Albright’s Take on Religion and Politics

What struck me most about former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s new book, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs, was its humility. Throughout the book, Albright covers a range of topics, from the role of religion and morality in policy-making, to the myriad of issues facing the US in the contemporary Middle East. And through it all, she asks far-reaching questions about how best to shape policy options, and acknowledges mistakes she and other US officials have made. Noting that when in office she came to realize that she and many others knew too little about Islam and Arab history, Albright invites readers to join her in learning more.

Given the breadth of issues covered in the book, one can, of course, find flaws and weaknesses in such an ambitious undertaking. I could, for example, argue with her treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After initially appearing to acknowledge the injustice inherent in the Balfour Declaration, she resorts to a rather conventional treatment of the conflict’s history, ignoring the importance that this injustice plays in shaping Palestinian and Arab realities.

I would also suggest that her discussion of the role religion plays in both political movements and governance would have been strengthened had she buttressed her case by examining the writings of anthropologists and sociologists who have done significant work in this area.

But even with these concerns, I recommend The Mighty and the Almighty, not only for its humility but also for the courageous challenge it poses to many of the assumptions that now pass for “wisdom” in discussions about the “war on terror.”

At one point, for example, after recalling a conversation with former President Bill Clinton in which he observed that “we must be willing to admit that we are not in possession of the whole truth,” Albright opines that “we must once again become known as a country whose leaders listen, admit mistakes and work hard at addressing global challenges.”

She understands how after the horror of 9-11, many Americans wanted certitude, and why they embraced the “with us or against us” mind set they were offered. But she notes the danger and errors in judgment and practices that can flow from such an approach to policy-making.

In a number of instances, Albright engages readers in a discussion of the difficult choices government officials must face in confronting complex issues. These choices, she notes, are not between clear cut good and evil options, but frequently between “less than good” courses of action. She discusses how this problem affected decisions made during the Cold War or, during her tenure in government, with how the Clinton Administration was to deal with the Haitian refugee crisis or the conflict in Bosnia.

In one telling example, she relates the difficulties her Administration faced in inheriting the UN-mandated sanctions policy against Saddam’s Iraq. As US officials became aware of the human suffering created by the sanctions, and the way the regime was handling the program, the US sought ways to provide more food and medicine for the people, while still hoping to continue the containment of Saddam’s government.

It was in this context that Albright relates a story about a comment she made in a “60 Minutes” interview, which she called “one of the worst mistakes I ever made.” In response to a question as to whether, after all human suffering and death resulting from sanctions, that policy was “worth it,” she said, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it," As she explains in the book, what she meant to say was, “Of course not, that is why we are doing everything we can to see that Iraq has the money it needs to buy food and medicine.” She meant to describe the difficulties inherent in choosing between two less than good options, but as she noted, “words failed” her.

Other themes which Albright discusses at length are the principles of the “just war” and unintended consequences that sometimes spring from decisions made by policy-making. These themes are brought together in Albright’s treatment of the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq, which she concludes does not qualify as a “just war.” Of special concern were the unintended consequences of this war which, she observes, are so grave that neither we, the Iraqi people, nor the Middle East, as a whole, are safer or more secure. Because the US knew too little about Arabs and Islam, in general, and Iraq, in particular, the Administration’s expectations for the war and the anticipated positive consequences for Iraq and the greater Middle East, were mistaken.

Albright notes that when she was Secretary of State she often wrote reminders to herself to learn more about Islam. Given the crisis in which the US now finds itself, that injunction has become an imperative. Thus, the last half of The Mighty and the Almighty is devoted to a thoughtful presentation of Islam and an exploration of a number of issues in Arab history and US policy toward several Muslim countries.

In his introduction to the book, President Bill Clinton notes how many of Albright’s friends cautioned her against writing this book–”it is overly ambitious, it admits mistakes and it is quite critical of many of the policies pursued by the current Administration. It may not be perfect, but, I, for one, am glad she wrote it.