Washington Post
Waning influence at foggy bottom

Albright's style, substance criticized

By John Lancaster

Tuesday, March 28, 2000


Since taking office in January 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright has barnstormed the country from Alaska to Maine, delivering 89 speeches in 41 cities. "The thing I just love watching are teenage girls," said Barbara Larkin, the assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, who sometimes accompanies her boss. "They treat her like she's a rock star."

If only Washington were so kind.

Three years ago, Albright was at the top of her game, a blunt-spoken former Georgetown University professor with a reputation for wearing outsize brooches and staring down dictators. Today her influence is much diminished, eroded by rival agencies and the White House and undercut by widespread criticism of her outspoken, sometimes schoolmarmish style.

Within the department, Albright is regarded by many career diplomats as an insecure and indifferent leader who is quick to anger and obsessed by her public image. Fueling their resentment is Albright's small circle of fiercely protective aides--in particular, James P. Rubin, her spokesman and longtime confidant--whom they regard as more attentive to Albright's interests than those of the institution she serves.

On the domestic front, Albright's emphasis on explaining foreign policy to ordinary Americans--and her related effort to cultivate friendships with key lawmakers such as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms (R-N.C.)--have not been rewarded by significant increases in the State Department's threadbare budgets.

"I don't think she's been very effective," said Peter F. Krogh, the former dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, who hired Albright onto his faculty in 1982 and once counted himself among her biggest fans. "I began to lose my way with her when she began to lecture the world."

Albright, of course, has had her moments of glory.

A few months into her tenure, she adroitly worked the phones to secure Senate approval of the Chemical Weapons Convention, a landmark treaty that had languished under her predecessor, Warren G. Christopher. She presided over a successful reorganization of the State Department's massive bureaucracy. And in what is arguably her greatest triumph, Albright took the lead in selling Russia--and then the Senate--on the expansion of NATO to include formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe.

Even her critics acknowledge that the Czech-born Albright, a refugee from Hitler and Stalin, has a strong internal compass on matters of democracy and human rights. She has been a consistent advocate for the use of military force in humanitarian crises and conflicts with "rogue states" such as Iraq, beating back efforts by the Pentagon, for example, to limit the deployment time for U.S. peacekeepers in Bosnia.

In her native Prague, Albright still radiates sufficient star power that Vaclav Havel, president of the Czech Republic, earlier this month renewed a suggestion he made in 1998 that Albright consider succeeding him; Albright says she is flattered but has no interest.

Albright's record in the Kosovo crisis, the biggest foreign policy test of President Clinton's second term, remains a topic of debate. Some critics believe Albright may have provoked an unnecessary war by mishandling the Rambouillet peace conference; she certainly seems to have underestimated the staying power of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But her defenders say that the war was inevitable, given Milosevic's recalcitrance, and that under the circumstances she deserves credit for stiffening the administration's spine.

"She got Kosovo right," said Ivo Daalder, a Balkans specialist on the National Security Council during Clinton's first term and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who has been sharply critical of Albright in other areas. "She strongly believed that the only way to solve it was to stand up to Milosevic."

Notwithstanding such achievements, however, the dominant impression from dozens of conversations with current and former colleagues, foreign policy experts, congressional officials and career diplomats is that Albright has not measured up to the high--and perhaps unrealistic--expectations that attended her debut as the first female secretary of state.

"I think she has been largely unsuccessful in either getting control over her own building or her own policy generally," said a prominent foreign policy expert and academic who knows Albright well. "She has in effect become the errand boy of foreign policy rather than the conceptualizer of it."

Economic Issues Influence

Even before Albright's arrival, the State Department had been losing ground to other agencies and, in particular, the White House National Security Council; the shift reflects, among other things, the growing importance of economic issues in foreign policy. But that process has accelerated under Albright. By some measures, she wields less influence than any secretary of state since the Nixon administration, when William P. Rogers was largely eclipsed by then-national security adviser Henry A. Kissinger.

She certainly lacks the clout of Christopher, who had run Clinton's 1992 transition team and, according to a former aide, remained so close to the president that before leaving work each day he dictated a "night memo" to Clinton, who replied the next morning. (Albright sends such memos sporadically.)

The dominant role now belongs to national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger, whose friendship with Clinton spans three decades. It was Berger, for example, who was responsible for Clinton's much-criticized declaration last March 24 that "I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war." Without consulting Albright, he inserted the line at the last minute into a Clinton speech.

In keeping with the devolution of power from the State Department on trade-related issues, Berger is clearly in charge of China policy: Albright was on a diplomatic mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina when Berger and other Cabinet secretaries recently joined Clinton in kicking off the administration's campaign to win congressional approval of permanent normal trade relations with Beijing, one of its top foreign policy priorities.

A former NSC staff member who recently left the administration described Berger as polite and deferential to Albright, who typically opens White House meetings of foreign policy "principals" by reading from prepared notes. Once that is out of the way, however, Clinton usually turns to Berger or his deputy, James Steinberg, to engage in substantive discussions, the former official said.

"She's not the one you wait for to weigh in with the most compelling, powerful case," said the former official. "You just don't expect that from her."

In an interview over breakfast recently in the State Department's Monroe Room, Albright dismissed suggestions that her influence with Clinton has waned relative to Berger. "I don't think any of us have any problems," she said, suggesting that it is natural that the president's national security adviser "would be in a position of coordinating" the various agencies involved in foreign policy.

