Madeleine Albright’s life and death were the subject of myriad obituaries and remembrances, much of it overwhelmingly positive. Yet one appalling fact about the prominent Democrat’s colorful and sometimes controversial diplomatic career was missing – how Albright helped pave the way for the 9/11 terror attacks as secretary of state in the Clinton administration. This fact was missing from The New York Times’ obituary, which called Albright “a brilliant analyst of world affairs.” CNN’s Christiane Amanpour called Albright a “strong diplomat” who stood up to tyrants — though Amanpour mentioned nothing about Albright’s failure to head off 9/11 when she had a chance to do so.
The Biden administration, for its part, ordered American flags lowered to half staff. This included at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – site of the prison holding 9/11 participants and other Islamic terrorists. Honoring Albright in this way, at Gitmo, was in one sense ironic. Gitmo’s prison, after all, might never have been needed if Albright and fellow diplomats hadn’t allowed Afghanistan’s Taliban to play them for fools as they vainly sought to persuade the Islamofacist rulers to give up or rein in their honored guest, Osama bin Laden, who operated terror-training camps while planning 9/11 from his Afghan hideout.
Albright’s dealings with the Taliban is an incredible story, one replete with incompetence and wishful thinking – all revealed in Albright’s own words: secret diplomatic cables that should never have seen the light of day…but that were released by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.
None of this is to suggest that Albright was a bad person. On the contrary: she was a decent person in her own way, but in her dealings with the Taliban she nevertheless possessed the same deeply flawed world view as Britain’s Neville Chamberlain: specifically, that it was possible to make deals with evil men as Chamberlain did with Adolf Hitler. In short, she projected her own sense of decency on to the Taliban, believing they could be convinced, through diplomatic initiatives appealing to decency and international law, to fall in line with the Western world’s norms of behavior. Put another way, Albright thought it possible to find common ground with the Taliban – a view also shared by George W. Bush’s administration, to be sure, though the Clinton administration and Albright were arguably the worst exemplars of this naiveté. Indeed, diplomatic cables from both administrations give the sense that State Department officials viewed Taliban leaders as people who would listen to reason; or who could be shamed or pressured into doing the right thing in respect to Osama bin Laden. Instead, the Taliban lied, stonewalled, and lied to U.S. diplomats about bin Laden and his whereabouts.
Consider some of Albright’s secret cables that were first published by FrontPage in September, 2011. Responding to a statement of bin Laden’s “calling for all Muslims to engage in a holy war against Americans,” Albright sent a cable dated February 26, 1998, to the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan. Its subject line: “Usama bin Laden’s statement about jihad against the U.S.”
The cable contained helpful “talking points” for embassy officials. Per Albright’s instructions, they were to convey the following to the Taliban:
* “We find statements of this kind, open invitations to carry out terrorist attacks against innocent people to be outrageous and totally unacceptable.”
* “We have discussed our concerns about Usama bin Laden’s inflamatory (sic) remarks and anti-American rhetoric before. We were given assurances that negative actions like this would be curbed.”
* “You should convey to bin Laden and his supporters in Afghanistan that this advocacy of violence is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”
* “These kinds of statements by Bin Laden also reflect poorly on the Taliban, as he enjoys your hospitality.”
How might the Taliban and bin Laden have reacted to Albright’s diplomatic efforts? In all likelihood, her talking points achieved the opposite of what she’d intended – providing evidence to bin Laden and the Taliban that America was a “weak horse”; or as bin Laden had famously declared: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature they will like the strong horse.” Interestingly, just six months after Albright’s first “talking points” cable, she got an answer of sorts – the suicide bombings of U.S. Embassy in East Africa in which bin Laden had a hand. Hundreds died and thousands were wounded; 12 Americans were among the dead. In retaliation, President Clinton thereupon established his own credentials as a “weak horse” – ineffectual cruise missile strikes against targets in Afghanistan and Sudan. In the minds of the Taliban and bin Laden (and their many cheerleaders in the Middle East), the cruise missile strikes offered more evidence that they had nothing to fear from the pitiful American giant.
Albright was flummoxed that her talking points failed to persuade the Taliban to crack down on bin Laden. And so she ratcheted up the diplomatic pressure by enlisting the help of what she considered a formidable ally: the Europe Union. In a secret cable dated March 27, 1998, Albright contacted U.S. embassies in the European Union – and in her “action message” directed U.S. envoys to invite E.U. states to join Washington in condemning the Taliban; she hoped the diplomatic pile on would persuade the Taliban to close its terror camps and withdraw support for bin Laden. The cable’s subject line: “Approach to EU on Taleban support for Usama bin Laden” (“Taleban” is an alternative spelling to the more commonly used “Taliban.”)
Albright wrote: “The U.S. is concerned by the so-called fatwa recently issued by terrorist patron Usama bin Laden that calls on all Muslims to kill Americans. We have raised this issue with the Taleban both in Kabul and in New York. We are confident that EU member states share this concern. We believe that there is merit in the Taleban realizing that this concern is not limited to the U.S.”
Albright added: “The Taleban must share responsibility for Usama bin Laden’s terrorist actions and inflammatory statements as long as he remains a guest in Qandahar.” (Qandahar is the Persian spelling of “Kandahar,” the more commonly seen Pashto version.)
At this point, however, it should have should have been obvious to Albright that diplomacy was unlikely to convince the Taliban to change their behavior. In Kabul, for instance, they had demonstrated their Islamofacist credentials in February, 1998 – just like Germany’s Nazis had demonstrated their thug credentials in November 1938 with Kristallnacht, the nationwide attacks on Jewish homes, businesses, and synagogues. The Taliban’s religious police were clearing women from Kabul’s streets and beating them up for failing to wear head-to-toe chadors, a violation of Sharia law. Months later, the Taliban turned Kabul soccer stadium into an execution ground, shooting untold numbers of men and women in the heads or stoning them to death for petty crimes and adultery. And despite international protests, they later destroyed colossal Buddhist statues carved into a mountain, considering them idolatrous and offensive to Islam.
Albright’s legacy is a complex one that cannot be easily second guessed: NATO’s bombings of Serb-led Yugoslavia; the human impact of economic sanctions on Iraq; expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe; and the Clinton administration’s inaction regarding genocide and mass rapes in Rwanda. However, her dealings with the Taliban are not filled with shades of gray. The 9/11 attacks represented a colossal failure to protect America’s interests and American lives, and Albright’s failure to head them off was undeniably her biggest failure as it was for the Bush administration.
David Paulin, an Austin, TX-based freelance journalist, covered Hugo Chávez’s rise to power while based in Caracas as a foreign correspondent. He also reported from the Caribbean while based in Kingston, Jamaica.