The Mighty and the Almighty

In The Mighty and the Almighty, Madeleine Albright works through different understandings of what it means to have faith and she provides explicit examples of faith in action, both good practices of faith and bad practices faith. Part One is entitled “God, Liberty, Country”, and these three terms comprise the basis of the entire book.

When one reads a religious text such as the Bible of the Quran, he will decide for himself what is happening, with perhaps some guidance from other people, but inevitably the decision is up to the reader. The same rings true for a book like The Mighty and the Almighty, which by no means tries to be a leading religious text as it proposes no very specific doctrines but which is definitely not shy in expressing its opinion which, for the sake of entertainment, is a good thing; her expression at least gives the reader something to debate with fellow readers. The book would otherwise be a rambling off of facts, stories and quotations from other leading politicians which would boil some blood but leave us with nothing truly new to ponder.

Her ideals are by no means original; they are ideals sought by many but yet practiced by few. When one picks up a daily newspaper and indulges in the “Letters to the Editor” section, she finds many different ideas, some pretty angry and somewhat violent in nature, while others give thanks to a person or organization. Albright proves herself to be equal to those expressing these sentiments, both lashing out in criticism at times (George W. Bush) but also praising the works and deeds of others (George W. Bush).

Albright is not short on common sense which is her leading attribute in the book and is probably the leading resume builder for the Secretary of State position which she vacated to Colin Powell when the Clinton Administration left office in early 2001. We catch glimpses of events which happened long before this shift.

Albright, on page 24, writes of American dominance in the nineteenth century: our “need” to conquer the world and convert others to our way of thinking, e.g. by converting people of other faiths to Christianity. Albright writes, “Such attitudes were typical of the time and should not be surprising to us.” This is written with the belief that those reading the book are fairly educated and read newspapers, for those who aren’t and don’t might not plainly accept America’s attempt to dominate or don’t perceive what Albright and others, myself included, consider to be American dominance of other cultures.

The above quotation really speaks volumes of how honest and open-minded Albright’s thought-processes are. She doesn’t see her country’s conquests as being declared worthy by heaven and she doesn’t see why certain escapades are embarked upon. She expresses her disapproval of many moves, some of which have happened in the distant past, yet others have occurred in the more recent past. She, again, criticizes Bush (albeit, very predictable criticisms) but doesn’t lambaste everything the man does, rather, she specifically states the times when she’s supported him and the times when she feels Bush has contradicted himself.

She is a master arguer in this book, but she has no one to argue with as long as people are just reading it. I’d be interested to see what people of differing faiths thought of her ideas and her “Can’t we all just get along?” philosophy. This isn’t to imply that Albright is overly simplistic; she is anything but. She doesn’t pretend to have any answer but this is another of her strengths; she doesn’t write in terms of fire and brimstone, but rather in words which are all-encompassing and full of peace: that which we all could use more of.

She cautions leaders to not make hasty decisions. She writes, “Amid this wealth of data, one thing was almost always missing: certainty.” This quotation is in reference to collections of data she had reviewed for former President Clinton. Thorough and confident, she makes her way through many assertions but always comes back to a similar question, one which we could all ask ourselves more often: Are you sure? The question is lacking in political situations, with circumspection running rampant, however this circumspection is, for the most part, not such a bad thing and I suspect Albright knows that. She does write of building relationships and not bombing them, careful to cast stereotypes and indulging in other cultures’ practices. She is a friend to nations and a great role model for concise thinking which runs deep.

Through no fault of her own, she provides difficult-to-understand explanations of political and religious history. She is not to blame for complexities in human involvement, especially those of other countries where she’s visited, but hasn’t spent a lot of time. The conflicts raging on U.S. soil are difficult enough to track so when a person provides convoluted historical accounts, we should be somewhat forgiving. But, as a former Secretary of State, we must trust her to be as much of an expert as possible in situations on other territories so her expertise and understanding must not be compared to that of lay people.

Her patience is to be applauded and we as citizens and future Secretaries of State can learn much from her tales of patience and her asking of questions concerning certainty.

Albright writes of missionary work and the mix of emotions present there. She writes, “Patients and volunteers laughed, sang, played games, and cared for each other.” There is clearly so much love that can exist within missionary work and she proves that by showing specific examples of the world uniting to help one another; doctors from many countries provide services to the ailing. However, she doesn’t hesitate to express the troubles that come with people entering other countries and attempting to accomplish any sort of work. Much violence has been produced from these acts and she has seen and heard examples of them.