On the other hand, Albright's tough public statements are often out of sync with the more cautious approach favored by Berger and Clinton. Albright, for example, has been among the most vocal advocates of the administration's professed policy of promoting "regime change" in Baghdad. To advance that goal, Albright last year proposed that the United States sanction a meeting of Iraqi opposition groups in the U.S.-protected Kurdish enclave of northern Iraq, according to Iraqi opposition sources. Berger--with backing from the Pentagon--overruled the proposal on grounds that it could provoke a violent response from Saddam Hussein (an Albright aide confirmed the story but emphasized that "it was not one of those cases where she felt strongly").

Albright's frequent, triumphal references to the supremacy of U.S. power and values--to America as "the indispensable nation"--grate on those who favor a subtler approach. In the midst of the Kosovo crisis, Krogh, the former Georgetown dean, wrote a blistering piece on the Wall Street Journal editorial page attacking what he called "a foreign policy of sermons and sanctimony accompanied by the brandishing of Tomahawks."

Albright makes no apologies. "In order to motivate the American people to understand our global leadership position and to get the money and to get the interest, you have to make clear that we have a special role," she said, adding that "American culture . . . is the culture of the day. We're not telling people that they should buy blue jeans or [watch] MTV."

Strategy Seen As Undefined

Triumphalism aside, there is the question of whether Albright has articulated a strategy for dealing with the confused geopolitical landscape of the post-Cold War world. Some think not. "Neither she nor anyone else in the administration has laid out clear strategic priorities for American foreign policy in the current international environment," Daalder said.

Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who got to know Albright when she served on his staff in the Carter administration, declines to comment directly on her track record. But when asked whether the administration shows a clear foreign policy vision, he replied: "I don't sense that it does, but I'm sure that its policymakers feel that they do."

What one senior diplomat calls Albright's "failure of leadership" has not endeared her to the State Department's rank-and-file. In interviews, career diplomats described her as having narrow interests centering on her native Europe. In other areas, they say, the former U.N. ambassador known for her bold public persona often seems unsure of herself, relying heavily on scripts drafted by aides.

A ranking diplomat recalled attending a meeting in which Albright was to deliver a stern message to a visiting foreign minister. But the meeting had the opposite effect, the diplomat said, when Albright donned a pair of glasses and began to read from notes. "It was delivered in such a monotone, in such a disinterested, disconnected way that the only message the guy could have received is, 'I don't really care about this,' " the diplomat complained.

One thing that Albright and her aides do seem concerned with is her image. Albright, for example, last year asked the New York Times to refer to her as "Dr." rather than "Ms.," since she holds a doctorate in international relations. Critics say she has a volatile temper that frequently surfaces when she faces public criticism.

Both sides of Albright's personality were on display during the breakfast interview. Seated in front of a crackling fire, Albright gamely fielded questions on topics from Iraq policy to State Department budgets. She claimed not to mind the exercise, joking at one point, "I've always been a grade grubber."

But Albright also made it clear that she has had her fill of Washington's chattering classes. When Krogh's name came up, she dismissed him and other critics as "people who didn't get jobs" in the administration.

Plea for Money Often Unheeded

Albright rarely gives a domestic speech without citing the need for more spending on foreign affairs, and with good reason. Last year, the bipartisan Overseas Presence Advisory Council warned that the American diplomatic presence abroad is nearing a "state of crisis," citing embassies so crowded that some personnel have to work out of converted shipping containers.

For the same reason, Albright early in her tenure sought to repair relations with the Republican-controlled Congress, making a pilgrimage to Helms's home state of North Carolina and even holding his hand for photographers.

Her efforts were not entirely for naught. Albright succeeded in arresting the slide in budgetary resources that began in the late 1980s and hit bottom under her predecessor. Since she arrived at the State Department, foreign affairs budgets have registered a modest increase, from $19.6 billion in 1996 to $22.3 billion for the current fiscal year.

Nevertheless, spending on foreign affairs--a broad category that includes foreign aid as well as the cost of maintaining a worldwide diplomatic presence--is still well below its 1985 peak. And much of the new spending secured by Albright has gone to pay for security improvements following the 1998 embassy bombings in East Africa, rather than for programs or personnel (more than 400 foreign service jobs around the globe are currently unfilled). A senior State Department official, while asserting that Albright has managed to push budget issues "above the fold" in terms of White House priorities, acknowledged that making the case for more money with the White House Office of Management and Budget--let alone Congress--has been "very hard."

Despite Albright's efforts to make friends on Capitol Hill, she has been been "pretty ineffective" in protecting State's spending priorities, said a Democratic staff member on a key budget-related committee. A Republican staff member agreed, citing as evidence Albright's difficulties last year in securing funds to pay for implementation of the Wye Accord between Israel and the Palestinians.

"She's presumed her good P.R. will carry her through the difficult times," the staff member said.

One key test of Albright's relations with Congress, and with Helms in particular, occurred during last fall's Senate debate over the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In an effort to forestall a vote, Albright worked the phones "like a begging tornado," a Senate aide said. But the vote went ahead anyway, and the treaty went down to defeat, deeply embarrassing the administration abroad.

Albright has not forgiven Helms, and the two have barely spoken since, said a close associate.



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