In the 1990s, while I was covering the United Nations for the Los Angeles Times, Madeleine Albright approached my table at a banquet in New York. My wife hugged her warmly, exclaiming: "Madeleine, you're doing a wonderful job as U.N. ambassador!" "Yes," Albright replied, "but [Stanley Meisler] doesn't think so." I grinned foolishly. I kept recalling that encounter as I read this engaging memoir of a remarkable foreign-born woman who came here as a refugee child and later negotiated the political thickets of Washington to become this nation's first female secretary of State. No one could accuse Madeleine Albright of timidity; she is always blunt and direct. Perhaps more important, the remark reflected a troubling reality: Although I admired and respected her, I often found her words and actions as U.N. ambassador and secretary of State disappointing. I was not alone. She faced a barrage of criticism from reporters, foreign policy wonks and State Department professionals throughout her tenure. This book is her spirited defense.
She regards the Kosovo war of 1999 as her finest triumph. Her assessment makes sense -- even though the war exposed some of the traits that most irritated her critics, both outside and inside the administration. Albright seemed to have an unblinking faith in air power and a penchant for describing issues in stark, almost simplistic terms. When [Slobodan Milosevic] began killing Albanians in the Serbian province of Kosovo, she insisted that he must be stopped and held little hope that this could be done just by diplomacy. She tried to rally the administration's key players to her side but failed at first. After one meeting of the administration's national security and foreign policy team, she writes, "As I looked around the table, I saw 'There goes Madeleine again' glances being exchanged." But as Serbian atrocities against the Albanians mounted, she finally persuaded Clinton. NATO began to bomb Serbia. Albright, enamored of air power, expected Milosevic to give up quickly under the pounding, but he did not. Atrocities increased instead of abating; Europeans fretted over the damage to Belgrade; critics derided the bombing as "Madeleine's war." Albright worked hard to keep the European alliance together and shore up support for the war within the Clinton administration, knowing NATO couldn't afford to let Milosevic win. Within months, Milosevic succumbed and let NATO peacekeepers replace his troops in Kosovo. Within 15 months, the Serbs threw him out of office and dispatched him to a special U.N. tribunal for trial as a war criminal. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said, "Well, if it was Madeleine's war, it is now Madeleine's victory."