The Evil of Madeleine Albright
“Could you have one of our U-2s shot down?”
Madeleine Albright is infamous for her reply to the question posed by 60 Minutes’ Lesley Stahl about the sanctions against Iraq in May 1996.
“We have heard that a half million children have died,” stated Stahl. “I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”
“I think this is a very hard choice,” replied Albright, “but the price–we think the price is worth it.”
Albright, who served as Bill Clinton’s Secretary of State from 1997 to 2001, had a cruel disregard for the lives of Iraqis, Serbs, and others. But she apparently had a callous attitude towards the lives of U.S. servicemen and servicewomen too. In his new memoir, General Hugh Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1997 to 2001, writes about a White House breakfast in late 1997. (The account is cited by Justin Elliott in Salon.)
Early on in my days as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, we had small, weekly White House breakfasts in National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s office that included me, Sandy, Bill Cohen (Secretary of Defense), Madeleine Albright (Secretary of State), George Tenet (head of the CIA), Leon Firth (VP chief of staff for security), Bill Richardson (ambassador to the U.N.), and a few other senior administration officials. These were informal sessions where we would gather around Berger’s table and talk about concerns over coffee and breakfast served by the White House dining facility. It was a comfortable setting that encouraged brainstorming of potential options on a variety of issues of the day.
During that time we had U-2 aircraft on reconnaissance sorties over Iraq. These planes were designed to fly at extremely high speeds and altitudes (over seventy thousand feet) both for pilot safety and to avoid detection.
At one of my very first breakfasts, while Berger and Cohen were engaged in a sidebar discussion down at one end of the table and Tenet and Richardson were preoccupied in another, one of the Cabinet members present leaned over to me and said, “Hugh, I know I shouldn’t even be asking you this, but what we really need in order to go in and take out Saddam is a precipitous event — something that would make us look good in the eyes of the world. Could you have one of our U-2s fly low enough — and slow enough — so as to guarantee that Saddam could shoot it down?”
The hair on the back of my neck bristled, my teeth clenched, and my fists tightened. I was so mad I was about to explode. I looked across the table, thinking about the pilot in the U-2 and responded, “Of course we can …” which prompted a big smile on the official’s face.
“You can?” was the excited reply.
“Why, of course we can,” I countered. “Just as soon as we get your ass qualified to fly it, I will have it flown just as low and slow as you want to go.”
The official reeled back and immediately the smile disappeared. “I knew I should not have asked that….”
“No, you should not have,” I strongly agreed, still shocked at the disrespect and sheer audacity of the question. “Remember, there is one of our great Americans flying that U-2, and you are asking me to intentionally send him or her to their death for an opportunity to kick Saddam. The last time I checked, we don’t operate like that here in America.”
Imagine that! A Cabinet official suggesting a deliberate provocation endangering a military pilot’s life in order to justify a war: “…but what we really need in order to go in and take out Saddam is a precipitous event — something that would make us look good in the eyes of the world.” Is this mere amoral pragmatism? Machiavellian? It is in any case evil.
(I’m reminded of how the key neocon text “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” authored by Paul Wolfowitz for the Project for a New American Century (PNAC) “thinktank” in Sept. 2000, states that the “process of transformation” to the kind of super-militarized aggressive state the neocons hoped for “will be a long one absent some catastrophic event like a new Pearl Harbor.” And as the Deputy Secretary of Defense he warned of another Pearl Harbor in his speech at West Point in June 2001. After 9-11, widely compared in the media to the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941, he immediately set about preparations for war with Iraq.)
On January 31, 2003 President George W. Bush in a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair seriously proposed provoking Saddam to shoot down a U.S. aircraft. According to notes taken by Blair advisor David Manning (the accuracy of which has never been challenged), Bush suggested “flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft with fighter cover over Iraq, painted with UN colors. If Saddam fired on them, he would be in breach” of UN resolutions. Maybe then the UN, which had refused to endorse the plan to attack Iraq and was sceptical about the justifications given by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, would endorse war. (Perhaps the military brass opposed the plan, which was never carried out.)
At the Clinton White House breakfast described by Gen. Shelton, Berger, Cohen, Tenet and Richardson were involved in separate conversations. The other cabinet members were Robert E. Rubin (Treasury), Janet Reno (Attorney General), Bruce Babbit (Interior), Dan Glickman (Agriculture), Mickey Kantor (Commerce), Alexis Herman (Labor), Donna E. Shalala (Health and Human Services), Andrew M. Cuomo (Housing and Urban Development), Rodney Slater (Transportation), Richard W. Riley (Education), Jesse Brown (Veteran’s Affairs), Federico F. Pena (Energy), and Albright.
Out the 14 members of the Cabinet, there were four women. The fact that Shelton deliberately avoids indicating the gender of his interlocutor may hint that it was one of them. It is hard to believe that Attorney General Reno would suggest sacrificing an airman to the head of the Joint Chiefs at a White House breakfast. Or the Secretary of Labor, or Secretary of Health and Human Services. It’s hard to believe anyone on the above list would so–except Albright.
Albright in her memoirs expresses regret for her “it was worth it” statement in the 1996 interview. And she told Newsweek in 2006, “I’m afraid that Iraq is going to turn out to be the greatest disaster in American foreign policy—worse than Vietnam.” But she bears partial responsibility for the December 1998 bombing of Iraq (“Operation Desert Fox”), a prelude to the 2003 invasion. She helped produce the disaster.
And she helped produce disaster in the former Yugoslavia. As violence rose in the Serbian province of Kosovo, between the Kosovo Liberation Army and security forces, she (and Cohen) deliberately exaggerated the Kosovar Albanian death toll and demanded the U.S. right to intervene. She arranged the de facto alliance with the KLA, earlier labelled “terrorist” by U.S. officials. In March 1999 at the Rambouillet talks between Serbia and the Kosovar rebels, along with the U.S., its European allies and Russia, the U.S. demanded that the whole of Serbia (and other states within what was left of Yugoslavia) submit to virtual occupation by NATO. Yugoslavia had proudly remained outside the Warsaw Pact and had prided itself on participation in the Non-Aligned Movement. No government in Belgrade could have complied with Albright’s demands.
The so-called Rambouillet Agreement was rejected outright by the Serbs as well as their Russian allies. But Albright immediately stated, “We accept the agreement”–as though there was any agreement. The bullying was conducted in such a smug fashion that the French Foreign minister accused the U.S. of becoming a hyperpuissance–not a mere superpower but a “hyperpower.”
John Pilger wrote, “Anyone scrutinizing the Rambouillet document is left with little doubt that the excuses given for the subsequent bombing were fabricated. The peace negotiations were stage managed and the Serbs were told: surrender and be occupied, or don’t surrender and be destroyed.”
This was indeed Albright’s plan (and that of Bill Clinton, egged on by Hillary, who has confessed, “I urged him to bomb”), resulting in the deployment of NATO to bomb a European capital for the first time since 1945, killing at least 500 civilians (Human Rights Watch) and maybe ten times that number.
A Republican official later told a think tank that a certain “top official” had told him: ” We intentionally set the bar too high for the Serbs to comply. They need some bombing, and that’s what they are going to get.” Don’t we see a pattern here?
Throughout the last decade the neoconservatives have been the leading warmongers. But they have no monopoly on imperialist arrogance, contempt for truth and indifference to human life. Madeleine Albright is proof of that.
Gary Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese history.