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Remembering the first female American Secretary of State

By Adekeye Adebajo
05 April 2022   |   2:34 am
While I was completing a short biography of the first African and the first Arab United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, word came through of the death of his nemesis

Boutros Boutros-Ghali

While I was completing a short biography of the first African and the first Arab United Nations (UN) Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, word came through of the death of his nemesis: the then United States (US) Ambassador at the UN under Bill Clinton (1993-1997), Madeleine Albright, who single-handedly led the campaign that ousted the Egyptian from office in December 1996. Albright recently died of cancer at the age of 84.
An Irresistible Force Meets an Immovable Object
After Albright accused the UN of “betrayal,” Boutros-Ghali condemned the “vulgarity” of her language.

The time was fast approaching when an irresistible force would confront an immovable object. The Egyptian’s undisguised disdain for Albright’s diplomatic skills – he felt she was an “unseasoned” hectoring novice, whom some diplomats cruelly derided as “half-bright” – would prove fatal.

Boutros later noted that: “She seemed to have little interest in the difficult diplomatic work of persuading her foreign counterparts to go along with the positions of her government, preferring to lecture or speak in declarative sentences, or simply read verbatim from her briefing books. She seemed to assume that the mere assertion of a US policy should be sufficient to achieve the support of other nations.”

Boutros-Ghali complained that Albright was trying to instruct him on which countries to visit, which Special Representatives to appoint, what to say or avoid saying, and lecturing him on the importance of keeping a distance from a hostile US Congress.

A High-Tech Lynching
In the last year of his five-year tenure in 1996, Boutros complained prophetically that he felt like a man condemned to execution. Albright was often crude and tactless in her vindictive campaign against the Egyptian’s re-election, asking: “Who would you rather have as your friend, Bill Clinton or Boutros-Ghali?” She boosted her own chances of winning bipartisan support for her successful bid to become the first female American Secretary of State between 1997 and 2000, by acting as Clinton’s willing executioner: she personally put Boutros-Ghali’s head on the guillotine and administered the fatal blow. She then presented the bodiless head to a bloodthirsty US Congress in a modern version of King Herod’s gift of John the Baptist’s head to his sanguinary wife’s daughter, Salome.
In November 1996, Albright offered Boutros-Ghali the head of a proposed US-funded counter-terrorism foundation in Geneva with the title “Secretary-General of the UN Emeritus.” The Egyptian dismissed the suggestion to become a glorified nobody out of hand, seeing himself as fighting for the integrity of his organisation and the independence of his office. Boutros-Ghali’s Ghanaian Undersecretary-general for Peacekeeping, Kofi Annan, then worked with Albright as she plotted the removal of Boutros-Ghali. Annan – a supposedly apolitical international civil servant – candidly admitted in his 2012 memoirs that he had met with Albright in 1996 to discuss removing his boss and replacing him. Having failed to consult even its closest allies on its decision to oust Boutros-Ghali, Washington stood alone among the 15 Security Council members in vetoing the Egyptian’s reappointment in December 1996. Albright had triumphed in her “high-tech lynching” of the first Afro-Arab UN Secretary-General.

Refugee from Hitler and Stalin
Marie – Madeleine in French – Korbelova was born in Prague on 15 May 1937, as the eldest child of a Czech diplomat Josef Korbel and his wife, Anna. Madeleine grew up in opulence, attending high school in Geneva, before fleeing with her parents and two siblings to London, as Hitler seized the Czech Sudetenland in 1939. Her father returned to Prague after the Second World War and was posted to Belgrade as Ambassador. Here, his eight-year-old daughter performed diplomatic protocol duties with her father as a flower girl in Czech traditional dress, which provided the inspiration for a future diplomatic career. As Soviet-backed Communists took over the Czech government in 1948, the family fled once more. This time they successfully sought asylum in the US, where Josef secured a Professorship at the University of Denver.
Madeleine’s Jewish parents had converted to Catholicism in London to protect the family which lost 26 members, including three of Madeleine’s grandparents, to the Nazi Holocaust. She was a good student, majoring in political science at the elite women’s liberal arts Wellesley College in Massachusetts, which her good friend, Hillary Clinton, would attend a decade later. The lifelong feminist described the college, during the conformist 1950s, as a place where young women were empowered and groomed for leadership roles. She also developed a strong sense of public service, noting: “I wanted to give something back to the country that had given so much to me.” The college would later name its Institute for Global Affairs after Albright.

After graduating from Wellesley, Madeleine married Joseph Albright, the rich scion of a newspaper empire, in 1959. They had three daughters, and the family shuttled between Washington DC and New York. Her ambition to become a journalist was frustrated in a male-dominated industry, and she instead completed masters and doctorate degrees at New York’s Columbia University. She then worked as a legislative staffer for Senator Edmund Muskie and electioneered for several Democratic presidential campaigns. Her Professor at Columbia, Zbigniew Brzezinski – a fellow emigré whose diplomatic family had similarly fled persecution from Poland – then head-hunted Madeleine to become a congressional liaison officer in the Jimmy Carter administration (1977-1980), after himself having become National Security Adviser. Albright got divorced in 1983, teaching as a Professor at Georgetown University between stints in government.
Madam Secretary
As Secretary of State, Albright was a strong proponent of America as the “indispensable nation,” as she sought to take foreign policy to the American people. She drove NATO’s expansion into her native Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary in 1999. She pushed forcefully for the use of force against Serbian warlord, Slobodan Milosevic, and was “hawkish” on preventing Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein, from obtaining weapons of mass destruction. But Albright was sometimes gaffe-prone.

As UN Ambassador in 1994, she totally misread the Rwandan genocide in which 800,000 people perished, seeking to use this incident as a test case for a new, restrictive American policy of avoiding UN interventions after the killing of 18 American troops in Somalia six months earlier. She refused to call genocide by its name in a machoistic zeal to prove that Washington could “shut down” a UN mission, later describing this incident as “her deepest regret.”

In the Balkans, she assumed that Milosevic’s Kosovo slaughter would quickly crumble in the face of American bombing. She insensitively noted that the death of 500,000 Iraqi children due to UN sanctions was “a price worth paying,” a statement she later regretted.

As a cheerleader for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016, she warned that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other,” thus alienating younger women supporting the progressive Senator, Bernie Sanders.       
In acknowledgement of her historical legacy, President Barack Obama awarded Albright the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Her last article, published a day before Russia invaded Ukraine, defended the rights of sovereign democratic countries to exist, regardless of great power interests.

Professor Adebajo is a senior research Fellow at the University of Pretoria’s Centre for the Advancement of Scholarship (CAS) in South Africa.