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Putin is a war criminal - and so was Madeleine Albright

The media’s propaganda role could not be starker: it has whitewashed US war crimes promoted and defended by the late US diplomat that overshadow even Putin’s
Albright was pivotal in ushering in a new era of international lawlessness that made US might right and rationalised the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children (AFP)

Obituaries of Madeleine Albright, the first woman to be appointed US secretary of state, in 1997 by President Bill Clinton, could not have been more gushing.

With the news of her death aged 84, western politicians and media united in lauding her as "a trailblazer", "a champion of democracy" and "a force for freedom". Hillary Clinton observed of Albright: "So many people around the world are alive and living better lives because of her service." 

In one sweep, Clinton’s comment erased from the historical record the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children that, even Albright once conceded, were killed by policies she helped enact and promote. 

Media tributes exhibited little interest in those deaths either. Journalists praised her instead for reinvigorating Nato’s role as the world’s policeman in Kosovo in 1999 after the fall of the Soviet Union, and for enforcing punishing sanctions through the 1990s on the regime of Iraq’s dictator Saddam Hussein.

The barely veiled subtext of this week’s coverage was that Albright’s death marked the close of a post-war chapter in which the US was able to offer moral leadership to the world. That role is supposedly now under threat from the actions of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, in Ukraine

While Albright is being eulogised, Putin is denounced as a war criminal by US President Joe Biden. Two former British prime ministers have demanded he be subjected to a Nuremberg-style trial. More generally, the media have cast the Russian leader as a new Hitler. 

A tweet from the UK’s foreign secretary, Lizz Truss, emphasised what was supposedly at stake: "We need to stand by [Albright’s] values now more than ever."

Deaths 'worth it'

The western media’s starkly different treatment of Albright and Putin, however, reveals nothing about either’s claim to moral authority. It tells us a great deal more about the media’s determination to obscure some crimes – the ones that reflect badly on the West – and emphasise others.

Most baffling is the absence in almost all of the coverage of Albright’s death of any reference to possibly the most defining interview she gave – and certainly the one that provided the most memorable and appalling of her pronouncements. 

The western media’s starkly different treatment of Albright and Putin tells us a great deal more about the media’s determination to obscure some crimes and emphasise others

Back in 1996, when she was serving as Bill Clinton’s ambassador to the United Nations, she was asked by the 60 Minutes news show whether she could justify devastating sanctions imposed by the US on Iraq following the 1991 Gulf war.

The policy had starved Iraq of medicines and food. As the interviewer pointed out, by the time of their conversation at least 500,000 Iraqi children had been killed. Notably, Albright did not try to dispute that figure.

When asked “Is the price worth it?”, she responded: "We think the price is worth it." Albright’s decision to press on with sanctions during her years as secretary of state resulted in Denis Halliday, a senior UN official, resigning from his post. Later, in summer 1999, he concluded that as many as 1.5 million Iraqis had died from the sanctions, either from malnutrition or inadequate healthcare. He characterised the policy as genocidal. 

The US and its allies, he said, were "deliberately, knowingly killing thousands of Iraqis each month. And that definition fits genocide." Hans von Sponeck, who succeeded Halliday, quit two years later. Before his resignation, he observed: "For how long should the civilian population, which is totally innocent on all this, be exposed to such punishment for something they have never done?"

A wounded Iraqi child cries as he is shocked by photographers and cameramen during a tour at al-Yarmouk hospital by the ministry of information in Baghdad 22 March 2003.
A wounded Iraqi child cries as he is shocked by photographers and cameramen during a tour at al-Yarmouk hospital by the Ministry of Information in Baghdad on 22 March 2003 (AFP)

Savage as the policy was, it did nothing to weaken Saddam’s grip on power or cause the Iraqi people to rise up against him – as Albright and other administration officials implied it would. In fact, the sanctions only entrenched the Iraqi leader’s rule.

The policy was, in part, justified on the grounds that sanctions would force Saddam to disarm Iraq's weapons of mass destruction – the same WMD that would serve as the pretext for an illegal US invasion of Iraq carried out by the next administration of George W Bush. 

The truth was that Iraq could not be disarmed because there were no WMD.

Turning a blind eye

The question is how could this defining foreign policy of the Clinton presidency – one associated so closely with Albright – not merit even a mention in the obituaries of the New York Times or the BBC?

