The world is breathing a sigh of relief now that the American electorate has found the cure for the mad-cow disease that has afflicted U.S. foreign policy for so many years. Still, her memory lingers in world capitals, where they continue to tell Madeleine Albright stories—for example, of her repeated unsuccessful attempts to procure an invitation to visit Belgrade from the new Yugoslav leadership. “No member of the Clinton team was more enthusiastically determined to bomb Serbia in March 1999 than Albright,” according to a source,
and it was therefore remarkable to observe the zeal with which she tried to get herself invited to Serbia by the new government . . . She first tried through [the U.S. diplomat William] Montgomery, who came to Belgrade to congratulate . . . Vojislav Kostunica, a week after Milosevic’s downfall. But when Kostunica politely declined Montgomery’s request . . . formally on the grounds of his busy schedule, she sent him a hand-written letter in Serbian expressing her earnest wish to “congratulate him and his people” in person, and expressing her warm personal feelings for the Serbian people.
Such professions evoked a wry smile from the new Serbian leaders. They were determined not to grant this wish to the woman who had contributed, more than anyone else, to the tone and shape of America’s policy in the Balkans throughout Bill Clinton’s tenure. They were also fully aware that Albright’s and Clinton’s intention was to co-opt the fall of Milosevic into their shrinking “legacy,” thus indirectly justifying the bombing campaign itself. American diplomats returned from Belgrade with the message that high-level meetings would have to wait until there was a new administration in Washington. Our source continues:
Never the one to take “no” for an answer . . . Albright tried to entrap Kostunica into meeting her at the OSCE meeting in Vienna . . . in the last week of November. A week before the meeting her aides told reporters, on the condition of anonymity, that a meeting had been finally scheduled. On November 15 all wire services—and national dailies on the following day—duly carried the news attributed to “U.S. government sources” that the meeting was definitely on. They did not know that this was Albright’s deliberate attempt to present the Serbs with [a] fait accompli. In fact Belgrade was not even informed, let alone consulted, before the story was presented to the media as [a] done deal. She expected that Kostunica would play along, unwilling to jeopardize the proposed U.S. assistance package. Well, he didn’t—and she ended up eating humble pie . . .
With such brains in charge of U.S. diplomacy, it is hardly remarkable that Mr. Clinton’s Middle East “peace process” resulted in a drastic escalation of violence in the region and the loss of U.S. credibility—this time not only among the Arabs but among many Israelis. As the Jerusalem Post wrote (November 27):
Israel is in urgent need of an objective and honest broker who shares the confidence of all sides to bring [them] to the negotiating table, while reducing tension and violence. America cannot do it; Russia has no serious clout. The solution must be found elsewhere, perhaps in one of the European Union countries.
Three days earlier, Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, wrote that American “evenhandedness is a recipe for disaster.” On November 23, the Jerusalem Post‘s editorialist bewailed Clinton’s “pallid tolerance of Palestinian aggression” that necessitated Israeli military escalation:
It would be some, however minor, comfort if the U.S. refusal to support even minimal and largely symbolic Israeli efforts at selfdefense were a function of State Department evenhandedness run amuck, not the will of the president. Unfortunately . . . it is Clinton himself who has been unwaveringly evenhanded since the Palestinian attack against Israel began.
While such accusations are greeted with wide-eyed astonishment in the Arab world, both Arabs and Jews can agree on the issue of American credibility. The Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, which is close to Arafat’s administration, echoed the view from Jerusalem in an editorial on November 27:
Washington is watching communications among various mediators in Moscow, Ankara and some Arab capitals [which] does not mean that the White House has abandoned the idea of preventing anyone else from participating effectively in the political process. The reason for this is that Washington has lost its credibility and balance as a semi-neutral mediator. In addition, its dominance has been challenged because Israel continues to commit stupidities that embarrass Washington and make the task of defending its ally very difficult.
In Lebanon, As-Safir pointed out (November 25) that, following a complete breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian communications, a telephone call was arranged between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yassir Arafat under the auspices of the Russian president:
The intifada did not change the situation of the Palestinian negotiations significantly, but the real achievement was in the international sponsorship of the peace process. The United States, which is completely biased toward Israel, is no longer the only sponsor . . .
