exhausted Albright looks downcast, ashen-faced. After some of the hardest, most grueling negotiations of her life, U.S. credibility seems in a shambles. Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic has defied an American ultimatum to call off attacks on the renegade province of Kosovo. Even the Kosovar guerrillas are, brazenly, resisting U.S. pleas to let NATO protect them (they want to fight for full independence). It wasn't exactly an Achesonian moment: the "indispensable nation," as Albright likes to call the United States, looked instead like a referee tossed out of the ring at a World Wrestling Federation match. Four U.S.-imposed deadlines passed without threatened strikes until last Thursday, when the talks finally collapsed. NATO bombing may now be imminent--but over the weekend the humanitarian disaster that Albright tried to avert was already underway. Following the abrupt pullout of Western peace monitors, Serb forces unleashed their deadliest offensive of the year on three fronts.

The signing in Independence and the failed talks over Kosovo highlight the difference between rhetoric and reality in U.S. foreign policy. For Albright, that difference is now her biggest headache. It is also one reason she's under attack, along with her counterpart at the White House, national-security adviser Sandy Berger, and their boss, Bill Clinton. While Albright is at home evoking the spirit of the Truman Doctrine, most of what U.S. diplomats must deal with today are odd little eruptions like Kosovo--isolated cases of ethnic conflict that fit into no easy pattern. The titanic standoff of the cold war has dissolved into a chaos in which crises seem to crop up suddenly, triggered in unexpected ways. In 1997, for example, a financial collapse in Albania led to an arms flow across the border to the Kosovo Liberation Army, until then a small, powerless group. We now live in a world in which dictators like Milosevic and North Korea's Kim Jong Il can nimbly test the limits of America's self- preoccupation. They are too small-time to arouse a national consensus to go to war, yet too annoying to be ignored, especially when they're always popping up on CNN.

Albright can't be blamed for this; even a Dean Acheson might be stymied by the messy landscape of the post-cold-war world. Yet the secretary's problem, her critics here and abroad say, is that she still seems a cold warrior lost in the wrong decade, habitually casting foreign-policy flareups as challenges to U.S. might. Too hawkish by half, she tends to talk in black-and-white terms about issues that are decidedly gray. Several times in her two-year tenure she has slipped into rhetorical overkill: warning Milosevic dramatically a year ago that he couldn't "do in Kosovo what he did in Bosnia" (the U. …