Honeymoon may be over for Albright Analysis: She has drawn mixed marks in 18 months as secretary of state. Some say that once style is subtracted, her substantive record has been a disappointment.

July 20, 1998|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Eighteen months after one of the most dazzling debuts in government, Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright gets a decidedly mixed report card from the foreign policy establishment of which she has long been a prominent member.

She draws high marks for shepherding NATO expansion through Congress and ending a rift with Europe that plagued President Clinton's first term. And Albright, who is thrilled when passing strangers recognize her and call out her first name, is widely praised as a salesperson for America's goals overseas.

"She has, at a time when it is most difficult to get any focus by the American people on foreign policy, been able to communicate to the public and the press better than any secretary of state we've had since I've been here," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden of Delaware, who arrived in 1973 and is the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.

But she is criticized for prolonging a paralysis in the Middle East peace process; an unraveling of the anti-Iraq coalition; stalled arms-control efforts; and an appearance of drift in policy toward Russia.

Despite Albright's wooing of North Carolina Republican Jesse Helms, the curmudgeonly chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations panel, the Clinton administration has failed to pry more money out of Congress for foreign aid or to pay America's billion-dollar debt to the United Nations.

And Albright is not seen as a key player on Asia at a time when U.S. relations with China and handling of the region's financial crisis loom as the administration's most serious foreign policy challenges.

"What you see is a secretary of state with a highly visible role -- and she has reveled in it," said Robert Zoellick, State Department counselor in the Bush administration. "But as you look around the world, you have to ask, 'Where is she putting her mark?' "

After style is subtracted, the substantive record that's left "is quite disappointing," says John Steinbruner, a senior fellow and foreign policy specialist at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Albright's goals, spelled out in a recent interview, are so broad that her success in achieving them is hard to measure:

"I see my job as one that requires setting a longer-term course for American foreign policy," assembling a strong team and getting the long-demoralized foreign service "back on track," she said.

"I've tried to show, while we set specific priorities, that every part of the world has a role to play. Every continent, every region is part of our concern now, where it wasn't during the Cold War."

Addition to the team

Albright's tenure is beginning to draw a critical look with the addition of Richard C. Holbrooke, a diplomat with comparable star quality, as ambassador to the United Nations. In the zero-sum world of Washington perceptions, his rise is seen as her decline. The resulting tension in Albright's inner circle is palpable.

A close political ally, who insisted on anonymity, says Albright is excessively concerned about her image and has trouble sharing credit.

"I could care less about my image," Albright retorted. "I care about whether I represent the United States well." In her defense, Albright contended that because she is the first woman to hold her job, "people attribute things to how I feel that they would not attribute to a man."

Few could have sustained the glorious honeymoon that followed Albright's appointment at the beginning of Clinton's second term in the White House.

Here was a scrappy but compassionate advocate for human rights with a flair for forceful sound bites. Her family history of having escaped Hitler and Stalin powerfully dramatized her description of the United States as the "indispensable nation."

Albright, now 61, became the hottest player in the Clinton Cabinet. She seemed game for anything: throwing out the first ball at Oriole Park, performing a song-and-dance number in front of Asian statesmen.

Albright's first-year forays enhanced the reputation for bluntness that she had earned as Clinton's first U.N. ambassador. On a June 1997 trip to the Balkans, for example, she told a Croatian government minister that he should be ashamed of himself.

But Albright's toughness has been tested and, some say, found wanting, in fruitless attempts to mediate an Israeli pullback from the West Bank and revive the Middle East peace process.

She summoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to a White House summit in May, only to have Israel reject the terms for the meeting and complain loudly about getting an ultimatum from the United States. The summit idea withered.

Albright says her action "changed the dynamic" of the negotiations and, as a result, the Israelis have moved closer to a deal the Palestinians can accept.

Netanyahu 'called her bluff'

But this optimistic view is not widely shared.

"The Middle East has proved an embarrassment," said Zoellick. "She decided to lay down a marker with Netanyahu, and he called her bluff."

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