Exit strategy

‘Terrible choice’ aside, Albright pushes political solution for Iraq

“There is a vital difference between competence and certainty,” former Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright told a Tufts audience during the 2007 Issam M. Fares Lecture in March. “Competence comes from the effort to learn all we can. Certainty comes from believing we have learned all there is to know.

Madeleine K. Albright © JOANIE TOBIN

“A competent leader will reconsider views on the basis of new information. A morally certain leader will reject any advice that is not in accord with what he or she already thinks.”

And now that it has become clear that “our leaders made a terrible choice” in pursuing the U.S. invasion of Iraq, she said, those in power need to be willing to review their options anew; to look for a political solution to the situation in Iraq; to avoid another military incursion, this time in Iran, and not to take sides in the split between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims and other disputes in the region.

“None of us should be so sure we’re right that we close our minds to the possibility that on some matters, at least, we’re wrong,” Albright said. “It’s always tempting, especially for Americans, to attach labels to people, groups and even nations, and to say that here are the good guys, and there are the bad. Life is generally more complicated than that,” she said. “Good and evil generally don’t come in separate packages.”

‘What can be salvaged?’
Albright delivered the lecture on March 7 at the Gantcher Family Sports and Convocation Center on the Medford/Somerville campus. The Fares Lecture is supported by an endowment from the Fares Foundation and was first conceived by Fares I. Fares, A93, a university trustee and overseer, who continues to be active on the lecture committee. It is named in honor of Fares’ father, Issam M. Fares, the former deputy prime minister of Lebanon and a trustee emeritus of the university.

Albright’s remarks were preceded by comments from Nijad I. Fares, an overseer to the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. He praised Albright’s 1997 action that lifted the U.S. travel ban to Lebanon, marking the beginning of “the longest period of stability and economic prosperity in Lebanon since the 1970s.”

Albright was appointed the first woman secretary of state in 1997, and she was the highest-ranking woman in U.S. history at that time. From 1993 to 1997, she was the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations. Currently, she holds an endowed chair at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.

She began her speech by referring to a previous Fares speaker, former President George H.W. Bush, who delivered a talk in 2003 titled “Choose Hope Over Hate.” “What I found most interesting about that speech is that it took place only three weeks before the U.S. invasion of Iraq,” Albright said. “Instead of using his lecture to make the case for invasion, the former president stressed the wisdom of the choice he had made when in office not to invade.

“There are lessons in this,” she said. “The first is that young people should listen to their parents,” a comment that was met with applause from the audience. “The second is that before making decisions that will affect our future, leaders should study carefully the lessons of the past.”

The time has now passed, she said, for debate over the wisdom of military involvement in Iraq. “For years, we have argued about whether it was smart to invade Iraq in the manner and at the time that we did,” she said. “That argument has been settled. Our leaders made a terrible choice. The question is what can be salvaged?”

‘Sooner rather than later’
While most of her speech was critical of the Middle East policies of the current Bush administration, Albright did cite some areas of agreement—and some caveats. “I agree with the president that it would be a disaster to leave Iraq under present circumstances, but it may also be a disaster for us to stay,” she said. “If our troops are not in a position to make a decisive difference, we have an overriding duty to bring them home sooner rather than later”—another comment that was met with enthusiastic applause from her listeners.

Among other points Albright made during the lecture:

  • The answer to Iraq lies in political, not military, means. “An arrangement must be worked out that will give each side more than they can obtain through continued violence,” she said.
  • The United States would benefit from improved relations with Iran. “Our problems are ideological and at least potentially resolvable,” she said. “I fear, however, that a war might open wounds that would never close, at great cost to us and to the world … America’s focus today should be on how to build peace, not on how to justify yet another war.”
  • The United States should continue to support efforts for democracy in Iraq. “It was always unrealistic to believe that a full-fledged democracy could be created in that country overnight,” she said. “If we give up on democracy, we give up not only on Iraq, but also on the United States.”
  • The situation in the Persian Gulf is part of a larger picture that includes the whole Middle East. “The Middle East is not some simplistic morality play. It’s a place where fear, anger, hope, courage, cowardice and confusion all swirl about without ever settling into a completely coherent pattern,” she said. “If the United States is to play a positive role, we must take into account the interests of all factions and be extremely careful in the messages we convey. We should pledge support to all Sunni, Shi’ite, Christian, Druid, Jew, Arab, Kurd, Persian, provided they, too, are prepared to play a positive role.”
  • There is no “clash of civilizations” between Islam and America. “…but I do see a battle of ideas, a battle caused by people using religion as a club to hit one another over the head,” she said. “Moral certainty has its place, as anyone who contemplates slavery or genocide must affirm, but in public life, absolute certainty is not often a virtue.”

Helene Ragovin is a senior writer in Tufts’ Office of Publications. She can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu. This story ran in the Tufts Journal in April 2007.