Albright: Iran nuclear shift shows Obama's policy is working
An interview with the former US secretary of State, in which she discusses Iran, Afghanistan, and the political statements her choice of jewelry makes.
Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels: As the first woman secretary of State in the US, you engaged in an unprecedented method of conveying messages of state – "pin diplomacy" – as you describe in your new book, "Read My Pins." How did that start? What kind of responses did you elicit?
Madeleine Albright: Well, of course, I do love jewelry and always wear it. But it never occurred to me to use it as a way to signal a message until I was ambassador to the United Nations and the only woman on the Security Council. After the first Gulf War, when the UN was considering a number of resolutions concerning Iraq, it was my job to get up and say bad things about Saddam Hussein, which he deserved.
In response, a poem appeared in an Iraqi newspaper in which I was called an "unparalleled serpent." I had a snake pin in my jewelry box, so I decided to wear that snake pin whenever Iraq was discussed at the UN. The press noticed.
So, amused, I thought I would carry the practice through in the rest of my diplomatic agenda. The first President Bush had said, "Read my lips." So my motto became, "Read my pins."
I continued the practice when I became secretary of State. When I visited Kim Jong-il in North Korea, I wore an American flag brooch. Though I find it absurd when American politicians are criticized for not wearing a flag pin – we are, after all, a strong and confident country – in this case it seemed appropriate. Once, we found out the Russians had bugged the State Department. So, the next time I met the Russians I wore a huge bug pin. When I was negotiating the antiballistic missile treaty with Igor Ivanov, I wore an arrow pin. He asked, "Is that one of your interceptor missiles?" I said, "Yes, they are very small. It's time to negotiate."
A dicier time involved the Russian denial of the massive violence they fostered in Chechnya. When I went with President Clinton to the US-Russian summit in June 2000, Putin actually said, "We notice what Secretary Albright is wearing." I was wearing a pin of the three "hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil" monkeys. Putin asked, "What does that mean?" I said, "It describes your Chechnya policy." That did not make him very happy.
Gardels: If you were going to meet Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, what pin would you wear?
Albright: I have a pin that former US Defense Secretary William Cohen's wife designed of a dove and eagle together. What is going on between the US and Iran involves some incentives and disincentives, some opportunities if they come clean with inspectors or challenges if they face tougher sanctions. I would also wear a green dress suit to honor those fighting for democracy and popular sovereignty in Iran.
Gardels: Speaking of Iran, it is now going to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the enrichment facility near Qom on Oct. 25 and are discussing sending enriched uranium for reprocessing for medical use in Russia. Do you think this means Obama's "smart power" strategy of engaging instead of just confronting Iran is beginning to gain traction?
Albright: I do. As Obama himself has said, of course, so far it is only words from Iran. We'll see if they follow through.
I think any progress has to be attributed to Obama's overall strategy. The speech he gave recently to the General Assembly at the UN established an important context. He called for global cooperation on a variety of issues – including Iran – and said if you don't like American unilateralism you have to help. Then, when he chaired the Security Council, he gathered a consensus on nonproliferation and for a push back against Iran.
Gardels: The Obama administration's sudden shift of the missile defense project in Eastern Europe caused some consternation in Poland and the Czech Republic. Some seem to doubt the US commitment to shielding them from the Russian sphere of influence. Do you agree with the new missile-defense plan?
Albright: I am a strong supporter of NATO and understand Poland and the Czech Republic well. I thought the missile defense plan proposed by the Bush administration, which Obama has just now reviewed and changed, was a mistake in the first place. We didn't know whether those systems worked; the treaties were very badly negotiated: They were bilateral agreements between those countries and the US, and not through NATO. And I know enough about the politics of Poland and the Czech Republic to know how hard it was for them to swallow. The Czech government put itself out for the original plan, and fell from power as a result. It was therefore the right thing for Obama to change the policy with a closer and tighter targeting of missiles against Iran. I do think, though, that NATO must become more involved here.
Gardels: Are those Poles and Czechs who believe Obama's shift signals less commitment to the security of Eastern Europe wrong?
Albright: They are wrong. But, at the same time, the Central and East Europeans need to be more confident in themselves. Recently I met with some leaders who signed a letter complaining the US was not paying enough attention to them. I told them it was a good thing that their problems have so diminished that they require less US attention.
Gardels: A big debate is raging in the Obama administration between those who seek a troop increase and nation-building strategy in Afghanistan – counter-insurgency – versus those who seek a more narrow counterterrorism strategy focused solely on fighting Al Qaeda and employing drone attacks. Where do you come down?
Albright: Today's dilemmas, of course, are the result of not paying enough attention to Afghanistan while fighting in Iraq for eight years. So, in a sense, we are starting from scratch there. US national security interests dictate that eliminating Al Qaeda is the primary focus. That means sorting out their relationship with the Taliban and determining what real connection or overlap there is between the two. My own sense is that the lines between the two are very fuzzy – and therefore the lines between counterinsurgency vs. counterterrorism are quite unclear.
Rather than positing these strategies as alternatives, what we need to focus on is not creating more terrorists. On the one hand, if the drone or bombing attacks miss their targets and kill a lot of civilians, that creates animosity and recruits terrorists. On the other hand, if you don't provide security for the Afghan people, they are terrified. Out of fear, they will cooperate with the terrorists.
I do think Obama is doing the right thing by weighing his strategy decision carefully. I've always thought it is better to have a confident president than a certain one. A confident president is comfortable enough in his own capacity for judgment to solicit a broad array of opinions from advisers who might disagree.
Gardels: You do seem to fall on the side of a broader commitment in Afghanistan because you want to establish security and stability as a precondition for getting out.
Albright: Neither the US nor NATO can be responsible for Afghanistan for the rest of our lives. The bottom line is that the Afghans have to be able to operate on their own. But we have to help them get there – training the Afghan Army and police forces, as well as providing reconstruction assistance and a viable governing structure. We need to have this debate now so the American public understands what is at stake. Eight years have been wasted and there is no more time to waste. We've got to chart a course and stick to it.
Madeleine Albright is a former US secretary of State. Her new book is entitled "Read My Pins." She spoke with Nathan Gardels on Tuesday, Oct. 6.
© 2009 Global Viewpoint.