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Albright's Dilemma

Keep defending Clinton, or help him step aside?

After the Lewinsky affair first erupted back in January, the worldwide credibility of the Clinton administration started to erode. It happened in various areas: in Israel, in Iraq, in Kosovo. But that slow erosion of presidential power was lessened - overseas, as at home - by the stalwart defense of the president's veracity voiced at the time by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

If Ms. Albright, a leader in the movement to incorporate smart women into the conduct of diplomacy at all levels, told us that she believed the president on this issue, many people took her at her word.

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Then, on Aug. 17, the president disclosed that he had indeed had an improper relationship with Monica Lewinsky. It was not only his credibility that was undermined by this admission. It was also that of all the officials who for the previous seven months had - with his full knowledge and consent - backed up his denials in public. Including Albright.

I am strongly concerned by this, for two sets of reasons. First, the secretary has done nothing since Aug. 17 to stanch a lessening of the United States' position in the world that now looks unstoppable. On Aug. 25, she told journalist Cokie Roberts: "I have no problems whatsoever assuring other leaders about the credibility of the United States and the president."

Now, it is true that until recently leaders in many other countries may not have understood why the Lewinsky affair threatened to become such a big deal in Washington. Among leaders in some other countries, the idea of extramarital affairs with office subordinates may still be more acceptable than it is here. But by now, everyone everywhere understands that the present scandal is about much more than the conduct of the sexual affair itself. They understand that it has strong legal implications, and even stronger political implications.

The president's current weakness at home is evident overseas. In early September, the presidential party visiting Ireland failed to persuade any senators, from either party, to join them in what could have been an all-American celebration of one of Bill Clinton's few recent victories in foreign policy. "I didn't want to go over there being asked Lewinsky questions all the time," one Democratic senator reportedly said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

With the president thus weakened, why should a Slobodan Milosevic or a Saddam Hussein believe him capable of any sustained attempt at containment?

The secretary of State's continuing declarations of loyalty to the president have the effect of undermining her credibility, and that of the entire American diplomatic project. In the Middle East, in addition, this comes after many months in which she has been trying to push the peace process forward by issuing deadlines to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, while Mr. Clinton time and again has failed to back her up.

THERE is another, parallel strand to my concern. With her "business as usual" reaction to the president's disclosure, this most talented and senior of women has seemed to tell powerful men everywhere that having a little clandestine "fling" with a female subordinate - even inside the office - is really at some level "OK."

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How can she explain that to senior people in the military who have been held accountable to a higher standard? How can she explain herself to the many young women she has helped to enter the Foreign Service (where many end up working for powerful older men) - or to their parents?

Yes, I am heartsick that Albright has ended up being such a patsy for the president in this whole business - with such damaging consequences both at home and overseas. But there is one possible silver lining. Given who she is, and her position in the Democratic Party and the country, it strikes me that Albright might be uniquely placed to be the person who has a word in the president's ear and persuades him, before the whole affair becomes any more damaging, to step gracefully aside.

Not something, I know, that any leader, anywhere, ever wants to hear. But the threat of having his most senior woman dissociate herself from him in public would certainly have some punch.

* Helena Cobban writes on foreign affairs from Charlottesville, Va.

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