Some Europeans agreed: The London Guardian noted in its lead editorial (November 30) that there was a mounting Arab sense that George W. Bush would be more evenhanded and less attached to the Israeli cause than a Democratic administration:
Barak’s election gamble may, therefore, produce nothing more than a pause while everyone reconsiders, the Americans work out who their next president is, and the Palestinians decide whether they need to develop a new strategy. This could mean an effort to mobilize more players in the field, including European governments and Russia. The more people who can explain to the Israelis that long-term security lies in genuine compromise with the millions with whom they share the land, the better. If the Americans won’t, others must.
Italy’s Corriere della Sera wrote (November 28) that “the political vacuum in America gives Putin a hand in reaffirming an international role for his country,” while in Germany, the right-of-center Financial Times Deutschland sardonically added (November 30) that, “as long as the superpower focuses more on questions of dimpled or pregnant chads, it will be of no help as mediator in the Middle East.”
Which brings us to the little-known details of foreign coverage of the disputed presidential election. At first, many overseas commentators favorably remarked on the ability of the American system to seek the resolution of a disputed election by legal means. But after the first two weeks of wrangling, the mood started changing. Sueddeutsche Zeitung of Munich wrote (November 20):
The United States is cultivating a political style that generates near-fright in Europe. The radicalism, the brutality of the legal maneuvering, and the coldblooded partiality are alien to Europeans who have been destined to embrace consensus and create coalitions. However, the high TV ratings and the Americans’ remarkable interest in their domestic spectacle should not distract from the fact that most American citizens reject the blood hunt as a political device.
From a distance, it was apparently easier to sum things up weeks in advance. Moscow’s Vremya Novosti declared as early as November 20 that “basically, the winner is already known. The name of the United States’ 43rd president is George Walker Bush—but the Gore people are doing their utmost to delay the defeat.”
In the Arab world, the commentary had a predictable tinge, illustrated by Egypt’s pro-government Al-Ahram (November 14):
when the recount occurred, Jews, and none other, rushed to file suits to invalidate the elections . . . The Jewish lobby knows the facts but does not want to emerge empty-handed, especially since Bush’s victory will mean Republican control of the White House.
In addition, various Third World dictators—from Baghdad to Tripoli to Havana to Harare—had a field day with their attempts at mockery. But America’s friends, too, eventually moved from concern to consternation. A week after the election, Jamaica’s business-oriented Daily Observer called the outcome “a triumph of mediocrity”:
There may be another lesson to be learned by Americans from all this: that they may think twice when adopting a supercilious arrogance to political problems and instability elsewhere in the world.
Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine also wondered (November 21) “how difficult it will be for the new president to dispel doubts about his legitimacy.” Handelsblatt of Düsseldorf summed up the views of many Europeans (November 20):
The fact that U.S. judges apparently have to decide the presidential race is not scandalous. What is scandalous . . . is the way in which both candidates politicize the legal battle. Suits are being filed to win time. Judges are being pressured in public. All of this is made worse by the fact that many judges take office by being elected, practically as candidates of the two political parties.
In Italy, the conservative Il Giornale commented on its front page (November 21) that, “accustomed as they are to judging the world and giving it lessons of democracy, the American people discover now that the rest of the world is making fun of the United States.” La Repubblica noted “signs of a banana republic—like degeneration in Florida,” while in South Africa, Ray Hartley commented in the Sunday Times (November 19) that Robert Mugabe has been positively gloating over America’s loss of the moral high ground:
The United States and Zimbabwe now sit uncomfortably together somewhere on the gray scale of voting irregularity, the difference being one of degree, rather than principle. . . . The United States may lose much of its ability to preach to despots who want to cook their elections, and a president elected by a minority, should this come to pass, will hardly be an effective advocate of majority rule. Brace yourself for postponed elections, rigged elections and minority rule, all of it justified with a sarcastic swipe at the mother of all democracies.
Speaking of South Africa, it is curious that the American media—once so eager to lionize Nelson Mandela as a saintly multiracialist—deemed it fit to report on the former president’s open exploitation of race in the country’s local elections last December. According to South Africa Now (www.mg.co.za/mg/za/archive/2000dec/03dec-news.html#race), Mandela, speaking on behalf of the all-black ANC—and attacking the multiracial opposition Democratic Alliance, which is led by Jewish anti-apartheid activist Tony Leon—assured his audience that “no white party can run this country” and that, “no matter how they cover up by getting a few black stooges,” whites want to “remain the bosses.”