An Albright, not a Fulbright Similarity in names belies differences in foreign outlooks

November 22, 1998|By Joseph R. L. Sterne

WHEN Madeleine Albright visited her Czech homeland in 1990, she had her first chance to meet Vaclav Havel, the leader of his country's "Velvet Revolution," which ended more than 40 years of Communist oppression.

"I know who you are," said President Havel. "You're Mrs. Fulbright."

"No," said the visiting professor, who in seven years would become the first female secretary of state. "I'm Mrs. Albright." And so began, she jokes these days, "a great friendship."

It's understandable why a foreigner might mistake two surnames as similar as Albright and Fulbright. But unspoken in Albright's quick reply was perhaps an urge to disabuse Havel of any notion that there was a similarity of views between her and the late Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas.

Albright and Fulbright, as much as Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, symbolize fiercely opposing ideas about the American mission in world affairs. Secretary Albright believes in the big stick, though she does not speak as softly as TR advocated for others, if not himself. Senator Fulbright, who turned his Foreign Relations Committee into a platform for opposition to the Vietnam war, had nothing but contempt for the "1898 imperialists" like Roosevelt who considered it America's manifest destiny to join the European rush for empire. Fulbright's hero was President Wilson, who dared to say, "There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight."

Fulbright traced his inclination to question U.S. policy to two factors - his insistence that Congress has a constitutional duty to question and oversee the actions of the executive branch; and his origins in a region that had long known the exploitation imposed by triumphant northern states. He could identify, or thought he could, with a small Asian state defying the most powerful nation in the world.

"Power tends to confuse itself with virtue, and a great nation is peculiarly susceptible to the idea that its power is a sign of God's favor," the senator wrote in 1966 in his most famous book, "The Arrogance of Power." "Once imbued with the idea of a mission, a great nation easily assumes it has the means as well as the duty to do God's work."

Albright, in contrast, has a cental European immigrant's flaming devotion to the United States as "the indispensable nation" and the efficacy of its attempts to project its power for the supposed benefit of humankind. In Senate hearings leading to her unanimous confirmation as secretary of state, she minced no words: "American institutions and ideas are a model for those who love freedom. I We must be more than audience, more even than actors. We must be the authors of the history of our age. I Force and the credible possibility of its use are essential to keep America safe. I We are the world's richest, strongest, most respected nation."

Albright offered the predictable caveats that U.S. resources are not unlimited and that the nation must be selective and disciplined in what it agreed to do. "But," she added adamantly, "where our interests are clear, our values are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must act and we must lead."

The secretary's world view has fit in comfortably at Foggy Bottom. Until the Vietnam war, the Pentagon was the traditional nesting place for hawks, while doves found their roost at the State Department. Since then, at the risk of oversimplification, it might be said that there has been a role reversal. During the Reagan administration, Secretary of State George Shultz and Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger were so openly at odds over risk-taking in Lebanon that the bellicose Shultz told the president that one of the two, Shultz or Weinberger, should leave the Cabinet.

Albright, during her stint as American Ambassador to the United Nations, was one of the Clinton administration's most vehement promoters of forceful action in Bosnia. In making this stand, she found herself at odds with Gen. Colin Powell, a spokesman for the post-Vietnam military's aversion to taking casualties or taking risks in adventures concocted by civilian leaders.

"What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it?" Albright once demanded of Powell. In his memoirs, the general said he "patiently" explained that "American GI's were not toy soldiers to be moved around on some sort of global game board."

Albright got her revenge two years later when President Clinton adopted her interventionist policy in Bosnia, and, to date, there has not been a single combat casualty. Indeed, when the present defense secretary, William Cohen, tried to set a deadline for the withdrawal of American peacekeepers from Bosnia, she prevailed in convincing the president to keep American forces there indefinitely.

Given this history, there should be no surprise in Albright's emergence as one of the administration's foremost proponents of a get-tough policy toward Saddam Hussein.

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