The Lioness in Winter: Madeleine Albright Still Takes Hits, but Thanks to Her New 'Serenity' and Low-Key Style, They Just Don't Hurt as Much

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It wasn't long ago that Madeleine Albright was known as "Madame War." No one meant this as a compliment. Stern and hawk-faced, her signature Stetson pulled low over her eyes, the secretary of State seemed to be the militant in Bill Clinton's cabinet. She was the one who prodded NATO into battle for the first time in 50 years in Kosovo, ousted a U.N. secretary-general for his reluctance to bend to U.S. demands and lectured countries left and right over their behavior. The United States, Albright loved to say, is "the indispensable nation." And while her counterparts around the world recognized that was no doubt true, they didn't particularly want their noses rubbed in it. Within Washington circles, meanwhile, she was roundly derided as a single-minded policy lightweight, obsessively focused on bringing American power to bear on every situation, whether in Kosovo or Iraq.

Witness, then, the "new" Madeleine Albright: humble, subtle and, to a surprising degree, effective. And that's some of her critics talking. Example: at the Community of Democracies conference of some 100 nations in Warsaw last week, the secretary sat in a back row and merely introduced a poignant videotaped message from Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. No one called the United States indispensable. America's role wasn't even mentioned in the opening speeches--though the conference was the brainchild of Albright herself and her old friend Polish Foreign Minister Bronislaw Geremek. All this was deliberate. It was a way of pushing Albright's all-American agenda--promoting democracy--but giving the rest of the world the face to say they were acting on their own. It wasn't quite a Nixon-goes-to-China turnabout, but the change was notable: Albright, the hard-edged American jingoist, had turned multilateralist softie.

In the Mideast, too, where she flew late last week to make a final push for peace, Albright dropped the rhetoric of 1998. That's when she publicly challenged the then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come to the bargaining table--or else. In Jerusalem this time, she sought--gently--to prod the Israelis and Palestinians together for a summit, and some signs pointed to possible success in coming weeks. Even as right-wingers shouted "Albright, go home!" outside her hotel window, Prime Minister Ehud Barak publicly praised her for her "unique role" in keeping the peace after his historic pullout from southern Lebanon. Yet the State Department--which once touted her every small triumph--didn't even bother to promote what that role was.

What's changed? Associates say Albright was deeply hurt by all the criticism. In the last year, she has altered her style dramatically. "I think the secretary has grown in her job in a remarkable way," says Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, a GOP member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and occasional critic. "She's now practicing the art of the possible, not the confrontational. She's trying to facilitate and not dictate." Albright herself admits she's responded to the bad press (interview) but wonders whether it's more that "people have gotten used to me." Her ex-spokesman, Jamie Rubin, calls it a new "serenity." "She's kind of gotten past all the critics. They've done their damage and stung, but she's said, 'I've only got about six months left, and I'm going to get as much done as I can'. …