She calls herself an optimist who worries a lot and that’s true from what I’ve gathered in The Mighty and the Almighty. When most of us think about situations – and I do mean think – we can usually see some good that can possibly come from it but it’s when we fail to take time to assess the real issues of problems that we become overly judgmental and react unnecessarily. Albright promotes a certain kind of hesitancy in this book, but it’s the healthy hesitancy that explores other options – as many as can be thought out. For this matter, she seems to want slow-moving government, or bringing true informed democracy to the forefront. In any case, she wants peace and help, and she wants, like herself, optimists who will see things for what they are instead of what they might be. She never, in this book, puts a positive twist on situations that are otherwise awful, though she might be guilty of doing the opposite: making other decision-makers look evil when those decision-makers weren’t asked to express their opinion in her book.

She doesn’t hesitate to represent causes in which she believes, such as those of struggling Christian Chinese who couldn’t officially worship unless the church was first registered with the government.  Albright writes, “I promised to raise the issue with officials in Beijing, and I did so both in meetings and by making a point of attending Church services in China myself.” Albright represents herself pretty immodestly in this book, but that’s fine because she writes of situations that are very truthful and perhaps most importantly can be proven truthful. She doesn’t seem to be fabricating issues but we’re only getting second-hand accounts, so we trust what Albright says to be the truth, though I know there are skeptics out there who will lambaste the author and her propositions simply because she served under a Democrat.

This last point is important to consider because political skeptics are often the most aggravating and no side is exempt from the skepticism. Here, Albright is a skeptic of the Bush administration but as I’ve mentioned earlier, there’s no give-and-take to her argument, so we’re left with only one side. To her credit, though, she gives much credit to Bush, understanding just how incredibly difficult his task is; understanding the difficulty of the task more than any of the people who are likely to pick this book up at their library, that is. We’re left with the option here as readers: trust what Albright has to say as people who’ve never been blatant representatives of the country or distrust what she says on one’s own grounds. I trust the author when she claims to have been attending church services in other countries because these tasks are easy enough and I see no reason to call her claims into question given what I know of Albright and her clean image.

Peacemaking efforts are stressed in The Mighty and the Almighty, especially the peace the United States was promoting with Islamic peoples during the Clinton administration. Albright says, “The Clinton administration stressed this theme because we wanted Arabs and Muslims to look to the future with practical concerns rather than religious rivalries foremost in mind.” I’ve enjoyed gaining insight into a time that was, such as the Clinton administration, because that was a time when I was growing up and was rather unaware of political situations. I came into my political mind (if I dare speak of it that way now) during the Bush administration. Understanding efforts made pre-9/11 are fascinating for the simple fact that this wasn’t long ago at all and the world has changed drastically since Clinton has left office. I have a great deal of respect for the Clinton administration as they are presented here in this book, albeit by someone who served within it, because they seem to have made judgments with a clearer mind and that promoted peace between cultures.

Her use of the word “stress” is interesting because we never really learn to what extent peace-making efforts were made. Perhaps that is the topic of Albright’s next book. We’re left once again to take Albright’s word…or reject it.

Albright doesn’t reject any of Clinton’s thoughts or doings in this book and even has the former president write the introduction. We are therefore led to believe these two have agreed about every major issue and there was no need to bring up minor disagreements. This factionalizing is what often-times makes political situations hairy and unfair.

The book makes great strides to translate “true Islam”. This is helpful in combating true terrorism. Albright devotes a chapter entitled, “Learning About Islam.”  The question of when to intercede is also addressed in The Mighty and the Almighty and Albright convinces the reader to drop all simplistic arguments concerning the answer to that question.

The Balfour Declaration, as Albright tells us, states, “that there is indeed a promised land and that Israelites were the recipients of the promise.” One can easily notice the inherent difficulty present there.

In the chapter, “Holy Land, but Whose?”, Albright begins to question the future and ends the chapter this way:

Until that day, the dilemma inherent in the Balfour Declaration will remain; the character of the Middle Eastern leaders will be regularly tested; the proper approach for the United States will be debated; the peoples of the region will continue to live in fear; and the ever-present tension among Muslims, Jews, and Christians will exacerbate a confrontation that extends far beyond the Middle East and threatens truly to shake the globe.

