Sideline Diplomacy

Last month, Madeleine Albright, who served in the Clinton administration as ambassador to the United Nations and later as secretary of State, met with the Times editorial board. What follows was excerpted from that conversation. Both questions and answers have been edited, or sometimes combined, for clarity.

Question: Has the Bush administration obliterated all traces of the Clinton foreign policy vision?

Answer: When the administration came in, we all kidded about how they'd adopted a policy of "ABC." Anything but Clinton. But the foreign policy of a country, to a great extent, is not set by ideologues but by the flow of events. Policy and diplomacy need to react to what other countries are doing. I think that on some of the issues, reality has set in. With the delays in determining the election outcome, the transition period was abbreviated. But when Colin Powell [then the secretary of State-designate] came in, we did talk. We went through a lot of different things. He had an office on the first floor of the State Department, and his team began interviewing everybody. He and I met then on a regular basis to talk about ongoing policies toward countries like North Korea. Since then, we have had little contact. I've known Colin Powell a long time, and we are friendly when we see each other on social occasions. But I've had, over the two-and-a-half years he's been secretary of State, maybe four calls from him. Quite frankly, I'm surprised that I've had so little contact with Powell. When I was named secretary, I called all my predecessors, and I had individual lunches with each of them in order to really establish what had gone on. Some of them I stayed in quite close touch with, including Jim Baker, Henry Kissinger and Warren Christopher.

Q: Did the Clinton administration miss the seriousness of the terrorist threat?

A: Our problem was actually the opposite. We couldn't get anybody to believe how serious it was. President Clinton talked about it all the time -- in State of the Union addresses and in various public statements and in all meetings with the Cabinet. We tripled the [anti-terrorism] budget of the FBI and increased the budget of the CIA and set up an Osama bin Laden office that kept getting larger and larger. My worst day as secretary was [in August 1998] when the embassies were blown up in Kenya and Tanzania. We did link that to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and we launched 79 cruise missiles against Afghanistan and the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan [which was believed to have been producing chemical weapons]. President Clinton put out executive orders to use lethal force against Osama bin Laden. We were criticized at the time for overreacting. I try very hard to stay out of the "was 9/11our fault, was 9/11 their fault" debate, because I find it useless. But when we did transition briefings, the Bush administration was not interested in what we were telling them about terrorism. They were quite surprised when they saw how much time we spent on it. They really did not believe that they'd have to spend as much time.

Q: Did you believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when we went to war?

A: When the U.N. inspectors were [withdrawn] in 1998, we thought that there were weapons still unaccounted for, and we were concerned that the Iraqis could reconstitute some of those weapons. That's where we left the story in 1998. So, logic would suggest that those things still existed. I would not have gone to war over them, but I'm willing to believe that they were there.

Q: Why didn't we find them?

A: I had very interesting conversations with some of the former weapons inspectors. They said that the kind of evidence that might have been there right after the war ended was not the kind that a Marine kicks a door open and finds. It would have been mostly stuff that scientific people might find by following the paper trail, and looking for small pieces of things hidden somewhere. God knows what happened, whether that stuff got scattered or what. I think there's a small possibility that some of it has been given to terrorist groups, but I'm willing to believe that it was there.

Q: Do you think we should continue trying to find them?

A: The president put American credibility on the line on this, so it would be helpful if we found them. On the other hand, I think there are those who would be suspicious if something were to show up now. There are those who would question where it came from all of a sudden. I think it's probably worth continuing the hunt, though, because our credibility is worth a lot.

Q: Were the sanctions on Iraq effective?

A: When I got to the U.N. in February 1993, a whole host of sanctions were on the table. We had a line, which said that Iraq had to abide by all the sanctions resolutions in order for us to be able to lift our embargoes on them. There was a different interpretation by some of the countries -- primarily France and Russia -- on what that meant, but we worked hard to hold the coalition together because there was no other way. Eventually, the fact that the sanctions affected ordinary Iraqis lessened the support for them, particularly in the Arab world. One of the things I did as ambassador was to declassify some photographs showing how many palaces Saddam had built since the war. It was something like 50 palaces costing perhaps half a billion dollars. We showed these pictures to people like Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah in order to show that Saddam had money: He just was not spending it on the right things. That's when the oil-for-food program was started. The sanctions were a tool, and in such situations there aren't a lot of tools. You have diplomacy, you have economic tools and you have force. We were using all three. In the long run, I actually think the inspectors were effective. They destroyed more weapons of mass destruction between 1991 and 1998 than were destroyed in the [first] Gulf War. So I was surprised that President Bush did not capitalize on his victory of getting the inspectors back in.

Q: Do we need to repair our relations with other countries, and how would we do so?

A: Well, I think for starters it requires the secretary of State being our spokesman rather than the secretary of Defense. It requires an attempt to understand that our national interest is dependent on how other countries feel about us rather than thinking that we can depend totally on our own power. It requires understanding that the strength of the United States comes from partnerships and alliances, rather than this view that we are better off going it alone. We may soon have to recognize that, while we can do the war in Iraq by ourselves, we can't do the peace by ourselves. The truth is, most countries really want to be friends with us.

Q: Even Germany and France?

A: I think France is a fascinating ally. They really do have delusions of grandeur, and there is a jealousy of us. But ultimately, if you work to persuade them, they are good allies. It is very easy to get at cross-purposes with the French. I fully believe that [French President Jacques] Chirac is as responsible as George Bush for the failure in getting U.N. support for this war, because if you have Chirac saying, "I will veto anything that comes down," and Bush saying, "I don't care what the Security Council says," then they've announced in advance that they aren't going to have anything to do with each other. As for Germany, I think our country has to recognize that there are other democracies in the world where leaders must respond to their electorates, and I think there was very little recognition of that. I think [German Chancellor Gerhard] Schroeder was not very clever in the way that he handled his campaign. It is perfectly conceivable that if he had picked up the phone and said, "You know, George, I'm in a very tough campaign. You understand how difficult these things are, and I will need to say some negative things about the U.S.," some of the problems might have been avoided.

Q: Do you see hope for a Middle East peace?

A: I don't think anything can work in the Middle East if the United States is not involved in it. Now, we have basically pulled back again. I hope the "road map" is only in the glove compartment, that it is not totally ripped up. I'm very troubled by the wall being built by the Israelis. They are creating huge problems. But I also think that, as a hard-liner, [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon has an opportunity to do the kind of thing [President Richard] Nixon did in opening up relations with China. On the Palestinian side, I spent a lot of time with [Palestinian Authority President Yasser] Arafat, more than I ever thought I would or wanted to. What I found out about him, without using too much psychobabble, is that he really loves being a victim, and he is incapable of making the hard decisions that a president needs to make. When his role was that of a traveling victim, he was received at the highest levels. That was much more interesting than worrying about the sewer system in Gaza. On the other hand, I had a sense that he was becoming increasingly marginalized within Palestinian society, because he wasn't delivering anything. The Israelis did him a huge favor by attacking his headquarters in Ramallah. Suddenly he was again the center of attention. More recently, the deputy Israeli prime minister said that Arafat should be exiled or assassinated. That got Arafat out there again, blowing kisses and waving, with new crowds of young supporters cheering him on. The Israelis have made a huge tactical mistake in the way they've dealt with him.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°