Madeleine Albright has died at 84. She was a pioneering imperialist who passionately advocated greater use of deadly violence in pursuit of a US-dominated post–Cold War global order — and killed many, many people in the process.
Madeleine Albright, who died Wednesday at the age of eighty-four, was America’s first female secretary of state. But the countless headlines touting that fact risk reducing her accomplishments to gender. That’s not fair: she was so much more than a trailblazer.
Albright was an imperial ghoul, as ruthless in her pursuit of American global dominance as any man. She played a central role in crafting a post–Cold War policy that wrought devastation on multiple continents. Her biography was a harrowing one: her family fled Nazi persecution when she was a child, and twenty-six of her relatives, including three grandparents, were murdered in the Holocaust. It’s a traumatic story, but rest assured: she presided over of plenty of trauma and death for others in return.
From 1993 to 1997, Albright served as United Nations ambassador. In that capacity, she presided over the brutal post–Gulf War sanctions on Iraq, with the aim of maximizing the misery of Iraqis so as to encourage Saddam Hussein’s overthrow. In a 1996 interview with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes, Albright seemed to suggest that the deaths of other people’s children were simply a cost of doing empire. “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that is more children than died in Hiroshima,” said Stahl. “And you know, is the price worth it?” Albright answered, “I think that is a very hard choice, but the price, we think, the price is worth it.”
Although the mortality estimates Stahl was referring to have subsequently been questioned by researchers, Albright made it clear that she was quite prepared to inflict death on that scale. It’s hard to fathom the death of more than half a million children, and the refractory misery, for so many families, contained in that one statistic. Yet that was a “price” Albright was willing to extract from ordinary people in that poor country, where sanctions deprived Iraqis of medicines, clean drinking water, and essential infrastructure.
The Powell Doctrine — that is, the view of post–Cold War foreign policy advanced by Clinton’s Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, Colin Powell (also recently eulogized here and not kindly) — was that the United States should limit its military interventions to situations in which its own national interests are threatened. Albright did not agree, and they clashed over what the US role should be in crises like Bosnia. Powell wrote in his memoir that he “almost had an aneurysm” when she asked him, “What’s the point of having this superb military we’re always talking about if we can’t use it?”