Memo to the President Elect (thoughts)
As you may recall, I really enjoyed Madeleine Albright’s autobiography, Madame Secretary. It was a neat mix of personal and policy, and I like the insider view on many important world events in the nineties. There was a minimum of uber-partisanship, which was definitely refreshing. So when I saw Albright’s new book, Memo to the President Elect, I got pretty excited. And when I saw the subtitle (How We Can Restore America’s Reputation and Leadership), I was even more excited. Unfortunately, the title and subtitle are the best parts of this book.
The idea of this is really neat: the book’s written in second person, and is addressed directly to our next president (*cough*Obama*cough*). The execution, on the other hand, is not so neat; as explained in the prologue, the book has two parts: “the first analyzes the various national security tools that will be available to our forty-fourth president-a kind of user’s guide to the White House; the second discusses how these instruments might be applied to meet twenty-first century problems.” Sounds good, right? Well, you’d be wrong. The first part is full of statements so general as to be worthless or so self-evident you wonder why Albright bothered writing them. Take the following, part of Albright’s advice on choosing a cabinet:
The candidates that survive that ordeal will queue up for interviews at all hours. Depending on how well you already know them, you may or may not need to ask probing questions about how they would respond in specific situations. You goal will be to look behind the mask the person in front of you is wearing to see how he or she will perform under pressure.
Um, isn’t that pretty much what every human resources manager is supposed to do? She adds,
Inevitably, you will make some choices that don’t work out, whether for reasons of chemistry or ability. Correct them quickly.
So, fire people who can’t do their job or fit into the workplace’s culture. Check. You guys might think I deliberately chose the simplest passages, so here’s the most detailed advice I could find in that same chapter:
The national security decision-making system works best when each of the senior officials is content to do the job assigned and does not try to do all three. The secretary of state should be the president’s primary policymaker and the person most responsible for publicly explaining U.S. positions. The national security advisor should manage the daily foreign policy-related activities of the president, corrdinate the interagency process, and see that necessary decisions are both made and implemented. The secretary of defense should concentrate on running his own department, make certain that the president has the benefit of military advice, and figure out how to make the best use of the agency’s resources.
I was really looking forward to her explaining exactly what the national security advisor does, but it boiled down to: it depends on the president. Which is probably true.
The generalizations are nothing compared to the extreme partisanship that Albright has suddenly acquired. During her discussion of Kennedy’s foreign policy, the Bay of Pigs invasion is no where to be found, whereas she quickly brings up the Iran Contra Affair when Reagan comes up. And that’s nothing compared to her continual attacks on President Bush. I’m not a fan of President Bush, but there’s a difference between reasonably pointing out how he’s messed up specific foreign policy stuff and backing that up with potshots. While both are present in the book, the latter definitely predominate. I find that just unclassy, which isn’t something I expected Albright to ever be.
Then we move to the second part of the book, the one I was hoping would redeem the book: in this one, Albright wanders around the globe looking at problem spots and suggesting solutions. The first thing that jumped out at me was the bad organisation. Instead of devoting a chapter to each continent, or geographical division, or even dividing the chapters by world difficulties (i.e.-extreme poverty, ethnic conflict, totalitarian regimes), things proceed in a hapharzard manner; the first chapter deals with global issues, then we go to Europe and Latin America, with a bit of Afghanistan thrown in, then East Asia (which is nice and cohesive), then Russia, India, and Pakistan, and then the last three chapters are on the Middle East. Notice anyone missing? Like, oh, maybe Sub-Saharan Africa? I’m not really sure why she didn’t talk about sub-Saharan Africa (except for a few throw-away sentences in passing), but I missed it. It currently happens to have the highest amount of pro-America sentiment, so you’d think Albright might look at what President Bush did right, and how the next president can expand on that. Or, you might think that since she says “Reducing poverty should be a central theme of your administration,” she’d look at the most empoverished world region. But apparently not. Even in the areas Albright does look at, she doesn’t offer much in the way of suggestions, or even analysis. It’s mainly brief history lessons, with a little bit of current politics from chosen countries. I was expecting more of a “If I were president, here’s what I’d do to fix the world” approach that went out on limbs sometimes and made strong arguments (I mean, Albright’s an incredibly intelligent woman). But that never happened. That being said, there were two points I really liked from this part: first off, this thought on Russia (despite the overall poverty of her discussion of this huge country):
The idea that we could, with sufficient help and hugs, turn Russian into an oversize [sic] but otherwise typical European country has never been realistic.
And, my favourite, her pot shot at Thomas Friedman (I will never talk about Friedman on this blog, because you would all be shocked at the sarcastic venom I have inside of me and would never look at me the same way again):
I fear that Thomas Friedman, best-selling author of The World Is Flat is wrong when he predicts that [no two countries linked by multi-national corporations will ever go to war]. Such thinking places the logic of material self-interest on too high a pedestal. Governments do not make decisions solely on the basis of what is best for standards of living….Great and Britain and Germany were major trading partners and Lloyd’s of London insured the German merchant marine. These cozy arragnements nevertheless failed to check nationalist passions…
Hehe-take that Friedman!
So, aside from the lack of concrete advise and real analysis into global situations, there are two other problems with the book, one small and one big. The small one are the lame attempts at humour scattered throughout; you might think I’m nit-picking, but it’s bad. Like this: “The men who wrote the Constitution did remarkably well, considering the absence of female guidance.” Really? Did you really have to go there? These kind of cringe-inducing attempts at levity are frequent enough that they interrupt the flow of the text and undermine credibility. (The gem I quoted is on page 29-for the rest of the book, I couldn’t quite stop thinking about it.) The big one is Albright’s unrealistic expectations about the future of the Middle East. This review is already way too long, so I’ll just explain the most stunning one. In her advice as to what the future president should do about Iraq, she proposes the creation of a ‘contact group’ of other nations who are affected by Iraq’s situation (much like was done in Bosnia). This in itself is fine. Except, listen to the countries she thinks should be members: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United States, and the European Union. Um, did you catch that second one? Yep, because obviously meetings that include Iran and the U.S. are going to be super-productive. Especially when you toss Russia into the mix. (and that’s just looking at the most obvious conflict of interests) I mean, about the only way to make this combination more explosive would be to add Israel.
Well, I think I’ve spent enough energy explaining why this book irked me. I expected much, much more out of Albright, even if she does have someone else actually write her books. I wouldn’t recommend this one to anyone-there are much better books out there that cover the same topics in a more rigorous and interesting manner.