Today, Madeleine Albright is remembered by few outside the U.S. elite.
But Albright, who died Wednesday at the age of 84, was a leading figure in “liberal internationalism,” a foreign policy school associated with President Woodrow Wilson and his dream of “making the world safe for democracy.” She played a central role in America’s foreign policy in the 1990s — first as a United Nations ambassador and then as secretary of state under President Bill Clinton. That period of history, and its consequences for the war on terror, can’t be understood without understanding her actions.
In particular, Albright spearheaded Clinton’s disastrous stance toward Iraq. Albright’s approach was both vicious in its own right and helped lay the foundation for the 2003 Iraq War.
It was in her role as U.N. ambassador in 1996 that Albright uttered the most infamous words of her career, in an appearance on “60 Minutes.”
The show’s correspondent Lesley Stahl asked Albright about the effect that U.N. sanctions were having on Iraqi society, saying, “We have heard that a half-million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?”
Albright responded with chilling equanimity: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price — we think the price is worth it.”
Out of context, this looks horrendous. In historical context, it’s more complicated yet just as bad.
After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the U.N. instituted a punishing sanctions regime on the country. Iraq was pushed out of Kuwait during the Gulf War the next year. U.N. Security Council Resolution 687 then mandated that Iraq declare and accept the destruction of all aspects of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons programs. Once it did, the resolution stated that sanctions “shall have no further force or effect.”
A small U.N. survey in 1995 found a giant spike in the mortality rate of young Iraqi children following the Gulf War, one that implied over 500,000 extra deaths. It was this to which Stahl was certainly referring. A 1999 UNICEF report found similar results.
These shocking numbers were widely publicized, not least by the Iraqi government. However, a 2017 article in the prestigious medical journal The BMJ makes a strong case, based on multiple surveys conducted after the U.S.-led 2003 invasion of Iraq, that the 1990s spike in child mortality rates did not actually occur. The article calls these claims “a spectacular lie,” based on the assumption that they involved conscious deceit on the part of Iraqi staff who participated in the 1990s surveys. Thus the premise of Stahl’s question was inaccurate, though Stahl would have had no way of knowing that.
That’s not the whole story, however. As The BMJ’s article illustrates, the child mortality rate in Middle Eastern countries such as Jordan, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia fell precipitously from 1970 onward. In Iraq, it also fell but then plateaued, especially after 1990. The rate in Iraq is now, the article explains, “roughly twice that of the other countries.”
The complicated reality, then, is that the sanctions did have a brutal impact on Iraqi society; anyone familiar with the reality of 1990s Iraq knows it could hardly have been otherwise. The sanctions almost certainly did cause many children to die who would otherwise have lived — though probably due not to a large, sustained increase in the child mortality rate but rather the fact that the rate did not continue to decline.
So Albright can certainly be indicted for her depraved indifference to the effect of U.S. policies on Iraqi children, even if Stahl got the magnitude wrong. (Albright did later apologize for her words, in a way that made it clear she was sorry she’d accidentally revealed her sincere perspective.) But what’s even worse is the nature of what Albright believed was “worth it.”
We now know for certain that Iraq did comply with its disarmament obligations under Resolution 687 — arguably by the end of 1991 and definitely by 1995. Yet while in Albright’s book “Madam Secretary” she declared that “Saddam Hussein could have prevented any child from suffering simply by meeting his obligations,” the sanctions were never lifted.
Albright can certainly be indicted for her depraved indifference to the effect of U.S. policies on Iraqi children. But what’s worse is the nature of what Albright believed was “worth it.”
In retrospect, it’s clear why. As soon as Resolution 687 was passed, then-President George H.W. Bush explained that the sanctions should never be removed — whatever the text of the resolution — “as long as Saddam Hussein is in power.” As Clinton came into office, he said there would be no difference between his policy and that of Bush. Albright herself said, soon after she became secretary of state in 1997, that “we do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted” and that what would be required was Saddam’s removal.
The purpose of the sanctions, then, was indeed to punish Iraqi society. But from the U.S. perspective, the goal was not to induce Iraq to disarm but to encourage the Iraqi military to overthrow Saddam. This was described by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman as “the best of all worlds: an iron-fisted Iraqi junta without Saddam Hussein.”
Accepting a lot of dead children as an acceptable price for this ambition is grim indeed, but that was Albright.
Albright’s vociferous support for violence and regime change as U.S. policy helped set the stage for the war that took place a few years after she departed the government.
In 1993, Albright herself conducted a presentation at the U.N. Security Council that was uncannily similar to that of future Secretary of State Colin Powell 10 years later. In it, with various visual aids, she adamantly condemned Iraq for purportedly trying to assassinate the elder Bush when he visited Kuwait after leaving office. Just like Powell’s, Albright’s case was used to justify the killing of Iraqis (though on a much smaller scale). Just like Powell’s evidence, Albright’s was fabricated. And just as we learned after the invasion of Iraq that it had no weapons of mass destruction, we learned that it had not attempted to kill Bush.
