|EDINBURG, March 31 - Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright appeared last Tuesday, March 26, 2013, at the University of Texas—Pan American (UTPA), Edinburg, Texas.
It was an appropriate occasion, crowning Women’s History Month. She spoke one week before to assembled CIA personnel in D.C. She led their quest to attract and promote more women to the CIA. That organization now employs 46 percent women, compared with 38 percent in 1980. Progress comes in incremental doses.
Albright spoke to UTPA students along the same lines. She emphasized not only the important role of women, but of immigrants: “I, too, am an immigrant; we need immigrants.” She was born in Czechoslovakia. Her father was Josef Korbel, a diplomat. She fled the Nazis with her parents to London, endured the Blitz as a child, and later, moved with them to the U.S.
Secretary Albright was first appointed by President Clinton as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in 1993. In 1997 she became the 64th Secretary of State and the first female in that post, the oldest of government Departments. More recently, she has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by President Obama. She continues to remain involved in education, teaching at Georgetown University. She is active on numerous boards, and heads a “think-tank” group of former Ministers of Foreign Affairs from various countries.
UTPA President Nelsen introduced one of my students, Joshua Johnson, who introduced Ms. Albright. Tuesday night had the marks of a graduation ceremony: “follow your dream.” Ms. Albright spoke of meeting with César Chávez and encouraged students to pursue their dream: “si, se puede!” She spoke of the need to respect religious diversity: “I was raised Catholic, married an Episcopalian, and then found out I was Jewish.” She put Muslim holy days on the calendar at State. There could not have been a more appropriate place for celebration of diversity than UTPA. The mixed town-gown audience was appreciative. Even some of the civic leaders in attendance--probably more conservative than the students—politely applauded her plea for society (and courts) to accept same-sex marriage.
The Distinguished Speakers Series—underwritten by student fees and private donations—can be proud of that evening. But, please, we do hope some civic-minded donors will help the University acquire a state-of-the-art sound system. The echoing, sputtering quality made clear listening quite difficult. It was embarrassing for a university about to be merged, to become larger, and hoping to become even more prestigious and influential.
Nevertheless, following her very short speech, rapidly read, Ms. Albright stayed longer for a variety of quite penetrating questions. The students had done their homework. Some were critical, if not of her, but of State Department competence (e.g., Bengazi). Another one of my former students (and I swear I did not put him up to it) challenged her support of U.S. bombings and other retribution which harmed thousands of Iraqi children. She apologized for defensive, insensitive assertions she had made at the time, but stressed the exigencies of (semi) wartime actions and decisions.
Her sense of humor and quips pleased the crowd. To those annoyed by the United Nations, she pleads “no, no black helicopters, and yes, it is full of foreigners; so get over it.” By far the biggest apology (though not necessarily hers to make) was her negation of President Bush’s policy in the Middle East. “Iraq was a greater disaster than Viet-Nam.” She urged: “question everything; don’t let anyone tell you there were WMDs in Iraq.” She regretted any part she had played, officially or not, in supporting that specious claim and ensuing disastrous policy.
The former Secretary of State was elegantly dressed in a stylish suit, sparkling with dazzling jewelry. She wore one of the newer, simpler pins from her fabulous collection, this one seeming to be a Grecian Horse, perhaps in honor of Pan Am Broncs? She will meet for dinner with Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan next week. She meets all over the U.S. with adoring audiences, most of them more receptive than the tense, ethnically divided crowds she encountered during previous East European tours.
There were doubters. Another student of mine, Rafael Calles, cited in previous columns for his astute economic analysis, was impressed but persistent. He met with the Secretary for dinner before her speech. She has changed her mind on many things, so, he hoped she had evolved from her previous support for the notoriously abusive Helms-Burton law. It divides Cuban and U.S. families. It is part of a 50-year policy of embargo on Cuba. That policy has not worked; our students know that. She promised to return to that issue in her main speech, but did not.
Surely, Ms. Albright knows the truth. Perhaps the tone of the rest of her speech prevented her from recognizing the obvious—and embarrassing— contradiction. She has not—as yet-questioned her earlier support for U.S. intransigence. Perhaps her views are the result of her childhood and later experiences with communism in Eastern Europe.
Would that she were as astute in recognizing the positive changes in Cuba, the increasing demands for change by U.S. groups—educators, business people, farmers, and separated families. We need to restore normal diplomatic relations. But, alas, at least for now, it seems not to be forthcoming. What a shame. Now is the time to change course. Influential people such as Madeleine Albright could help with a new discourse and, hopefully, a creative re-opening to the real world close to home.
The former Secretary of State is, of course, an entrepreneur, head of a capitalist investment firm, as well as influential in education and strategic foreign policy matters. Perhaps ideology also gets in the way. The irony, however, is that she specifically counseled UTPA students, faculty, administrators, and civic leaders to “remember the past, without being tied to it.”
Other advice from her bully pulpit at UTPA? “The best chance for positive change comes when we can see the ‘other side’s’ side.” She praised Nelson Mandela as a model to emulate. He studied those (Afrikaners) who had imprisoned him. Afterwards, “he understood them, then forgave them, then led them.” We, too, should “seek out, and then reach out to those who are different.” Her speech was almost religious in its search for a higher plain.
Albright advocated entertaining, when necessary, new principles, but, mainly, saw the need to embrace and “restore the best of old principles.” Like a good sermon at church, synagogue or mosque, or a good lecture at the university, there was plenty to stimulate both mind and soul. If only one half of her sage advice could be integrated into our private and public lives, how rewarding that would be. But, however inspirational her life and ideas, the Secretary has her flaws. Notable among them, refusal to reconsider the obvious need to restore diplomatic relations—she is, after all, a diplomat—with Cuba.
So, yes, I’m cherry-picking. I choose to deplore and ignore her rather antiquated views on Cuba. Could it be, as often alleged, females who break through the glass or other ceiling are pressured to be “tougher”? Still, those flaws aside, I hope many of us can apply many of her admonitions to engage in more critical thinking and positive action. Hers was a cry of “carpe diem”—to us to become more involved in our government. Madeleine Albright urges us to step up for support of the United Nations, and for a renewed role for American leadership in the world.
Dr. Gary Mounce is political science professor at the University of Texas-Pan American. His columns appear regularly in the Rio Grande Guardian.