Part of the answer is that the quote was quickly erased from public consciousness, with the aid of the media. In November 2003, an investigation by FAIR, a US media watchdog group, found that in the two months after the 9/11 attacks Albright’s "worth it" comment was mentioned only once in the entire US media, and in a relatively minor publication.  

That was despite the fact that child deaths in Iraq caused by the sanctions policy was one of the main reasons cited by Osama bin Laden for al-Qaeda’s attacks on the Twin Towers in New York and the Pentagon. 

This week, in the few cases where the media did note Albright’s sanctions comment, it was whitewashed.

A Guardian obituary swiped aside its importance: “The remark portrayed her as hardbitten, which was far from the case." Only journalists in thrall to their own propaganda could assess the significance of a policy that killed many hundreds of thousands of children chiefly in terms of whether mention of it was unfair to Albright. 

Record whitewashed

In fact, Albright was every bit as hardbitten as her comment indicated. When she spoke at a meeting at Ohio State University in early 1998, she was greeted by protesters angry at the suffering of Iraqis.

One demonstrator asked how she and other administration officials could sleep at night, observing: "If you want to deal with Saddam, deal with Saddam, not the Iraqi people."

Albright’s choices in Kosovo not only smashed apart international law, but created the precedent for subsequent wars of aggression, such as Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Putin’s of Ukraine

Albright was unfazed: "I am very proud of what we are doing. We are the greatest nation in the world, and what we are doing is being the indispensable nation, willing to make the world safe for our children and grandchildren, and for nations who follow the rules."

Imagine the reaction were Putin to so casually justify a Russian policy killing hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian children – and do so on the grounds either that it was useful in keeping Russian children safe or that Ukrainian children deserved to suffer because their leaders had not "followed the rules".

Putin has been called a madman, a psychopath, a megalomaniac, a new Hitler. If that is right, should Albright not be considered the same - rather than venerated, as she has been by the entire western media?

Albright’s obituaries could gloss over her crimes because those crimes were excused at the very time they were being committed. 

Immediately after the disastrous Ohio meeting, allies rushed to defend the US sanctions policy and those like Albright responsible for it. CNN reported that European and friendly Arab diplomats thought only that Albright was "poorly prepared" for the meeting and that the Clinton administration had "not done a good job of explaining its policy". 

Problems with US foreign policy were once again ascribed to presentation failures – even though the western media had actively colluded in whitewashing the administration’s crimes. 

Global policeman

Albright’s other signature policy as US secretary of state emerged in 1999 in Kosovo, a breakaway province of Serbia plagued by ethnic violence between a Serbian minority and an ethnic Albanian majority that wished to secede.

The obituarists have celebrated Albright’s role in giving Nato a new lease of life after the western military alliance lost its Cold War rationale following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Under Albright, Nato became a US-led global policeman, supposedly pursuing humanitarian goals, that chose Kosovo as the first venue in which to flex its muscles. Soon a reinvigorated Nato was striding across eastern Europe towards Russia. 

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Albright’s choices in Kosovo not only smashed apart international law, but created the precedent for subsequent wars of aggression, such as Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Putin’s of Ukraine. 

For weeks on end, Nato bombed swaths of Serbia, including the capital Belgrade, without authorisation from the UN. It did so on behalf of the Kosovo Liberation Army, which only months earlier had been classified as a terrorist organisation by US officials. The rain of bombs hit hospitals, schools, cultural institutions and destroyed bridges. Hundreds of civilians were killed.

Albright’s rationalisation of an illegal bombing campaign on non-military targets in Serbia gave cover to Putin, then at the start of his premiership, as he laid waste to Chechnya a few months after Nato's strikes on Serbia. It was later copied by Bush in his "Shock and Awe" operation in Iraq. 

Further, Albright’s military campaign in support of Kosovo’s secession, based on a vote for autonomy by its Albanian population, planted the seeds for Putin to annex Crimea after it carried out a similar vote to break from Ukraine in 2014.

The reality is that Albright’s passing does not mark, as the western media would have us believe, the end of a golden era of US diplomacy and moral leadership on the international stage. Rather, Albright was pivotal in ushering in a new era of international lawlessness that made US might right and rationalised the killing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children.

If Putin is a war criminal, as our political leaders and media are agreed he is, then Albright was no less of one. The only difference is that in the case of Putin the media are determined to show us Putin’s hands drenched in blood. 

In the case of Albright, they have washed the blood completely from view.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Jonathan Cook is the the author of three books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His website and blog can be found at: www.jonathan-cook.net