WASHINGTON, October 13, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright left government more than six years ago but she has not left public life. She now heads up the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and teaches at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. In her latest book, "The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God and World Affairs," Albright writes about how President George W. Bush has ceded U.S. moral authority on human rights issues, why Muslims are willing to listen to Al-Qaeda, and the role religious leaders should play in international conflicts.
Albright dedicates her book to "those of every nation and faith who defend liberty, build peace, dispel ignorance, fight poverty, and seek justice."
She herself found that the process of writing the book had taken her on a religious journey, she recently told an audience at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C.
One of her central arguments is that expertise of the world's various religions is sorely lacking in U.S. leaders who make foreign policy.
"Religion has to be considered as we look at various conflicts," Albright said. "Our diplomats have to understand the religious basis of these conflicts. In fact, they have to have training in religion. I would also make a point of the secretary of state having more religious advisers."
Albright said that, as secretary of state in former President Bill Clinton's administration, she made a point of deepening her knowledge of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. In doing so, she found similarities. She quoted Archbishop Desmond Tutu, of South Africa, who once said, "Religion is like a knife: you can either use it to cut bread, or stick in someone's back."
"I've done a lot of reading of the Koran, and of the Old Testament and the New Testament. I have found bloodcurdling parts in all of them. But I have also found very similar language on issues such as peace, justice, love, and social conscience that's all very similar," Albright said.
Albright On Promoting Democracy
As the United States' top diplomat, Albright helped guide U.S. foreign policy during several conflicts, from the Balkan wars, to the Hutu-Tutsi genocide in Rwanda, to the agreement known as Oslo II -- negotiated by Clinton, former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the future of the Gaza Strip and West Bank.
She says her experience has made her a pragmatist, and that she believes that forcing democracy on a country where basic needs are going unmet is not sound foreign policy. That approach only encourages the rise of religious-based groups that are able to meet citizens' needs, she said, citing the Hizballah movement in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine.
"I am somebody who so believes in the promotion of democracy, not the imposition of democracy. But democracy has to deliver. This may sound very Marxist but people prefer to eat than to vote," Albright said.
Since Albright left public office, the attacks of 9/11, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, and other pivotal events have dramatically changed the Islamic world's view of the United States. After watching the direction of U.S. foreign policy over the last six years, she now believes the United States cannot continue to make the mistake of confusing the image of Islam with the way it is embodied by terrorists.
"I don't think we can just say 'Islam.' There is not one such thing as "Islam.' What we're all learning is that, for starters, there are divisions between the Sunnis and the Shi'ia and then there are various subdivisions between those divisions. And that there are different interpretations of the Koran and what Mohammad said in the course of that. And for the most part, what we are doing, for better or worse, is kind of '–typing' a whole religion, or a way of thinking, by what we are seeing from extremists."
The Iraq 'Disaster'
But she saved her most critical words for the U.S. war in Iraq. "I'm afraid that Iraq is going to go down in history as the greatest disaster of American foreign policy. Worse than Vietnam. Not in the number of Americans that have died, or Vietnamese in comparison to Iraqis who have died, but because of the unintended consequences. [And] mostly, the loss of our moral authority."
Albright also had critical words for the way U.S. President Bush has run his "war on terror." She believes the United States has forfeited its role in the world as the standard-bearer on human rights.
"It's essential for the United States to have a moral foreign policy, meaning that we live up to our own values: human rights, freedom of speech, the rule of law, etc. That is different from a moralistic foreign policy, where we're kind of telling everybody else that they should live the way just the way we do," said said.
"One of the things that I did on a regular basis was submit cases where we thought human rights were being abused, let's say in China, or that torture was being used somewhere else, to the human rights commission at the UN. Sometimes we succeeded in getting condemnations, sometimes not. Now, we're laughed out of the room. That moral authority that the United States had is gone."
Some highlights from Madeleine Albright's book:
On the United States' failure to intervene sooner during the Serbian army's crackdown in Kosovo: "This was indeed one of those times when, to echo the words of [American civil rights leader] Martin Luther King Jr., our position should have been based not on what was safe, but on what was right."
On the similarities between dogmatic religiosity and the current U.S. political culture: "There is a parallel, I think, between religious fundamentalism and the unquestioning jingoism that views all of history through a narrowly American lens. Both traits are fed by a desire for certainty [and] a hunger for solid answers on which to build a comforting and coherent picture of the world."
On Al-Qaeda's tactics: "Al-Qaeda's style of terrorism will be defeated when its central arguments are understood to be lies by those most inclined to believe they are true. We cannot expect those who see themselves as defenders of Islam to abandon that self-image. We can, however, hope to persuade more of them that attacking the innocent…is not the way to defend Islam."
On Bush's image with Muslims: "The president's rhetoric…is an extreme example, steeped in a sense of mission and full of religious imagery. It is no accident that Al-Qaeda is listened to [by Muslims] when it excoriates him as a modern-day crusader."