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Memo to the President
How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership
A Mandate to Lead
Memorandum (personal and confidential)
To: The President Elect
From: Madeleine K. Albright
Date: Election Night, 2008
Congratulations on your success. Well done! You have won a great victory. But with that victory comes the responsibility to lead a divided nation in a world riven by conflict and inequity, wounded by hate, bewildered by change, and made anxious by the renewed specter of nuclear Armageddon. In days to come, leaders you've never heard of, from countries you can barely locate, will assure you of their friendship and offer you assistance. My advice is to accept, for you will need help. We Americans like to think of ourselves as exemplars of generosity and virtue, but to many people in many places, we are selfish, imperious, and violent. The voters will want you to transform this perception while also protecting us, defeating our enemies, and securing our economic future—in other words, to do as promised during your campaign.
The president of the United States has been compared to the ruler of the universe, a helmsman on a great sailing ship, the Mikado's Grand Poo-bah, a lonely figure immersed in "splendid misery" (Jefferson's description), and "the personal embodiment [of the] . . . dignity and majesty of the American people" (William Howard Taft's). Students of the office have identified an array of presidential roles: commander in chief, master diplomat, national spokesperson, head administrator, top legislator, party leader, patron of the arts,congratulator of athletic teams, and surrogate parent. Your political advisors will want you to focus on activities that will keep your poll numbers high and get you reelected. I urge you to concentrate on duties that will restore our country's reputation and keep us safe.
On January 20, 2009, you will place your hand on the Bible and, prompted by Chief Justice Roberts, swear in front of three hundred million Americans and six billion people worldwide to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Following George Washington's example, you will add a heartfelt "so help me God." The oath completed, you will become the world's most powerful person. It will no longer be happenstance when you enter a room and the band strikes up "Hail to the Chief." You have attained our nation's highest office; the question, not yet answered, is whether you have what it takes to excel in the job.
Eight years ago, as the second millennium drew to a close, the outlook for America could not have been brighter. The world was at peace, the global economy healthy, and the position of the United States unparalleled. The platform on which George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 referred to the era as "a remarkable time in the life of our country." Colin Powell, the incoming secretary of state, told Congress, "We will need to work well together because we have a great challenge before us. But it is not a challenge of survival. It is a challenge of leadership. For it is not a dark and dangerous ideological foe we confront, but the overwhelming power of millions of people who have tasted freedom. It is our own incredible success that we face."
Like any inheritance, incredible success can be invested productively or not. Tragically, America's political capital has been squandered. When comparing notes with former cabinet members—Democrat and Republican alike—I have seen people shake their heads in disbelief at the manner in which presidential power has been misused. The consensus question: What could they have been thinking? From day one, the wrong people were in top positions. The decision-making process was distorted or bypassed. Ideological conformity was valued over professionalism, and falsehoods were allowed to masquerade as truth. Principles that are central to America's identity were labeled obsolete, and historic errors were made without accountability. Important national security tools, including diplomacy, were set aside. I had hoped that President Bush would salvage his administration during its final years, but the gains made were both belated and marginal. Sad to say, you will enter office with respect for American leadership lower than it has been in the memory of any living person.
As a child in Europe, I hid in bomb shelters while Nazi planes flew overhead. Listening to the radio, I exulted at the voice of Churchill and the wondrous news that American troops were crossing the Atlantic. I was seven years old when Allied forces hit the beaches at Normandy and later repelled Hitler's army at the Battle of the Bulge. By the time the war was won I was eight, anxious to discover what peace might be like, and already in love with Americans in uniform.
To Abraham Lincoln, the United States was "the last best hope of Earth." To me, it will always be the land of opportunity. I could not imagine wanting to live anywhere else, nor conceive what the twentieth century would have been like without my adopted country. That is why it is so disturbing to learn of reports that most people in most countries now believe that America "provokes more conflicts than it prevents" and that we have a "mainly negative" influence in the world.
The tragic blunder of Iraq stands out, but there have been others—neglect of our allies, overreliance on the military, allowing the likes of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to be the face of America. Yes, we have an excuse: the world is different now, but that is all the more reason to be mindful of proven strengths. The terrorist outrage of 9/11 was shocking, but we have lived for decades with the knowledge that death could arrive from across the sea. The attacks were cause for grief and anger, and for reassessing our institutions and strategies; they were not good reason for panic or for abandoning our principles when we needed them most.
After 9/11, the Bush administration started well but soon forgot who our country's most serious enemies were. Many Americans . . .Memo to the President
How We Can Restore America's Reputation and Leadership. Copyright © by Madeleine Albright. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.