Albright’s rhetoric on Iraq matched the childish dishonesty of the neoconservatives in the next administration.
This was not the only way that Albright foreshadowed the coming George W. Bush administration deceit. Hugh Shelton, chair of the Joints Chiefs of Staff in the late 1990s, has described a 1997 exchange with a Cabinet member who is widely assumed in Washington to be Albright. (Shelton names several Cabinet members who were present, then immediately rules out the non-Albright ones.) This official, Shelton claims, said to him: “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?” According to Shelton, he was infuriated and informed this Cabinet member that he’d be happy to set this up as soon as they learned how to fly a U-2 themselves.
Albright’s rhetoric on Iraq also matched the childish dishonesty of the neoconservatives in the next administration. In 1998 she was asked at a town hall at the Ohio State University why the U.S. was attacking Iraq while arming allied countries like Indonesia that had committed comparable crimes. She responded, “I really am surprised that people feel it is necessary to defend the rights of Saddam Hussein.” Albright then told the crowd that “as a former professor, I would be delighted to spend 50 minutes with you describing exactly what we are doing on those subjects” — in other words, there was an obvious answer, but she just didn’t have time to go into it at the moment. Amusingly, this tack was later taken by Saddam himself when he was tried for genocide. Asked for an explanation of his actions, he said: “That would require volumes of books.”
Finally, Albright’s arrogance was similar to that of George W. Bush and company. In 1998 she expounded on America’s right to bomb Iraq, proclaiming, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” This was a bizarrely precise embodiment of what John Adams once wrote to Thomas Jefferson about the corruptions of power: “Power always thinks it has a great Soul, and vast Views, beyond the Comprehension of the Weak.”
And while Albright’s actions on Iraq were her most significant, they were only part of her ugly machinations that illustrated the hollowness of her liberal internationalism.
In August 1996, Israel bombed a U.N. peacekeeping compound in Qana, a village in Lebanon, killing 106 civilians. The outrage in the Arab world was enormous, so much so that the attack was cited in Osama bin Laden’s “Declaration of War” later the same year. A U.N. investigation soon found that it was “unlikely that the shelling of the United Nations compound was the result of technical and/or procedural errors.”
Albright already felt animus toward then-U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for the fact that the international body did not always bend completely to the will of the U.S. But this was the final straw. She and others formed what National Security Council official Richard Clarke called a “secret plan,” dubbed “Operation Orient Express,” to oust Boutros-Ghali after his first term expired. That November the U.N. Security Council voted 14-1 to reappoint him. The sole “no” vote was cast by Albright for the U.S. — and since America holds a veto as a permanent member of the Security Council, Boutros-Ghali was gone. The New York Times reported that an “American official remarked before the veto that hostility toward the United States had never been so palpable, as diplomats from around the world watched the Clinton Administration attack Mr. Boutros-Ghali’s record with dwindling credibility.” On the other hand, Clarke said in his book “Against All Enemies,” the “entire operation had strengthened Albright’s hand in the competition to be Secretary of State in the second Clinton administration.”
Then there was the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia, known in some circles as “Albright’s war.” In retrospect, it seems clear that Albright and others in the Clinton administration did not want any peaceful settlement of the specific issues regarding Kosovo. Rather, they wished to punish Serbian President Slobodan Milošević for his grisly actions during the Bosnian War earlier in the decade. At the time, analyst William Hartung wrote that the Serbia bombing would help “spark a sort of postmodern cold war, in which Russia seeks ways to act against US interests to assert its independence on the world stage and to assuage nationalist resentments at home.”
After leaving office, Albright followed the standard path of self-enrichment for figures with her pedigree. She founded the Albright Stonebridge Group, a “global strategic advisory and commercial diplomacy firm,” and its partner firm, Albright Capital. Washington is full of such enterprises, which allow former public officials to leverage the connections they made while espousing democracy and human rights for less rosy business ends. At one point in 2012, one of Albright’s companies was in the running to buy the state telecommunication firm of Kosovo, a country that exists in large part thanks to her. Among Albright Stonebridge’s many clients is Pfizer; during the last year of her life, Albright was doggedly urging the Biden administration during the midst of the coronavirus pandemic to protect American intellectual property.
But even that is not the whole Madeleine Albright story. Perhaps the most edifying act in Albright’s life has been almost completely forgotten, and has been mentioned in none of the glowing mainstream Albright obituaries: Albright was a longtime brand ambassador for Herbalife Nutrition, a dietary supplement company. According to the New York Post, she was paid $10 million for these efforts over six years. Below she can be seen enthusing about Herbalife in an infomercial, saying, “You have a great product. That makes all the difference. I’m a product of the product!”
In a 2016 settlement with the Federal Trade Commission, Herbalife agreed to pay $200 million in response to charges that it had “deceived consumers” into participating as the dupes in a pyramid scheme. No wonder Herbalife wanted Albright — there were few better at drawing marks into the great multilevel marketing scam that is U.S. foreign policy.