An evening with Albright

I must confess, it was an honor having the former secretary of state grace this campus with her presence. The namesake of “An Evening with Madeleine K. Albright” was very articulate in the remarks she made on Thursday evening, which made criticizing the content of said remarks all the easier.

Indeed, Albright’s answers consisted, almost unilaterally, of stock platitudes evolved over the course of a long lecturing career. Very little of what she said seemed impromptu, with one notable exception. In the student questioning round, one gentleman quoted a statement made by Albright in a 1996 Dateline interview with Leslie Stahl, in which she implied that the 500,000 Iraqi children starving as a result of US embargos upon Iraq constituted an acceptable sacrifice.

Upon being asked by the student to comment upon her statement, Albright blanched, and struggling to regain her composure, mumbled something about never having been confronted with such a question at any school at which she’d spoken. And then, the impossible occurred: Madeleine Albright admitted she had spoken foolishly. But qualification was nonetheless in order, and she subsequently entered into a trite homily about how the U.S. didn’t create Saddam Hussein, how the suffering of his people is entirely upon his own hands, etc.

This is problematic for two reasons. First, although the U.S. did not intend for the incidence of the oil embargo against Iraq to fall upon its civilians, implementation clearly showed that civilian starvation was by and large the effect. Now, as a believer in the realist paradigm, I don’t personally have a problem with the policy if it may be demonstrated that it is in fact promoting the strategic interests of the U.S.; but for Albright to assert that American policy is any less responsible than Hussein for child starvation in Iraq is ridiculous.

The second problem lies in Albright’s spineless prescription for the matter. When asked whether or not she supported a U.S. campaign in Iraq, Albright skirted the issue, talking about how important it is to remain engaged in Afghanistan, effectively relegating Hussein’s regime to the back burner. If, as she says, Saddam is solely responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, then why does a full occupation of Afghanistan take precedence over an invasion of Iraq?

Regarding Sharon and Israel’s “re-conquest” of the West Bank, Albright was mildly deprecating, at best. She said – get this – that the Israeli occupation is, in fact, troubling, and that Palestinian suffering is actually a legitimate issue. Who would have thought? Not to go too far, however, she insisted that we must find better methods of addressing the “Muslim world” (an amorphous institution to her, no doubt), of stemming the tide of Palestinian suicide bombers terrorizing the streets of Israel. As if some innate Muslim predilection to violence accounted for the carnage in the territories, rather than the unprecedented misappropriation of Palestinian land that has occurred since 1967.

To cap it off, she made the broad claim that violence in the Middle East is generally not a product of American foreign policy, and that U.S. interests in the region are entirely benevolent. Had she forgotten that the U.S. aided both sides in the Iran-Iraq war, in hopes of weakening the two states? Had she failed to see the one-sidedness of U.S. bias in the Oslo peace process, and for that matter, over the entire history of Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

The fact of the matter is, the U.S. really hasn’t been a force for any sort of normative “good” in the Middle East: the national interest is, and has always been – even under Albright to some degree – the guiding light of U.S. foreign policy, good or bad. This being the case, Albright really has no reason to lacquer over reality with tripe.

I would say, in fact, that the biggest problem with foreign policy under her leadership was a lack of defined national interest, a lack of focus and priority. On Thursday night, she advocated bulking up the U.S. occupation force in Afghanistan, while simultaneously sending forces to battle the African AIDS epidemic (a complex problem requiring complex prescriptions) and vaguely defined global environmental problems, in addition to terrorism and other national security threats.

This is the sort of desultory foolishness that led the U.S., during Albright’s tenure as secretary of state, to engage in Kosovo while ignoring the Rwandan genocide.

Perhaps if Secretary Albright were to focus more on analyzing the substance of her ideas, and less on playing the crowd (as she did via her cheap attacks on the Bush administration Thursday night), she would be more effective in articulating sound foreign policy analyses.

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