Wonders never cease -- a diplomat who speaks plainly!

September 17, 1997|By JACK W. GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The contrast between the standard political blather and the blunt directness of secretary of state Madeleine K. Albright is striking. She is, in the favored phrase of the moment, a breath of fresh air.

We have become accustomed to hearing our diplomats trying to paper over their failures in the Middle East by talking about how ''issues have been clarified'' and how everyone is ''encouraged'' to expect more progress toward peace in the future.

But Ms. Albright left the Middle East announcing that all she had accomplished was to arrange some further preliminary talks between advisers to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel and Yasser Arafat, president of the Palestinian authority.

''I wish that this trip was able to provide larger steps, because they are needed,'' she said. ''I'm not going to pretend to you here that I have accomplished a great deal. I am not going to make more out of this than it is. These are small steps and may prove useful in getting the peace process back on track.''

That, of course, is the kind of candor that could get you drummed out of the diplomatic dodge entirely. But in less than a year as secretary, Ms. Albright has shown repeatedly that she is not afraid to say out loud what everyone else is saying sotto voce. This trip to the Middle East was a failure, so why hide it?

The secretary displayed similar candor in her meetings with Messrs. Arafat and Netanyahu. The Palestinian leader was told directly that he must act aggressively and effectively to deal with the terrorists seeking to undermine the peace process. And the Israeli leader was told in similarly blunt language that it was time for his government to back away from actions that the Palestinians see as deliberate provocations, including the efforts expand Jewish settlements and the decision to withhold from the Palestinian authority customs and tax revenues Israel froze after suicide bombers killed 15 Israelis in Jerusalem July 30.

Ms. Albright said that she wasn't going to spend months in the area shuttling back and forth between them. ''I've created a rule for myself,'' she said. ''I will come back to the region whenever the leaders have made the hard decisions and I can make a difference. But I am not going to come back here just to tread water.''

A little fruit

That demand seemed to bear at least a little fruit. A day after Ms. Albright moved on to Syria and Jordan, the Israelis released half the disputed funds as a response to Mr. Arafat's promise to crack down harder on Palestinian extremists.

The policy Ms. Albright is expounding is not her own, of course. The decision to deal more openly and critically with the Israeli actions is one that only President Clinton could have made. But anyone who knows how Ms. Albright works understands that she has been a significant influence in formulating that policy. Equally important, she has given the United States a clear voice in explaining it to the Middle East and the rest of the world.

Such a policy can be expected to win widespread support in the United States, at least among the minority of Americans who follow closely the progress -- or lack of progress -- of the peace process. This group includes, moreover, American Jewish voters critical of Mr. Netanyahu's policies. Most have been concerned about and, in many cases, irked by provocative Israeli actions even while being outraged by the terrorist attacks in Jerusalem.

There is some obvious irony in the success Ms. Albright seems to have enjoyed as secretary of state. She won the appointment only after weeks of hand-wringing in the Clinton administration and the political community about whether she was up to the job. Her credentials as an expert adviser on foreign policy and as ambassador to the United Nations may have been impeccable, but she is, after all, a woman.

Clearly, those reservations had no foundation. Another gender barrier in government has been removed. And in the bargain, we have found that it is possible for a diplomat to speak plain English and not only survive but flourish.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 9/17/97

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