When in France

Posted: Oct 21, 2003 12:00 AM

Madeleine Albright's attitude is "when in France, do as the French do." The former Clinton secretary of state unloaded on President Bush from Paris the other day. Albright maintained that "it's difficult to be in France and criticize my government," but quickly got over it. "Bush and the people working for him," she said, "have a foreign policy that is not good for America, not good for the world."

It's extraordinary for such a high-level former official to criticize the U.S. government on foreign soil -- especially on the soil of a nation that has done its utmost to become a dirty word in the United States. What's next? An Albright trip to North Korea to cozy up to Kim Jong Il? Actually, she already did that. In 2000, while still in office, she visited North Korea to watch and applaud along with Kim at a stadium demonstration -- think the Rose Bowl on acid -- that included praise for the rogue nation's nuclear and missile programs.

Madeleine Albright doesn't instinctively think "my country, right or wrong" so much as "my multilateralism, right or wrong." So it is not surprising that she has come to France's aid in its time of need. The author of a new memoir, the former secretary of state is the very embodiment of Clinton foreign policy and its weaknesses. Multilateral Madeleine, the toast of the Champs-Elysees, helped bequeath to the Bush administration most of the problems she now criticizes it for addressing.

Clinton officials have recently boiled down their foreign-policy approach to the truism that "it's good to have allies." No one can disagree with that. The question is how far you should go in deferring to allies (or nominal allies) when they are bent on obstruction. Bill Clinton, for instance, said all the same things about Saddam's threat as George W. Bush and had as little luck convincing France and Russia to take it seriously. So, Clinton gave Saddam a pass.

Albright made it her personal project to restrain the U.N. inspectors in Iraq in order to avoid a confrontation with Saddam that would have forced the United States into offending allies and taking meaningful action. As The Washington Post reported at the time, "The behind-the-scenes campaign of caution is at odds with the Clinton administration's public position as the strongest proponent of unconditional access for the inspectors to any site in Iraq."

For all the pious rhetoric about its great respect for the United Nations and other multilateral institutions, the Clinton administration cared most about its own convenience. In addition to frustrating U.N. inspectors in Iraq, it opposed and delayed U.N. action to stop the genocide in Rwanda (too risky in terms of American domestic politics) and undercut the International Atomic Energy Agency's position on inspections during the North Korean crisis in 1993 (too much trouble getting Pyongyang to agree to stricter inspections).

The administration wouldn't let anything, even multilateral institutions, get in the way of papering over problems. This was the premise of the 1994 "Agreed Framework" with North Korea. The deal was that we would send North Korea food and fuel aid in exchange for being able to pretend that North Korea had frozen its nuclear program, which nearly everyone knew was very unfrozen by the late 1990s.

Albright nonetheless persisted in calling the Agreed Framework "one of the best things the administration has done." This unraveling fig-leaf deal was punted over to the Bush administration. As was a Saddam steadily beating containment. As was a Yasser Arafat puffed up with fawning American diplomatic attention. As was an Afghanistan brimming with terrorist training camps.

After 9-11, when it became clear how dangerous festering threats could be, the Bush administration adopted a forward-leaning approach to all these problems in an attempt not to leave them to a subsequent administration. No wonder Madeleine Albright is so uncomprehending of Bush foreign policy. It is just as alien to her as it is to her cynical and manipulative French hosts.