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interview: madeleine albright

photo of madeleine albright

As Clinton's Secretary of State during his second term, she was an outspoken advocate for U.S. intervention abroad, especially in Kosovo. She served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during Clinton's first term.

Interview conducted November, 2000 by Chris Bury

...During his trip [in late 2000] to Vietnam, the president pointedly did not apologize for American involvement. What can you tell us about the discussions about that issue...?

Well, first of all, I think that he, as well as all of us, saw this as a historic trip. I had been to Vietnam a couple of times as secretary of state, and had met with the leaders, talked about an issue that is so vital to us, which is the MIA/POW returns.... But I think that the point here was to talk about the sacrifices made by Americans that had been a part of it, and by the sacrifices of the Vietnamese themselves, and that it made sense to talk about it in historical terms. And then to also make clear that we wanted to look to the future. That it was a historical experience, obviously deeply ingrained in our lives and in their lives, but that it was important to think about a future relationship with the Vietnamese. ...

Given Bill Clinton's own objections to the war in Vietnam, and the fact that this became a campaign issue in 1992 was there a particular poignancy to Clinton himself going? Did you talk to him about that?

I think he felt that it was very important to go ... and that it was important to close that chapter. I think he felt that it was an important trip to take, and that it was an essential part of America's new relationship, not only with Vietnam but with Asia, and generally his approach to new beginnings and trying to sort out relationships for the 21st century.

Just before the trip, you were in North Korea.... Tell us a little bit about that and explain whether there was a surreal quality to visiting the country.

Well, first of all, I think it's very important to put the trip into context in our relations with North Korea. The Korean peninsula has been -- you know, we've talked about it as the most dangerous place in the world, and the last vestige of the Cold War. And I'd been to Republic of Korea, South Korea, any number of times, and been to the demilitarized zone, both as UN ambassador, and then as secretary, and that was surreal. I mean, you stand on one side and look across to this really deserted place with 37,000 American troops there....

So having a different relationship with North Korea, potentially, is one of the last vestiges of the Cold War that have to be dealt with. I think you have to look at it in that context, as well as ... whether the North Koreans were ready to [have] a potentially positive relationship with us, and South Korea, and the Japanese, or whether this was all going to deteriorate....

I had probably about 12 hours of time with Kim Jong Il himself, six in real meetings, and other in various kinds of social occasions. [I] tried to see whether there's something that we can do about what is considered a great threat to us -- which is their missile potential, and their export of missile technology to other countries, and, generally, their military power -- and what can be done to defuse this very dangerous situation....

Do you see Clinton wanting to leave that as part of his legacy of a path toward normalization?

The president's Cabinet, throughout the two terms, has been the longest-lasting, and ... more loyal than any other.I think that we are talking about what the possibilities are, and one of the things that President Clinton has talked about, generally, is his approach to foreign policy. He has seen the world as interdependent. The United States, obviously, is the superpower but very much a part of an interdependent world. He's been the first real post-Cold War president and understands globalization in a way that I don't think anybody else does -- frankly, in a very vast way -- and how it affects American domestic politics and how you deal with other people. I think that he has wanted to generally open relations with countries. He considers it not useful to have the silent approach. He believes that a lot can be done if you engage and you talk. So we will see how this works out, but we are on a path that potentially could change the whole dynamic of the Korean peninsula and of East Asia.

The other main foreign policy story near the end of 2000 was the Middle East. More than 200 dead, 7,000 wounded in the fighting. Was there a sense in the administration that the Camp David talks, in the summer, had failed?

...I think in the time that President Clinton has been in office, a great deal of progress was made in getting the Palestinians and Israelis to deal with each other, to talk with each other. You have to go back to that incredible ceremony in September 1993 over which the president presided, literally, by putting his arms out, and getting Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat to sign a statement of principles, to shake hands, and to move forward on what has come to be known as the Oslo process, the interim process.

We took that very far, and did the agreement at Wye that was to carry out various steps of it. But the interim process was based on the fact that there would be a step by step approach by the leaders of the Israelis and the Palestinians to learn to work with each other on a set of functional issues that would then lead to the possibilities of permanent status talks. That they would learn to work with each other in a way that would make these existential, very difficult permanent status talks more possible.

It was designed for Prime Minister Rabin and for Chairman Arafat, and as we know, the huge tragedy of Prime Minister Rabin being assassinated, complicated that process in the most incredible ways. Something that was supposed to add lubricant to what would be a permanent status discussion actually ended up being like sandpaper.

