O’Connor: Madeleine Albright’s past makes her a questionable choice for ethics lecture

The decision to bring Madeleine Albright to Syracuse University as a part of the Tanner Lecture on Ethics, Citizenship, and Public Responsibility series on Tuesday is an ironic one considering Albright’s politics do not fit the agenda of the talk.

Albright’s controversial reign as Bill Clinton’s right-hand woman during his second term as president is characterized as a time of aggressive U.S. foreign policy in which she exercised a vision of the country leading from the front on international issues. But regardless of the fact that Albright’s past decisions are in no way a reflection of her personal character — considering she served in one of the highest political offices — her responses to crises were often too cold-hearted — even questionable — as seen in the role Albright played in Yugoslavia and Iraq.

There were the atrocities associated with NATO’s deadly bombing campaign in Yugoslavia in response to the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo led by Slobodan Milosevic, the former President of Serbia and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Albright was a main proponent of this decision — a decision that was ordered illegally in the eyes of international law without U.N. Security Council approval.

The air campaign may have sounded like a good idea, but it decimated Kosovo and left an unknown number of Serbians dead and some 300,000 displaced, according to the Balkan Transitional Justice initiative. Should Milosevic have been taken out? Yes, but it shouldn’t have come at the price it did, especially without proper permission. Ultimately Albright’s risk-taking failed, proving to expose her insensitivity and poor ethical approach in handling international dilemmas.

The bombings came after Albright’s involvement in Iraq in the 1990s resulted in a humanitarian disaster, during which she oversaw U.N. sanctions that were an attempt to cut off Saddam Hussein’s power.

While Hussein was a horrendous dictator that killed hundreds of thousands of people, the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions ruined the Iraqi economy to the point that its citizens weren’t getting enough basic resources like food or medicine, according to The Guardian. Scientists on behalf of the Food and Agriculture Organization found that by 1995, more than 576,000 children died under Hussein’s rule due to the sanctions.

At the time, Albright was U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and should take responsibility for reinforcing sanctions that were far too strict. Instead, Albright said on 60 Minutes that the sanctions were “worth it.” Though she took back the statement, the damage was already done. The enemy was supposed to be Hussein, not the U.N. And yet its poor choice left Iraq crippled and its people ended up clinging to the regime for rations — an example of why Albright’s ethics should be called into question, making her unfit to be chosen for the Maxwell lecture.

James Steinberg, dean of the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, said in an email, “Secretary Albright has an extraordinary career as both an academic and public servant,” when asked why SU’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs chose Albright. “She has 40 years of experience in the practice of international affairs — for which she received the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”

It makes sense, judging from her background of fleeing Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, as to why she was callous at times in her foreign policy measures. On one hand, Albright would be a great choice for a speaker discussing foreign policy and U.S. security issues because there was still evil in the world in the 1990s, something she witnessed firsthand as secretary of state.

But the fact of the matter is that the Tanner lecture is supposedly on “Ethics, Citizenship, and Public Responsibility.” And while it may be necessary, there’s nothing ethical about the decision to bomb a country or cut off its resources.

Because her policies to save lives were misguided and were often responsible for doing the opposite, there have been several protests on college campuses against Albright as a visiting speaker. In 2001, there was a movement at the University of California, Berkeley to protest Albright’s planned speech. There was another peaceful demonstration in 2005 at the University of Winnipeg in disagreement with Albright’s reception of an honorary degree.

And like the students at Scripps College — who are currently objecting to Albright as a commencement speaker this year for being a “genocide enabler” — the response to challenge the morality behind Albright’s record is no exception.

In a recent Letter to the Editor to The Daily Orange, SU student Collin Chambers of the Syracuse ANSWER Coalition, a local social and political justice organization that intends to protest Albright on Tuesday wrote, “Having Albright speak on campus gives Syracuse University a bad name. It says that the University supports war criminals!”

Albright is definitely not a war criminal like the Syracuse ANSWER Coalition has argued because of her intentions to rid oppressive regimes of their power, not to do harm. And while it is understood that war unfortunately results in the death of innocent civilians, that’s not to say that Albright was a suitable fit for the SU lecture series either.

In bringing Albright to campus, Maxwell should emphasize her knowledge of international security, not morality. SU students should be exposed to Albright’s expertise, not her past closed-minded actions as one of the most powerful women in the history of the U.S.

Kyle O’Connor is a sophomore sport management major and political science minor. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at


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