Mighty Madeleine, Almighty Albright

The Former Secretary of State Comes to Town

Madeline Albright, former Secretary of State under Bill Clinton, has a new book out—The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs—in which she argues that we need more religion, not less, in our foreign policy. Albright will appear at the Arlington Theater on Monday, November 6, at 8 p.m. Recently Albright spoke with me by telephone.

In your book you argue that “we can’t and we shouldn’t” keep religion out of foreign policy. What does that mean?

I mean that obviously we need to continue to have separation of church and state, but we also have to recognize the role that religion plays in people’s lives. Many of the conflicts that we see in the world today in some form or another have a religious basis or a religious component. I’m not a theologian, and I haven’t turned into a religious mystic — I’m a problem solver. We have to understand the religious history of particular issues, and then ultimately, our diplomats should be trained to know about the religions of the various places we’re involved with, and the Secretary of State needs to have religious advisors.

Do find religious expertise lacking in our current foreign policy?

What has happened is that in some elements there’s too much religion, and in some, in the basic understanding of various issues — where the diplomacy is taking place — I think there’s not enough of a recognition of the role that it has.

I’m assuming you’re referring primarily to Islam and the Middle East.

Yes, but not only Islam and not only the Middle East. And also, let us also remember that the majority of the world’s Muslims are not in the Middle East — they’re in Indonesia, Micronesia, and India.

The religiosity of the Bush administration has been much remarked upon. Is it anomalous in its religiosity?

Well, I have to tell you that as I started this book, I thought President Bush was an anomaly in American history. But I went back and did an awful lot of research on American history from the religious perspective, and…every American president in some form or another has invoked God. President McKinley thought it was our duty to Christianize the Philippines. So it in that regard, it is not anomaly. Where President Bush is different from the two very religious presidents I worked for — President Carter and President Clinton — is that he has made a lot of his religious beliefs into actual policy.

In what way? And I’m asking specifically in reference to foreign policy.

First of all, after 9/11, President Bush kind of framed the attacks in a way where everybody was together against people who think it’s right to fly airplanes into buildings and kill innocent people. Then what happened, because of the so-called “axis of evil,” and the formulation of American foreign policy as fighting evil, the Manichean aspect of it narrowed the number of countries that actually could support us. The way that President Bush framed it — that God was on our side — that alienated people, which became especially pronounced with Iraq, where many countries were not willing to accept the notion that being for U.S. meant they had to be for the war in Iraq. This is key, that instead of stating it the way that President Lincoln stated it, which is that we have to be on God’s side, Bush said God is on our side. So I do think the Manichean aspect of it has narrowed the base of people who can support our country.

How do we address extremism in the Muslim Middle East?

Well, I think that we have to recognize that all three of the Abrahamic religions to some extent have been hijacked, or influenced to some degree, by extremism. And the one that’s most visible at the moment is the fanatic, radical extremism found in some of Islam. But one of the big mistakes is to lump Islam together. I think if you ask your readers — well, maybe not your readers, because you come from a special part of the country — where most Muslims are, they would say the Middle East. But that’s not so: most are in Indonesia and India and Malaysia.

I think what has to happen is that the moderate Muslims have be the ones to work to mitigate, and change, and reinterpret the extremist aspect of their religion. And it’s very hard for anybody from outside the religion to tell those from another religion how to modify their views. But from a number of Muslims I’ve spoken to, they believe the interpretation the extremists have put on the Koran is wrong…I’ve been arguing in all of my speeches that the moderates in all religions have to become more passionate, more extreme, about their moderateness.

Various people with expertise on the matter have pointed out that what causes extremism in the Muslim world is not the Koran or Islam, but geo-political circumstances. Does that resonate?

I think there’s certainly a great aspect of that…I don’t happen to buy into the idea that extremism is all one movement. A lot of it is localized and has local roots which are then are either played upon by international terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda, or are stated that way when we talk about the war on terror. But I do think that it’s a combination of geo-strategic issues, location, history, reacting to colonial histories, etc…

Recently the Bush administration has argued that we should blame your administration for setting the stage for 9/11, for allowing the trajectory of events that led to it.

First of all, we have to blame the terrorists — they are the ones who are responsible. But I was the lead witness for the 9/11 Commission, and I went over our records very carefully, and we took a whole series of steps to try to deal with terrorists, from the first explosions at the World Trade Center, executive decisions President Clinton took…I mean we actually launched missiles against Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan after the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were blown up. I think we did everything we could. The thing I try to remind people is that pre-9/11, most people thought whenever we did anything we were overreacting, not under-reacting…

…Clinton being accused of wagging the dog.

Right. When we bombed the chemical factory in Sudan because we had intelligence linking it to Osama bin Laden, people said we were crazy. I think one of the really hard parts in analyzing decisions is to put yourself into where things were at the time. We have obviously all talked about this, and we all feel that President Clinton and our team really took as robust actions as were possible in a pre-9/11 setting. I think the Bush administration, from everything I’ve read—if you read Dick Clarke, or any number of other books, although I think Dick Clarke is most authoritative, since he was in both administrations—the Bush administration didn’t pay that much attention to it. And I can tell you that when we briefed Secretary Powell and Dr. Rice, I think especially Dr. Rice was surprised when Sandy Berger told her how much time would be taken up fighting terror.

Blaming either administration is not useful, but I think we need to ask what has happened since 9/11? We at least went after Osama bin Laden. Where is the action now? Why was attention diverted from Afghanistan, and why was it linked to Iraq when there was no connection?

The Bush administration has been arguing very strenuously for a number of months that Iraq as the centerpiece of the larger fight against terror. Is the war in Iraq making us safer?

Well, it wasn’t the centerpiece of the war on terror — it is now, in many ways. Because everybody who hates us is now there, and there are a lot more people who hate us because of it. But there was no link. And that has made America less safe. We should have kept our attention on Afghanistan, which as you well know is getting worse—the Taliban is resurging, and there are increased problems for the NATO force there. Even Secretary Rumsfeld says that more terrorists have been created than have been killed. So while everybody is happy that we haven’t been attacked since 9/11, but Iraq has not made anyone safer.

John McCain is calling for an increase of troops in Iraq, and various others are calling for a reduction. How do we move forward in Iraq?

We need to redeploy. We need to systematically find a way to get out of there. It was a war of choice, not of necessity. If you just look at the titles of the books out now, they make your hair curl: Payoff, Fiasco, State of Denial, and so on. The sad part is that our forces are so unbelievably brave and work so hard, and yet the American presence is a solution, but it’s also the problem, because we are like flypaper drawing attacks. What has to happen is that the government of Iraq needs to take more and more control. I have been arguing that while the United States did not start World War I or WWII, when we saw that it effected our national interest, we went into those wars, and we won. The countries that have disagreed with how we got into Iraq have to now realize that their national interests have also now been effected, and they have to help—helping with the logistics, helping with the rebuilding of Iraq, so that it does permit us to leave.

I’ve just come from the Middle East, and I can’t tell you what the effect of Iraq on America’s reputation has been catastrophic, not to mention the loss of life, American and Iraqi….I’m afraid Iraq will go down in history as the greatest disaster in the history of American foreign policy. We need to figure out how to leave. I am not a person who thinks we need to set a date, but I do think we need to redeploy and get out.

411 Madeleine Albright will be speaking at the Arlington Theater on Monday, November 6, at 8 p.m. Call 893-3535 or see

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