And we had had many, many discussions with the Israelis and the Palestinians. And a lot of shuttle diplomacy -- Ambassador Ross and I going back and forth, and the president, in countless phone conversations with both Arafat and Barak, and before that, with Netanyahu, and meetings at the White House, and all kinds of various things. And yet we were very concerned at the beginning of the summer that those talks weren't getting anywhere and that violence was imminent. We had to start talking about the permanent status issues, which are refugees, territory, borders, Jerusalem. And those are obviously issues that are of such depth and existential importance, that, ultimately, if there's ever to be a solution to the Middle East, they're going to have to be talked about....

What was his reaction to what happened when the violence erupted in the fall of 2000?

Well, I think he considers it a huge tragedy and tries on a daily basis to break the cycle of violence. This was something that's very much on his mind. For instance, when we were in Brunei, he was making phone calls to the region... He always has his mind on trying to deal with the Middle East issues.

Give us a sense of what it was like back in July at Camp David, when the president's up half the night shuttling between the various cabins over there. What was it like atmospherically?

When he interviewed me for the UN ambassador job, we had detailed
discussions, and he said to me, 'Gosh, if I weren't about to be president,
I'd love to be ambassador to the UN....We all worked constantly. Because the president is a night person, and because both Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak are night people, the whole schedule kind of got reversed, and you'd actually make an arrangement to have a meeting at midnight, or 2:00 in the morning.

And so it was very much working through the night, and practically working 24 hours straight. The president was so involved that it's impossible to separate him from any part of this. We sat in his cabin for most of the time and worked with him. Then he would call people in and [sit] at what is their dining room table in the presidential cabin, with pieces of paper that he himself had outlined, what he wanted to talk about, as he brought either the Israeli team or the Palestinian team in.

We also kind of moved around. There was unfortunately, a lot of rain, and we were on the little golf carts, buzzing around, trying not to be totally soaked, or ruin Camp David.

But there was a lot of work. What I found very interesting -- and this has been the pattern for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations -- is that while the negotiating part is very tough, when we met for meals, there's great camaraderie, and a lot of understanding. The Palestinian-Israeli negotiators know about each other's families and about birthdays and various other aspects of their lives. And then there are very tough negotiations.

[The] atmosphere was very intense, and the most intense moments really were when the president -- he had a time frame, because he had to go to Japan for the G-8, and it looked as though the thing was going to break down and --

In fact it was announced that, that the talks had broken off.

Right, and this has to do with, I think, the personal aspects that everybody had some involvement in. We all went down to have a meal. It was over, and both the Palestinian and the Israeli negotiators came up to each of us Americans and said, "Well, it can't be over, you can't let this happen."

And so it was that intensity of people knowing each other, and knowing that a failure would be disastrous, that the president ... asked them to stay with me, and we were able to continue the discussions....

At the end of Camp David, the president went out of his way to praise Barak, and pointedly left Arafat out of that praise. Had Clinton felt personally betrayed by Arafat? Or was he immensely disappointed in Arafat at the end of that process?

He wanted to point out was the following. Prime Minister Barak had been elected on a peace platform, and had in fact been very forthcoming, even in the lead-up to Camp David. He is the one who kept saying "I was elected to do peace. We need to have peace. We need to keep pursuing this." He was a driving force... The president felt that Prime Minister Barak had really put a great deal of himself into this, and Prime Minister Barak arrived at Camp David, having just survived a vote of no confidence, and really put himself into it. I think that what the president wanted to do was to point [out] the boldness of what Prime Minister Barak was doing. I think one can honestly say that he was disappointed that Chairman Arafat was not, at that stage, able to respond to some of the issues.

In Newsweek this week, there's a quote from Joseph Alpher, who is working for the Israeli delegation. His quote is "In retrospect, after the violence, [Camp David] was a colossal error."

I don't believe it was a colossal error, because we were concerned about violence before. Nobody went in to Camp David naively. It came about as a result of concern that nothing was happening, that there was increasing danger of violence, that the subjects had to be talked about, and that they will, ultimately, be the issues that have to be resolved, if there is to be peace. I think the violence is a huge tragedy. There's no way to describe it in any other way... But I don't think it's as a result of Camp David. On the contrary, I think that Camp David provides a basis for future solutions.

Backing up a little bit, now, to Kosovo.... Why did you and the president, at the beginning of the air campaign, decide to at least publicly leave a ground war off the table?

