Madeleine Albright says her first visit to Minnesota was election night, 1972.
All things considered, that was a pretty bad year for Democrats: President Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, winning 49 states and more than 60 percent of the vote. Minnesotans, though, re-elected Walter Mondale to the U.S. Senate seat he had held for the previous eight years.
“So I was in the only happy place for a Democrat, and it was in Minneapolis,” Albright said Friday.
Albright, President Clinton’s United Nations ambassador and Secretary of State — the first woman to hold that job — was in Minnesota last week for a handful of events around the Twin Cities. Before a meet and greet with volunteers for Sen. Al Franken’s re-election campaign, she sat down for a short interview with MinnPost to talk about foreign policy issues that touch Minnesota.
MinnPost: The biggest debate, foreign policy-wise, in Minnesota is how to deal with the recruitment of Americans and of Minnesotans by overseas terrorist groups [such as ISIS and al-Shabaab]. From your perspective, what’s the best way to address that?
Albright: I think that there’s no question that people are generally worried about what is happening in terms of recruitment everywhere, what is the role of foreign fighters, it’s something that is out there generally. And I’ve been here a couple of days and it certainly is a question. My sense is that one has to be really careful not to overhype it in some way, because what I see is that there’s a real press to make sure it’s not an active problem.
Sen. Franken has been somebody who is really working on that, in terms of connections with Homeland Security and the FBI, and really working out programs that make it possible to monitor what is going on, and try to develop community programs that make sure that it doesn’t happen.
MinnPost: His opponent, Mike McFadden, has proposed revoking the passports of people who have gone overseas and trained with these groups. Would that be a successful approach to this?
Albright: No, the State Department has the authority to revoke passports. It is ongoing, it’s something that’s been there because over the years people are concerned about a particular individual, but what is important is to do it on a case-by-case basis, which is what the Senator has been saying.
[State Department officials] basically watch who may be a threat of some kind, and what diplomats do is issue visas or not issue visas, and revoke passports on a case-by-case basis. So I don’t think it needs kind of that blunt approach of a law.
MinnPost: What do you make of the overall effort that the president has proposed for going after ISIS?
Albright: I think that this is about as complicated an issue as we’ve seen in a long time, in terms of all the various aspects that are going on in the Middle East. They, my own sense is, require an understanding of what is doable and what is not, what is going to create more problems, and what is the best approach. And I’m very supportive of President Obama in terms of what he’s decided to do.
From what I have read, the [air] strikes are effective, they are varied at different times, they are based on the best intelligence that’s available to make them effective and not counter-productive, they are trying to deal what is an incredibly complicated situation. My sense is that those senators or public officials who are following this carefully and actually making an attempt to understand it rather than just making blunt statements, are in support of what the president is doing.
What I hope does happen: I happen to believe in the importance of debate and discussion. And I hope very much when Congress returns that there will be discussions of this and that the public comes to understand what is a very complex situation.
MinnPost: Another issue that’s come up recently has been the question of travel bans to deal with the Ebola threat. From a diplomatic perspective, is that something that’s tenable, or is it something that could cause problems?
Albright: One of the things that happens when you’re Secretary of State, one of the issues is always when there is a decision to issue a travel advisory or recall people from embassies. It creates unbelievable ripple effect and disruptions in terms of diplomatic relationships, and it is a decision that’s hard to take for an ambassador or Secretary of State. And the question is, you always do what you have to do to protect the American people, that’s your job, and the question is how best to do it, what are the unintended consequences of decisions.
As I understand it, the administration is really looking for different ways to try to figure out how to deal with the Ebola crisis, not in terms of just lashing out and deciding that you’re going to ban travel. I don’t think it’s that simple. There are reasons for health workers to travel there, but then how do they get back? Or what happens if somebody goes from one of the three affected countries to somewhere else, and leaves from there? And it’s practically impossible to keep track, I think, of that many people.
I have to say, the last thing we need is hysteria over this. What we need are people that are not just hysterically going to criticize or make this a political football. This is very serious, there’s no question, and the question is how to handle it by our public officials in a way that is responsible, calms down people, doesn’t make them say or do things that don’t make any sense, but really looks at it very carefully.
MinnPost: Are election seasons frustrating for you, to hear campaigns and candidates on both sides of the aisle take positions or talk about foreign affairs in ways that they might not be experts on?
Albright: The answer is yes, though I have to say I love political campaigns and I’ve been involved with them for a long time, usually on foreign policy issues, because that’s my thing, but they always do, foreign and domestic policy issues, kind of run together.
In the best of all possible worlds, what I would wish — which is really dreaming here — is that there be a very important, rational discussion about America’s role in the world. It is a very big question. We are a democracy, and we need our people to understand what our responsibilities are, and that the world can’t function if the United States is not involved. But that takes a lot of explanation, and it doesn’t work with some kind of attack line that may sound good temporarily, but is actually very damaging.
Devin Henry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @dhenry