WASHINGTON -- If there is one moment that defines Madeleine Albright's persona as a diplomat, it is the time last June when she stood before the United Nations General Assembly and assailed Cuba for shooting down a civilian plane piloted by anti-Castro activists. Using the vulgar Spanish anatomical term that means both "machismo" and "balls," the matronly U.N. ambassador fumed: "That wasn't cojones; that was cowardice."
The remark was vintage Albright: direct, pugnacious and eminently quotable. And with her nomination today to become President Clinton's new Secretary of State, the foreign policy establishment is expecting the 59-year-old Albright to transfer that sharper, more combative edge to Washington as she moves to center stage in the stewardship of American diplomacy.
Albright, assuming she is confirmed, would be the first women to hold America's top diplomatic post. But those who know her caution against any assumptions that her femininity will mean a softer, touchy-feely diplomatic style if the Senate approves her nomination. "She's one tough cookie," says an associate who works with Albright at the United Nations. "Just ask Colin Powell if she's a pushover."
The associate was referring to now-legendary confrontations between Albright, who had cabinet rank as U.N. ambassador, and Gen. Powell early on in the Clinton administration, when the president agonized over the use of American military force in Bosnia. At one cabinet meeting, Powell, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argued against it. Albright, who supported the use of force, reportedly asked Powell: "Since you have a splendid military, why are you afraid to use it?"
Powell was said to have been offended by Albright's remarks, but when U.S. air strikes eventually drove the Serbs to the Dayton talks, where a Bosnia peace accord was concluded, observers felt Albright's pro-interventionism had been vindicated.
The incident also points up Albright's mastery of an art in which her predecessor, Warren Christopher was notably weak: the sound bite. It was Albright who coined the term "assertive multilateralism," to describe the U.S. military's participation in United Nations forces in hot spots around the world. It was a catchy, attractive concept that announced a policy in which American muscle would be judiciously applied within a larger international coalition, rather than alone.
Such a policy, Albright proudly notes, has worked so far in Bosnia, where U.S. troops have been on the ground as part of a larger multinational force for a year and where U.S. troops will remain as part of a follow-on force for the next 18 months. However, Albright's multilateralism failed miserably in Somalia, where 30 U.S. soldiers were killed by the gunmen of a local warlord. Eventually, American troops pulled out of Somalia, and Albright hasn't used the term since.
"She'll be very good at the public side of the job," says Richard Haas, a former National Security Council aide during the Bush administration and now the director of foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution. "She's very effective testifying before Congress and she's effective on television."
But her critics say Albright brings a major weakness to the post: the lack of any strategic vision. "She's doesn't represent any foreign policy perspective," Haas notes. "So the danger is that this administration could end up still being inconsistent and reactive in its foreign policy."
Another of Albright's weaknesses, critics say, is her lack of experience in international trade issues, the one foreign policy area where the Clinton administration has excelled. Clinton has been especially aggressive in getting Japan to open its markets, and Albright will need to be able to argue and articulate the president's trade policy if it is to be equally successful in his second term.
Albright's nomination reflects the growing power of women's groups, who claim the support of women in last November's election was the prime factor behind President Clinton's reelection. Also in Albright's corner was Vice President Al Gore, who argued that having her as secretary of state would improve his own chances for winning the presidency four years from now.
But other observers say Albright got the job largely because she simply didn't have any many negatives as the other candidates for the post. These included former Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, Democratic Sen. Sam Nunn of Georgia and former Democratic Sen. George Mitchell.
"Holbrooke was too forceful and difficult to work with, Mitchell was too partisan and not sufficiently knowledgeable, and Nunn was too independent," Haas said. "Madeleine's a team player. I just hope it's not going be four more years of the same policies."
The diplomatic challenges facing Albright are immense. In addition to the immediate problems of peacekeeping in Bosnia, Albright, who fled the communist takeover of Czechoslovakia as a child with her family, holds hawkish views favoring the expansion of NATO, an issue that has caused major tension with Russia. She must also deal with increasingly precarious relations with China over issues ranging from trade to human rights to China's military expansionism in the Pacific.
In the Middle East, the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors has faltered since the election last spring of conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Even an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank town of Hebron, which is anticipated to take place soon, will not diminish the need for U.S. leadership to achieve a comprehensive peace settlement in the region.
Albright also will preside over what is shaping up to be a major overhaul of U.S. policy toward Iran. Until now, Washington has favored the "dual containment" of both Iraq and Iran. But with America's European allies ignoring Washington's calls for a boycott of Iran, some administration officials are said to favor a carrot-as-well-as-stick approach to Iran. According to those familiar with a high-level policy review, one carrot would be the removal of U.S. opposition to the construction of pipelines across Iran that would carry oil and natural gas from the Caucasus to Europe.
If such a policy is adopted, Albright is all but certain to run into a buzzsaw of opposition from a number of Republican lawmakers, particularly Sen. Alphonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., who authored legislation that imposes a secondary boycott on any foreign company that does business with Iran. Any warming of the administration's approach toward Iran also is likely to anger Israel's powerful allies on Capitol Hill, who view the revolutionary Islamic regime as the source of all terror and anti-Israeli actions throughout the world.
"If I were her, I would think twice before I start changing policy toward Iran," one pro-Israel lobbyist said.
Jonathan Broder is a frequent contributor to Salon. He is a senior editor for the weekend edition of "All Things Considered" and Washington correspondent for The Jerusalem Report.