Well, I think that what we wanted to do was to make clear there was a way to deal with it through bombing. Frankly, I wish that we had left all the options on the table early on, as you look upon it. But I think at the time there was the sense that we had to deal with American public opinion, with the Congress, and also with the Europeans. I think if one looks back -- I personally wish that we had left that option on the table more clearly....

Did President Clinton fear that by leaving a ground war on the table early public opinion would sink any mission in Kosovo, especially with the concerns coming out of Congress at the time?

Well, I think if you remember there was always a lot of discussion about what we were doing in the Balkans anyway. Why did we have forces in Bosnia? Why did we care? And the president systematically made the argument that the Balkans were important to what we were trying to do in Europe generally.

When the president came in he felt that it was very important to have a Europe that was undivided and free, democratic. And a lot of the things that we did directly were part of that and understanding what the mission of NATO was to be in the 21st century. Enlargement of NATO is one of the really important landmarks and credits to President Clinton, [and] dealing with the Balkans as the missing piece of a Europe that could claim that it was undivided and free was an essential aspect of what we were doing.

And yet there are a lot of people [who thought] why bother? Let the Europeans do it. And it was very evident that without American leadership nothing would have happened. But it did take a systematic education of the American public and Congress to try to deal with the issue... I think, frankly, we were concerned about undoing what we had been able to accomplish in Bosnia, and it was a systematic effort to try to do it with as little as possible American ground involvement.

As the air war wore on the administration started getting a fair amount of criticism. There was a point at which it was called "Madeleine's War." Was there a great personal investment on your part in this particular crisis? Did you have a very personal interest in this?

Well the answer is yes, because I believed very much that the Balkans were important, and that it was important for us to finish the job in Europe. What had happened in Europe -- the division -- was the disaster of the 20th century, and I thought that going into the 21st century, to support what the president wanted, we should try to finish the job in the Balkans....

I believe in the goodness of American power. I believe that we have responsibilities. And that doesn't mean that the United States has to be everywhere, all the time, with everything, but that there are certain parts of the world, and certain situations, including humanitarian disasters, where the presence of the United States, in some form, makes a huge difference.

Do you recall any meetings with President Clinton at which he seemed concerned that the air war wasn't working quickly enough?

Well, I think we all were concerned about how it was proceeding, what we should do, and whether Milosevic would actually and ultimately understand that he was in a no-win situation. But the other part that I think is very important for people to know is the president saw the Balkans as a region, a whole, that had to be dealt with in the long run to provide it economic stability and democracy, which is something that is going on now. That comes out of the fact that we were able to have a successful air war, that Serbia is now a free country, and that it can be part of a stable Balkans.

There [was] one very important meeting in the spring, where we all came into the Cabinet room, and were talking about how to prosecute the war. I had started out by saying that we had to see this as more than just the war, the bombing, but what really had to happen with the Balkans to make it work. And we talked about what has now turned into the stability pact, the way that the regional countries could work together. I remember after everybody had gone through the various military things [the president] said, "Let's get back to what Madeleine was talking about, about the future of the Balkans, and not just on what is happening at this particular moment."

He saw it as something that was very much a part of the story of Europe, whole and free. And when he met with members of Congress about it, he talked about the importance of stopping disintegration and the effect of having unhappy Muslim populations in the Balkans on the Middle East. So he saw it as part of a continuum.

...Did you notice a change in how the president addressed [the Balkans] from, from one term to the next?

Well, I think that you have to understand the continuum of foreign policy.... I was ambassador at the United Nations [during his first term]. There was this kind of sense, "Well, let the UN do it." The UN was kind of on a upswing in terms of being able to do the things that people thought it had been set out to do in 1945. There was just a general sense that the United States didn't have to do everything alone, and it was within that context, I think, that the first Clinton term operated doing many more things, multilaterally. But I do think that as the president saw that the situation could not be solved by the Europeans he then believed that a more active American role was essential. And I think that he himself became much more involved in various aspects of foreign policy.

Did he show personal anger at Milosevic? Was he upset about the kind of abuses that were taking place in --


-- Kosovo? Was that part of his change in approach?

Well, I think that a lot of this has to do with when we all learned [more] about what Milosevic was doing... The president, who is a very humane person, was very angry, and believed that this was not the kind of thing that should be happening at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. [He] believed that the U.S. could make a difference, and we did make a difference....

Did you see a definite change in him as a leader by the time he dealt with Kosovo?

