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Friday, April 9, 1999 Published at 09:10 GMT 10:10 UK

Madeleine Albright: Haunted by history

Madeleine Albright: From humble beginnings to secretary of state

By Tom Carver in Washington

Inside the US State Department, the Kosovo conflict is known as "Albright's War".

Kosovo: Special Report
This may be the first sign of diplomats shifting the blame for a war which has given the American administration the political equivalent of a mild stroke. But it also says much about Madeleine Albright's highly personal approach to foreign policy.

Born in Prague the daughter of a Czech diplomat, Madeleine Korbel as she was called was one year old when her family fled from Hitler's tanks.

For a while they squatted in Belgrade and, if Serbian TV is to be believed, the little girl was befriended by kindly Serb neighbours.

When the war ended, the Korbels returned to Czechoslovakia only to have to flee a second time to avoid becoming communists.

They went to Denver where her father was offered a post at the university. From such inauspicious beginnings Madeleine Albright rose to become America's first female Secretary of State.

It's a remarkable story but certainly not unique in America and yet even the briefest profile of Madeleine Albright usually refers to it.

This isn't because she flaunts such humble origins, she doesn't. In fact, she's always tried to keep her private life private. When she discovered that her family had originally been Jewish, she was reluctant to talk about it.

'Driven by her own biography'

But it's widely believed that her childhood experience colours her world view and, by extension, America's foreign policy.

"Madeleine Albright, more than anyone else in this administration, is driven by her own biography," one senior American diplomat told the Washington Post recently.

Her main historical reference point is said to be Munich, 1938 when the western allies abandoned Czechoslovakia to Hitler.

[ image: Ms Albright convinced the president that Milosevic would back down]
Ms Albright convinced the president that Milosevic would back down
"The lesson of Munich is that you do not appease aggressors," said the Czech ambassador to Washington, Michael Zantovsky.

And certainly she has been outspoken in demanding that America, as the world's leading democracy, stand up to modern-day autocrats like Milosevic.

Her colourful past has become both her strength and her Achilles' heel. When she was first appointed by Bill Clinton in December 1996, she seemed to be the perfect fit.

After Warren Christopher, a diplomat whose style had all the excitement of a fax machine, Madeleine Albright's colour scarves, pithy soundbites and obvious passion were widely applauded.

But three years on, the exuberance has evaporated. "Skepticism about her effectiveness is on the rise," says Jim Hoagland, columnist for the Washington Post.

And for all her supposed insight into Europe and its past, Madeleine Albright appears to have badly misjudged Milosevic and the Serbs.

Milosevic: 'Schoolyard bully'

By all accounts, it was Madeleine Albright who convinced Clinton, against the better judgement of the Pentagon, that the Serb leader would back down after a little light bombing.

She claimed that he was no more than a schoolyard bully who would retreat after one good punch on the nose.

When Milosevic refused to accept the Rambouillet peace accord, the State Department was reported to have been "baffled" and was wholly unprepared for the ethnic cleansing which swiftly followed.

Of course, with a little hindsight it's easy to see now that agreeing to Nato troops on Serbian soil would have spelt political death for Slobodan Milosevic, whereas facing down Nato bombs would ensure his position in Serb mythology.

But it's sad to think that perhaps Ms Albright did not learn the lesson of Munich after all: that true dictators do not operate on the basis of reasonable offers.

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