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Weakest. Petition. Ever.
Madeleine Albright stands accused of.... what, exactly?
You know it’s hard out there for America’s international affairs schools. Despite an urgent need for folks with training in international relations writ large, there has been a secular decline in applications over the past decade or so. The Trump administration’s invective against foreign students did not help, but that is hardly the only factor here. The high price of graduate education is another driver as well.
There is also the matter of these schools occasionally engaging in self-sabotage. Which brings us to Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. As a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, it pains me to acknowledge that Georgetown is also an extremely good place to go if one wants to pursue a career in international affairs. But a weird controversy at SFS threatens to sully its reputation.
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There is a movement afoot to rename the school after Madeleine Albright. She was the first female Secretary of State in American history, and also, according to SFS Dean Joel Hellman, a heck of a Georgetown prof: “For nearly 40 years, Albright inspired SFS students not only to understand the world, but to serve the world.”
As naming ideas go, renaming SFS as the Madeleine Albright School of Global Affairs has some merit. Albright’s tenure of government service is far from flawless but compared to her peers it ain’t bad. It certainly seems less controversial than other recent naming choices among Ivy League schools.
Some Georgetown folks feel differently, however. At least one Georgetown faculty member circulated an online petition that has received over 1300 signatures objecting to naming the school after Albright. According to the Washington Free Beacon, “about half of the foreign service school’s faculty objects to the renaming” while supporters of renaming SFS after Albright refuse to go on the record.
What exactly are the objections? Let me quote in full all of the criticisms from the four-paragraph petition:
As US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright supported some of the US government’s most devastating interventions in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and South Eastern Europe. The catastrophic impacts on civilian populations continue to be borne down to the present day. When asked many years later to comment on the half a million Iraqi children who died as a consequence of the drastic sanctions imposed on Iraq during her tenure, Madeleine Albright’s answer was ‘the price was worth it.’ These facts are well known among the SFS faculty, students, and alumni, and suggest that a renaming would be met with considerable unease and opposition in the School.
As a global institution committed to the common good, the University stands by values of social justice, equity, and human rights. By moving ahead with this project, the University would honor a name associated with gross human rights violations, however great a teacher and mentor Madeleine Albright was during her years at Georgetown University. Across our School and beyond, students and academics continue to experience and be affected by the traumas associated with these policies.
So there’s a lot going on here, and very little of it is persuasive.
Let’s start with “Madeleine Albright supported some of the US government’s most devastating interventions in Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and South Eastern Europe.” Ironically, Albright’s most damaging role here was on the absence of intervention in Rwanda as that genocide unfolded in 1994. In a 2020 interview, Albright told the New York Times that the lack of intervention there was the biggest regret in her career.
As for the Balkans, I confess to being baffled by the petition’s complaint. The U.S. interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo were far from perfect, but they also helped to stop the ethnic conflict that was plaguing the region. Nothing the United States did in the former Yugoslavia compares to what the local population did to each other.
The only complaint with any detail in the petition is Albright’s position on the United Nations sanctions against Iraq, particularly her response — when she was the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations — to Leslie Stahl on 60 Minutes. Here’s the clip — skip ahead to the 3:07 mark to get to the exact quote:
Is that enough to justify the petition? No, I don’t think so, for two big reasons. The first is that Albright demonstrated considerable contrition about that interview. In her memoirs, she wrote, “my reply had been a terrible mistake, hasty, clumsy and wrong.” In her 2020 interview with the New York Times, she said, “What I said was totally stupid. I use it in my class as an example of how thinking through what you’re going to say is important. I regret it. I have apologized for it I can’t tell you how many times…. I do not think the sanctions were worth any children’s lives, frankly, because I don’t believe in that. The sanctions weren’t supposed to be against them.”
The second big reason is that while the sanctions against Iraq did harm civilians, the “half a million Iraqi children who died as a consequence of the drastic sanctions” claim in complete horseshit. As I explained in my “How Not to Sanction” essay last year in International Affairs:
Retrospective data analysis suggests that most of the UN data collected in the 1990s on humanitarian suffering was exaggerated. One 2009 assessment based on subsequent Iraqi surveys concluded that the UNICEF data in particular suffered from ‘massive and deliberate fabrication. It is not too much to say that much of the world appears to have been taken for a ride in this case.’ Follow-on research confirmed that Saddam Hussein's government consciously manipulated the surveys conducted with the UN to exaggerate child mortality. Subsequent survey data suggest that while the sanctions obviously had severe impacts on the Iraqi economy, the infant mortality rate was not significantly affected.
The clause in the petition that really sticks in my craw is “these facts are well known among the SFS faculty.” The only fact that is asserted in the petition is not a real fact but a stylized fact, one that everyone takes as given even if no one has an accurate citation to provide. This is the kind of piss-poor empirical evidence being bandied about in an effort to gin up controversy. As Joe Cirincione concludes on his Substack, “the petition is based on ‘a spectacular lie.’”
As a professor at a competing public policy school, I suppose I should root for Georgetown to self-sabotage and not become the first school of international relations to be named after a woman. As a professor who wants the academy to demonstrate some degree of sanity to the outside world, however, I hope Georgetown goes through with its plan.