Well, I think that everybody grows in their role, and understands issues. I think the thing that attracted me to [President Clinton] in the first place was his ability to integrate domestic and foreign policy. You know, there were lots of jokes about "It's the economy, stupid." And it became very evident to him, very quickly, that it wasn't just the American economy, stupid; it was the international economy. And he more and more understood -- and in a way that I think is unparalleled -- the integration of various parts of foreign policy...

And what I think is so important and interesting, and I see this from a different angle maybe than other people, is the huge respect that he is held in internationally.... He is a figure of such huge proportion, internationally, and so respected, that his personal involvement in things is just called for by the others... Clearly there's kind of a biofeedback that comes from that, and he understands, increasingly, the power of the United States and his own personal possibilities.

Back in '98, there were some awkward foreign policy moments because they were going on at the same time as impeachment. A decision had to be made to bomb Iraq, which actually held back the impeachment. Tell us a little bit about what it was like dealing with a national security crisis at a moment the president of the United States is being impeached.

Well, you know, I actually thought it would have more of an effect than it did. It did not. The president was in every meeting that we wanted to have with him. He was focused. There's some people who say that he compartmentalizes. ... He worked with us very closely, and I felt that he was always available and always there.

The foreign leaders frankly didn't understand what was going on here and why this was happening. If you go back when the president spoke at the [UN] General Assembly in New York that year, he got a standing ovation. It was an example of the outpouring of the international community for what they thought President Clinton represented personally, and as the United States.

And so I have to say while this was obviously a very difficult period for the United States and, obviously, for President Clinton personally, it did not affect foreign policy.

Shortly after the grand jury testimony, there was a decision to retaliate against Osama Bin Laden. That was a very dramatic time. The president was at Camp David [and] had to come back to make the announcement. There were these allegations in the press about "wag the dog." Tell us a little bit about the tension that must have been evident at that moment.

Well, I think that we figured that despite the fact that there were those kinds of statements going on, that we had to do what we had to do. The national security team is a very close team, and we see each other and talk to each other constantly, and kind of felt that we had a responsibility ... to go forward. The president was always there and totally responsible and engaged. I know there may be people who criticize him for his compartmentalization, but for foreign policy, it never interfered...

Going back to January 23rd, that's the Cabinet meeting at which you and several other Cabinet members come out in front of the White House, and suggest that you believed the president has told you the truth on Monica Lewinsky. When you find out that in fact you haven't been told the truth, what is your reaction?

Well, first of all, I did believe the president when he spoke to us January 23rd. I clearly was deeply disappointed, personally. We had a meeting in the residence of the whole Cabinet. The president explained and apologized, which he has done to the American people... I am the senior member of the Cabinet, and I spoke about how disappointed we were, and that we had to move on.

I think that it was a very personal meeting, one [in which] the president was very open with his Cabinet. You know what I find interesting? There are historians who are saying that the president's Cabinet, throughout the two terms, has been the longest-lasting, and one that was more loyal than any other. I pride myself on that, and I think the other members of the Cabinet do also....

Going back to January 1994, you are on a trip with the president to meet with Vaclav Havel, you're going to Czechoslovakia. It's a very important trip for the president. During this time the Whitewater scandal is breaking, and the president is just peppered with questions by virtually the entire press corps while he's over there. What do you remember about that time? I remember scenes where the president was visibly angry at being asked about this sort of domestic tempest while he's on this trip?

... I have to say that foreign leaders and foreign audiences never quite understand the traveling press that is so focused on a domestic issue. While you're having a press conference with X foreign leader, they are focused on some minute part of an American issue, Whitewater in that case. And it's a little bit embarrassing, more to the American press, if I might be so frank, that looks very, kind of pedantic, and also very provincial, without understanding, fully, the important of whatever this visit is... So I think the president, in pushing back on the questions, is basically more embarrassed for the picture that we present as Americans, when you're in a great historic occasion and the press is so focused on something domestic...

You talked a little bit ago about "the economy, stupid," -- the domestic economy being Clinton's campaign theme, especially in the first term. Some of the people we talked to suggested that early in the presidency, he wasn't very much interested in foreign policy.... Was that a fair characterization...?

Well, I have to say, I'm not sure it's fair. I was ambassador to the UN and I had any number of meetings with the president and... he was very involved in foreign policy from the way that I saw it. We were dealing with Somalia. We were dealing with Bosnia. I do think, however, that in terms of priorities he had decided that he wanted to deal with the economy. And it turned out that it was a very wise thing to do because our fiscal problems and our huge budget deficits were actually affecting the international economy....

