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Madeleine Albright: Packing Heat

8 minute read
Douglas Waller/Rambouillet

This was nobody’s idea of a romantic Valentine’s Day. While millions of couples prepared for a quiet night out, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and her top aides bundled onto an Air Force jet bound for France, where peace talks between Yugoslav Serbs and Albanians were stalemated. From the moment she landed, Albright began trying to punch through the impasse. She bluntly threatened the Serbs with warnings about NATO air strikes, charmed the Albanians with the promise of U.S. support and kept her fellow foreign ministers in line by reminding them of their commitment to hit the Serbs hard if negotiations failed. As the day wound down, Albright sat through a tense meeting with the Kosovo “contact group” and grimly repeated America’s commitment to bomb Belgrade if necessary. While the delegates sat in an uneasy silence after her pronouncement, the Secretary put up her hand with a final observation. “I just want to say,” she cooed, “that it is a great honor being the only woman in the room and spending Valentine’s Day with so many handsome men.” The dour diplomats couldn’t stifle their chuckles.

The performance was typical Albright, a balance of charm and force in the pursuit of a policy based on pure pragmatism and an underlying belief that the U.S. can help restore order to the badly fractured Balkans. In the past month, Albright has moved to the center of U.S. negotiations over the fate of the ethnic Albanians living inside the Yugoslav province of Kosovo. Last Saturday, after jetting back to France, Albright hiked up and down stairs for nine hours in the drafty 14th century castle in which talks were under way, carrying proposals between hard-line Serb negotiators and Kosovo guerrilla chieftains. By day’s end, she had moved the Albanians, including key negotiator Veton Surroi, close to accepting the NATO plan, but the Yugoslavs were still stonewalling. “They are not engaging,” she told TIME in an exclusive interview. Her plan, aides say, was to secure agreement from the Albanian side within 48 hours, isolating the Yugoslavs and presenting Belgrade with a simple choice: join the agreement or be bombed. “I did a lot of castle shuttling today,” she said, as she slumped into a couch during a negotiating break, clearly tired by the work. Boasted a proud staff member: “She’s quarterbacking the Kosovo diplomacy.” But a very difficult game lies ahead.

The problem is that Albright’s plan for Kosovo calls for putting NATO ground troops onto Yugoslav territory, something President Slobodan Milosevic says violates his sovereignty; it would be, he says, as if he had suggested putting NATO troops into Northern Ireland to control unrest there. NATO says the ethnic violence in Kosovo demands a strong international response. For Albright and her team, the stalled talks have meant preparing a two-track approach that will involve bombing if Milosevic refuses to negotiate and ground troops if he agrees to a last-minute concession.

Albright has long believed that the only things Milosevic understands are blunt words and brute force. She’s been contemptuous of the Serb strongman ever since her first visit as Secretary of State to Belgrade in 1997, when he patronizingly told her she was a neophyte in Balkan politics. Albright, who spent three years in Belgrade as the daughter of a Czech ambassador, shot back, “Don’t tell me I’m uninformed. I’ve lived here.”

Albright is convinced that thousands needlessly lost their lives in the Bosnian civil war because the West dithered. She vowed not to repeat that mistake in Kosovo. But by last month it seemed that Washington was going to do just that. The unarmed peace monitors who had been sent to the province watched helplessly as the slaughter continued. Albright, nervous about the quickly deteriorating truce, persuaded President Clinton and Defense Secretary William Cohen to deploy peacekeepers, then cajoled European foreign ministers into giving Milosevic a two-week deadline to accept a peace agreement or face NATO bombing. On a trip to Moscow in January, she laid out the U.S. plan to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov during intermissions at a performance of La Traviata at the Bolshoi Theater. By the end of the opera, Ivanov had agreed that Russia would not object to the threat of air strikes–giving Albright a stronger negotiating position.

With the Russians on board, Albright spent the next two weeks keeping half a dozen trains moving in a complex operation of diplomatic logistics. She began each day with a 7 a.m. phone call to U.S. ambassador Christopher Hill, who was paving the way for the peace talks. That was followed by phone calls to nervous European foreign ministers, Ivanov and U.S. Congressmen–all to keep everyone from wavering on air attacks if Milosevic reneges. Albright has learned from past failures that “she has to be on top of each train to make sure they all end up in the same place,” says an aide.

If Milosevic finally blinks, it will be a much needed victory for Albright, a validation of her speak-loudly-and-carry-a-tomahawk diplomacy. Since she took office two years ago, America’s first female Secretary of State has done plenty of loud talking. Her ultimatums–delivered to leaders as different as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein–have become a common refrain in international diplomacy. And the cost of ignoring her is often a rain of missiles.

So far, at least, the strategy has had mixed results. And Albright has seen her once golden image dim. Places like Baghdad and Belgrade seem every bit as tumultuous today as when she took office. Congress is wary of her promises that U.S. troops–some 4,000 will be part of the NATO force–will be in Kosovo no more than three years. And negotiations in places like Israel are frozen. It is hard to pin the blame for those stumbles on Albright–these are, after all, centuries-old conflicts. But her tenure has been dominated by the irritations of what aides call “unsolvable” problems instead of the major achievements that dot the careers of great statesmen and -women.

Albright, of course, hopes to join their ranks. And a victory in Kosovo would be the first step toward validating a kind of Albright Doctrine, which combines careful coalition building with the judicious use of force. “I am a great believer in American power and the importance of making it clear we can use it,” she says.

A deal would be a tribute to Albright’s ability to build personal relationships. Her charm–the Valentine’s Day flirt is typical–has enabled her to break through the formality of diplomacy and build ties that make it easier for her to keep those trains running on time. The links extend outside the Balkans. Palestinian chief Yasser Arafat, long a skeptic of U.S. intentions in the Middle East, trusts Albright to be an honest broker. And Russian Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov–with whom she exchanges presents for their respective grandchildren–is closer to Albright than to Clinton.

Albright’s relationship with Clinton has complexities of its own, but the President has given her freedom, as he did last week on Kosovo, to “close deals” when she can. Some White House officials gripe that she often hogs credit for diplomatic successes. “Nobody minds when Madeleine throws out the first pitch at ball games or puts on the Stetson hats,” says a senior White House aide. “But what bugs people here is her good press at the President’s expense.” Albright sees her public stature differently: “I think I’ve made foreign policy very interesting to the American people,” she explains. That’s essential as America tries to find its place in the world. “We are going to face a real question about what the leadership role of the United States should be,” she says.

Nowhere is that truer than in Kosovo, where only U.S.-led air strikes may be enough to bring Milosevic closer to concessions. Though his negotiators last week were willing to talk about political options in Kosovo, he remained adamant that no NATO troops would be allowed on Yugoslav territory. Albright’s aides say she hopes for an eventual compromise that would put NATO troops in Kosovo without making the Serbs feel they are “losing” the province.

That will be a tough sell in Belgrade. And no one is sure what that kind of agreement would mean in the long term. Would NATO really support Kosovar independence with military force? The allies are keeping the answer to that question vague in the hope that Milosevic will be able to interpret it in a face-saving way.

In the meantime, the Kosovo Liberation Army, the Albanian group that has done the bulk of the fighting against Milosevic’s men, continues to arm and train for a serious war against the Serbs. And while an occupation of Kosovo may help ease Albright’s worries about more massacres, it offers no guarantee of an enduring peace and the possibility of a disastrous civil war when NATO leaves. Albright, like generations of diplomats before her, may find that all the charm in the world is no match for centuries of Balkan bitterness.

–With reporting by Dejan Anastasijevic/Belgrade and Mark Thompson/Washington

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