Andrew Osborn








Andrew Osborn on Madeleine Albright, the woman who brought Milosevic to book.

The Guardian, 5th July 2001 17:11

By Andrew Osborn.

Slobodan Milosevic is machismo incarnate; a strutting, fleshy, imperious, table thumping ex-dictator who grew up in a society where men are "real men" and women are traditionally relegated to the role of long-suffering sidekicks expected to know their place. But ironically it was a woman, Madeleine Albright, America's waspish former secretary of state, who arguably did more than anyone else to bring about his dramatic fall from grace.

And as Milosevic languishes in his overly comfortable cell in the Hague he will know that if it wasn't for Albright, America's first female foreign secretary, he might still be living in his Belgrade villa with impunity, immune from prosecution for the war crimes he allegedly committed in Kosovo, Bosnia and Croatia.

It was Albright who first threatened to deprive Yugoslavia of millions of dollars of US aid if Belgrade did not deliver Milosevic up to the Hague and she who insisted from day one that there would be no immunity for him. "We are not negotiating" were her final words on the matter and because she held what is arguably the second most powerful job in the world's only superpower what she said counted.

Her successor in the Bush ad ministration, Colin Powell, may have added to the pressure in recent months by telling Belgrade that he, too, would cut off aid if it did not cooperate with the Hague but the original policy and resolve was hers. Albright had loosened the lid of the proverbial jar and applied such enormous pressure that it was only a question of when, rather than if, the lid flew off. She, therefore, deserves most of the credit for the extradition.

As Ivo Daalder, a Balkans expert at the Brookings Institution and co-author of Winning Ugly, a book on Nato's war in Kosovo, says: "Albright won the debate in that she made Milosevic the problem."

Her resolve was all the more impressive because it was contrary to at times fierce behind-the-scenes pressure from some EU states such as Italy to grant Milosevic immunity.

Known to her detractors as "not-so-bright", Albright was also a great proponent of active US engagement in European affairs and did a great deal to persuade isolationist-minded Americans that Milosevic was a global problem with which Washington should grapple. Albright is not, however, universally popular for her Balkan policymaking. She faced a barrage of criticism at the time for being too hawkish about Kosovo and critics claimed she presented Milosevic with conditions for peace which were so tough as to make them meaningless.

But when the man known to the rest of the world as the butcher of Belgrade was handed over to the Hague last week, her comments were typical of her trademark "tell it like like it is" style. It was, she said, "a good day for the Serb people, for Europe and for humanity" and at least Milosevic would get a fair trial "which is more than his victims got".

Born Marie Jana Korbel in Prague in 1937, the daughter of a Czech diplomat, Albright has always had a special interest in her native Europe and a far better appreciation of its politics and culture than the average American. Fluent in French and Czech, she has spent years studying international relations and the politics of central and eastern Europe.

The fact that her family was forced to flee from first the Nazis (her father was posted to London as a diplomat during the war) and later the communists, who passed a death sentence on her father in his absence, gave her an unusual appreciation of Europe's history as a naturalised American citizen.

It was only relatively recently, however, that she discovered that she is also Jewish. Her parents had converted the family to Catholicism to conceal their Jewish background while living in London in 1939, before emigrating to the US in 1948. Her Jewish roots and the fact that many of her relatives were killed in the Holocaust only came to light when the Washington Post published a front page story in 1997. The revelation apparently came as a surprise for Albright herself although some commentators claimed she had deliberately hidden the truth in order to mediate more effectively in Middle East peace negotiations.

Her public persona as secretary of state may have always been that of a hard-bitten, outspoken operator but she did not get to the top by shooting her mouth off. Her ascent was not without its problems. According to Michael Dobbs, one of her biographers, Albright was in fact a consummate "player" who only became the strident schoolmarmish figure known to the wider world in later life when she knew she could get away with it.

"She first had to rise through the ranks of Washington society and win the confidence of its power brokers. She did this with tools this town finds reassuringly familiar: using political and social connections, networking relentlessly, volunteering for everything from school boards to Democratic party causes, creating a foreign policy salon at her house and finding a spot in the academic think-tank world."

She worked hard to get a PhD in international relations from Columbia University before going on to lecture students on diplomacy. And then she began to climb the slippery pole that is US politics in earnest, advising senior Democrats on foreign policy, until being finally appointed US ambassador to the UN in 1992. Four years later she was sworn in as America's 64th secretary of state.

A close friend of the singer Barbra Streisand, she has a love of witty one-liners and jewellery (earrings and brooches) which she always changes to reflect her shifting moods.

A watershed in her professional life came, she admits, with her divorce from Joseph Medill Patterson, a scion of one of America's best-known newspaper families. In 1982, after 22 years of marriage, Patterson, with whom she had three children, declared he was in love with another woman and left. Years later when she was safely ensconced at the state department, she would acknowledge how significant this was. Had it not been for the divorce, she said, "I would not be sitting here now. It was a huge turning point."

Albright, now 64, is busy penning her own version of her stellar career and heads up the National Democratic institute for international affairs, which aims to foster US-style democracy throughout the world.

Colin Powell claims almost to have had an aneurysm during an argument with Albright over US policy in former Yugoslavia. "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about if we can't use it," she is reported to have asked the general.

Albright's contribution to world affairs is such that she is likely to go down in the history as someone who made a qualitative difference and as someone who couldn't abide dictators, particularly communist ones. "Biology works. Some day Castro will be gone," she said recently.