I think it was time well-spent from my perspective now as secretary of state, because [of] his understanding of how the international economy affects our lives, and the prosperity that it has brought. When he leaves office President Clinton will have turned over a country which is more prosperous than ever, with greater peace than ever before, and I think that is a very worthy thing to have done. And the way that he divided his time, I think turns out to be appropriate.

When you look back and see Bill Clinton's evolution as a statesman, what's the most striking thing to you from early Clinton to Clinton as he left office?

First of all, I think that it's obvious that people grow in their jobs. I mean, that is the way life exists, and nobody ever arrives fully formed within the job, although I think that his credentials for dealing with foreign policy far outweigh those of many previous presidents.

I'm very proud of the fact he went to the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, where I taught later. I know what students were like there. People don't go to that school unless they want to do foreign policy.... When he interviewed me for the job for UN ambassador we had very detailed discussions, and he said to me, "Gosh, if I weren't about to be president, I'd love to be ambassador to the UN." So he was very inclined towards foreign policy.

But the way I think that he has changed is to fully absorb the huge personal capacity that he has to effect change. I think it must be very hard to understand that your personal involvement in something can really make a difference, because even though you're president, you're still an individual.... So he has evolved to fully understand the possibilities of the power that he has, and has involved himself very deeply....

When you look back, what is the single largest regret about the way Clinton handled foreign policy? If you can name one.

Well, I think that that's very hard, because he's handled it well. I think that our main regret, all of ours, is obviously that we haven't been able to accomplish more on the Middle East. And I think a big regret is the fact that we haven't gotten all the support out of Congress that is necessary to carry on a robust foreign policy. So the size of the budget for foreign policy I think is something that he regrets. We've talked about that. That he wishes that there were a way for us to be able to support the new democracies better, but there's not enough money. I think that is the regret.

Madam Secretary, how do you see the president continuing his role as a foreign policy leader once he leaves office?

I think he'll be very involved in foreign policy, and we have talked about that. He believes that he can continue to have relationships with many of the leaders. Many of them have talked to him, saying, "You have to continue to stay involved."... President Jiang Zemin specifically said, "You have made a difference in the way that China and the United States are dealing with each other.

I also think that he has understood that there are new foreign policy issues. The AIDS epidemic or the environmental issues -- that a country can evolve economically and still be environmentally sound... He [is] able to integrate various aspects of the new foreign policy and the number of countries that are involved in the post-Cold War world and what the 21st century ought to look like. I think that it will be a service to the world to have Bill Clinton continue to be involved in foreign policy....

In the fall of 2000, the country woke up one day and saw a remarkable picture of people taking the streets in Belgrade and essentially Milosevic being forced out. What was the president's reaction to that day?

Well, you know, part of the problem was I wasn't with him. I was on an airplane, and I was told about this myself, and thanks to my office, I actually taped everything that was on television. I could see the excitement of it. But when I got back, we obviously talked about the fact that this was a truly important victory for the Serbian people, and how we were pleased for them, and that it was something that we'd done that had worked....

...When it became clear that Milosevic was in fact being forced out, did the president have a sense of vindication about what you had done?

Absolutely, and I think that we felt that it was obviously very difficult to stay focused on what had to be done in the Balkans. It still is going to be difficult to stay focused about what has to be done in the Balkans. But I believe we did the right thing. The president certainly believes we did the right thing. Because we have given the Serbian people an opportunity that the rest of Europe has, which is to choose their own leader, to choose their own way of life, and be part, not only of a functioning Balkan peninsula, but, ultimately, of this new Europe that is integrated and free and undivided.

... And so it was the last piece left. The president's determination, and the skill of the American military made this happen, and of course it's a vindication. But the vindication will ultimately come when we have continued to help those countries, not just Serbia but Croatia and Bosnia, and the other parts of the former Yugoslavia, be at a level with the rest of Europe. And there's a long way to go.

I think that the hardest part about foreign policy is to understand that it is a continuum, that you have to sustain what is being done, and as a new administration takes over, that certain policies are pursued. Just as we were left certain things on the table, we are obviously leaving some positive and some negative, for the next people to come on, and the president and I have talked about this a lot.

It was so evident at this amazing dinner at the White House celebrating the 200th anniversary of the White House that the institutions of the United States are strong and continue, and each of us is here only temporarily to play our part. It's a huge responsibility and each person has made a difference, and you pick up a story and you leave it for the next people. But that is the strength of America, and President Clinton has contributed, richly, to what this country is about.

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