Q&A: Madeleine Albright

Cleaning up a foreign policy mess.


"The next president is going to have to end the war in Iraq. There is going to have to be a way to deal with Iran."

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As a senior player in both policymaking and advising Democratic presidential campaigns, Madeleine Albright should be in a good position to offer some advice on foreign affairs to the next president. A former secretary of state, Albright has written a new book that aims to do just that. In Memo to the President Elect: How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership, she looks at the qualities of a successful national security team and reflects on her time as President Clinton's top diplomat and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Since leaving office in January 2001, she has founded a consulting firm, become chairman of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, and resumed a professorship at Georgetown University. She talked recently with U.S. News. Excerpts:

What is the U.S. government's standing overseas?

The United States is in a particularly bad spot internationally. I know what a hole we're in, in terms of our reputation and our leadership, and the next president is going to have a very difficult job. As I travel around, I can see that the next president is going to deal with a mess. What is the Bush administration's legacy in foreign affairs?

I'm a critic. I think the administration has really undermined America's power and reputation and that Iraq may go down in history as the greatest disaster in American foreign policy, which means that I think it's worse than Vietnam in its unintended consequences and for our reputation. This president, because his administration is imposing democracy, which is an oxymoron, has, I think, hurt the concept. It is not just that the administration has been unilateral but that it has been unidimensional. It has paid attention primarily to one part of the world, without enough attention being paid to other parts. What do you make of Vice President Cheney's role?

There was some kind of relationship between him and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld that went to the president without going through the [National Security Council] system that Dr. [Condoleezza] Rice ran. I think he has had a huge influence on the foreign policy process. What does a president need to do to run an effective foreign policy?

First of all, a vice president that he can work with. A set of people willing to work as a team. That is a very fine line because you don't want a bunch of egotists who can't listen to other people. The next president has to understand that our national security is a much larger question than it has been before. The team is much larger in terms of getting State and Defense and Commerce and Energy and Labor and various departments together. What are some "sleeper" issues awaiting the next president?

The next president has to expect the unexpected. The worst weapons could actually get into the hands of the terrorists, and there could be some kind of dirty bomb aspect to it. Energy issues may get beyond our control—energy prices that go way up before people are really ready to deal with the various consequences. There is the danger of a pandemic, to boot. Another issue is the gap between the rich and the poor. Thanks to information technology, [the poor] know what the rich have, and it creates an environment of discontent. What ought to be the priorities in the next administration?

The next president is going to have to end the war in Iraq. There is going to have to be a way to deal with Iran or a whole nexus of Middle East issues. Afghanistan and whatever spillover there is in Pakistan. A real look at some major relationships—with Russia, with China. In retrospect, what do you wish had been done differently in the Clinton administration?

I think there were probably too many priorities—a desire to do too many different things. The main thing that I regret was during [my] U.N. time—Rwanda. I wish we had gone into Bosnia earlier. Why are you advising Hillary Clinton?

We need the person in that job who has the most experience and the capability to bring change in the way we are perceived abroad and at the same time has a grounding in the basic subjects and issues and knowledge of leaders in order to get us out of this particular hole. I've known her a long time. When I was U.N. ambassador, she took a great interest in a lot of the substantive issues we were dealing with—in Bosnia, women's issues, and economic and social issues. Sometimes we'd go on trips together. She met with the leaders of countries who had very substantive exchanges with her—sometimes nice, and sometimes she was pretty good about delivering a tough message.