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Sideline Diplomacy

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on war, peace, terrorism

November 02, 2003

Last month, Madeleine Albright, who served in the Clinton administration as ambassador to the United Nations and later as secretary of State, met with the Times editorial board. What follows was excerpted from that conversation. Both questions and answers have been edited, or sometimes combined, for clarity.

Question: Has the Bush administration obliterated all traces of the Clinton foreign policy vision?

Answer: When the administration came in, we all kidded about how they'd adopted a policy of "ABC." Anything but Clinton. But the foreign policy of a country, to a great extent, is not set by ideologues but by the flow of events. Policy and diplomacy need to react to what other countries are doing. I think that on some of the issues, reality has set in. With the delays in determining the election outcome, the transition period was abbreviated. But when Colin Powell [then the secretary of State-designate] came in, we did talk. We went through a lot of different things. He had an office on the first floor of the State Department, and his team began interviewing everybody. He and I met then on a regular basis to talk about ongoing policies toward countries like North Korea. Since then, we have had little contact. I've known Colin Powell a long time, and we are friendly when we see each other on social occasions. But I've had, over the two-and-a-half years he's been secretary of State, maybe four calls from him. Quite frankly, I'm surprised that I've had so little contact with Powell. When I was named secretary, I called all my predecessors, and I had individual lunches with each of them in order to really establish what had gone on. Some of them I stayed in quite close touch with, including Jim Baker, Henry Kissinger and Warren Christopher.

Q: Did the Clinton administration miss the seriousness of the terrorist threat?

A: Our problem was actually the opposite. We couldn't get anybody to believe how serious it was. President Clinton talked about it all the time -- in State of the Union addresses and in various public statements and in all meetings with the Cabinet. We tripled the [anti-terrorism] budget of the FBI and increased the budget of the CIA and set up an Osama bin Laden office that kept getting larger and larger. My worst day as secretary was [in August 1998] when the embassies were blown up in Kenya and Tanzania. We did link that to Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, and we launched 79 cruise missiles against Afghanistan and the pharmaceutical factory in Sudan [which was believed to have been producing chemical weapons]. President Clinton put out executive orders to use lethal force against Osama bin Laden. We were criticized at the time for overreacting. I try very hard to stay out of the "was 9/11our fault, was 9/11 their fault" debate, because I find it useless. But when we did transition briefings, the Bush administration was not interested in what we were telling them about terrorism. They were quite surprised when they saw how much time we spent on it. They really did not believe that they'd have to spend as much time.

Q: Did you believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when we went to war?

A: When the U.N. inspectors were [withdrawn] in 1998, we thought that there were weapons still unaccounted for, and we were concerned that the Iraqis could reconstitute some of those weapons. That's where we left the story in 1998. So, logic would suggest that those things still existed. I would not have gone to war over them, but I'm willing to believe that they were there.

Q: Why didn't we find them?

A: I had very interesting conversations with some of the former weapons inspectors. They said that the kind of evidence that might have been there right after the war ended was not the kind that a Marine kicks a door open and finds. It would have been mostly stuff that scientific people might find by following the paper trail, and looking for small pieces of things hidden somewhere. God knows what happened, whether that stuff got scattered or what. I think there's a small possibility that some of it has been given to terrorist groups, but I'm willing to believe that it was there.

Q: Do you think we should continue trying to find them?

A: The president put American credibility on the line on this, so it would be helpful if we found them. On the other hand, I think there are those who would be suspicious if something were to show up now. There are those who would question where it came from all of a sudden. I think it's probably worth continuing the hunt, though, because our credibility is worth a lot.

Q: Were the sanctions on Iraq effective?

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