These predictions are welcome and justifiable. The former Secretary of State has devoted her life to these studies and has a great understanding of these situations. We shouldn’t always take her word because she is by no means psychic, but when it comes to political events informed by religion, she seems to have as much of an expert opinion as we’re likely to find.

Understanding this text without some sort of base knowledge will pose some problems for people. She does an okay job at simplifying certain religious texts and translating past and present religious rivalries, but there’s more there than can be summed up in just a chapter in her book. What she does translate is a valiant and informative effort, but this book is littered with appropriate footnotes and should perhaps come with referrals to other texts that have been written about the subjects Albright has condensed for our benefit.

The issue of Weapons of Mass Destruction arises here and one gets the feeling the subject could not be avoided from any post-9/11discussion. The attacks on that day caused many to feel that everything had to be done differently; others thought that “everything” was an over-reaction and our decisions should resemble a more contemplative approach.

Bush’s folks viewed Iraq as an imposing danger. Albright says this of her successor: “With the director of the CIA, George Tenet, at his side, Powell offered a litany of allegations, including the assertion – startling to me – that Iraq possessed a fleet of mobile biological weapons laboratories.” She makes a point to note how the Bush administration officials really stood together, further alienating all other views on subjects, including her own which just years before was one of the leading voices. Still, though, one doesn’t get the feeling in reading The Mighty and the Almighty that Albright writes with a burning contempt, but rather an informed disillusionment. She keeps her opinions respectful and full of truth and deep thought. Any “accusation” of cronyism within the Bush administration from Albright in this book is purely coincidental. She groups Tenet and Powell together, making them look like they were on the same page as all others within the White House at that time. We read with the assumption that if persons within the administration disagreed with decisions being made, they would have spoken up. She left as Powell took over, so the scene was undoubtedly different, yet undoubtedly similar as well. She doesn’t give us a one to ten rating as to just how different the White House’s decisions would be before, and then after, the September 11 attacks. There are no low blows taken in this book, nothing is said that would indicate a sense of immaturity or unnecessary cheap shots being taken from one party to another, but that is likely up to the individual reader to decide.

Albright stands up for politically active Muslims who believe in a narrow interpretation of Islam. She also denounces the all-powerful nature of the U.S. military, stating, “As for the macho mantra that the U.S. military is big, bad, and fearsome and will ‘stop at nothing,’ that is hardly the way to persuade the Islamic silent majority to take a stand against terrorism.” She proposes getting within the minds of those most inclined to believe the lies of Al Qaeda so that it will eventually perish. Her thoughts regarding the U.S. military are pretty contrary to the stereotypical views of America being number one and being unbeatable. No doubt, those unwilling to budge on America’s military strength will accuse the former Secretary of State as being anti-military in the same way many people threw around the word “unpatriotic” to describe those who opposed our actions following the September 11 attacks. Albright still has the courage to stand against that idea for fear that those “macho” thoughts will bring about a similar fire from the other side; a war where neither side will “stop at nothing” is one with limitless destruction. She’s bright enough to see that and brave enough to relay her sentiments.

She seems, however, at times to interpret situations somewhat narrowly as she attempts to dissuade “the opposition” from doing the same. For example, referring to the “stop at nothing” “macho mantra” as being a terrible idea, she doesn’t allude to the thought that “stop at nothing, except for this, that, and the other thing” is somewhat less threatening, however much more intelligent it may be. It is not her job to invent military slogans, but one can’t help but wonder what hers would be should she decide to put her creative mind to work.

There is a strong fascination with all-encompassing categorizations within society and Albright mentions this in relation to the battle against terror. She says that people want to include every terror suspect into the same demographic profile and because they don’t fit so neatly that way, authorities trying to crack down on terrorism become frustrated. She writes, “The British prime minister, Tony Blair, told me, ‘Part of the Muslim community is just not integrating…’”. In Europe, prisons are filled disproportionately with Muslims. Well-connected and unafraid to mention her connectedness, Albright tells us of her dialogues with other world leaders, providing somewhat of a juicy aspect to her book. Folks with a deep interest in 1990s and 2000s politics and its figures will find a lot to keep them occupied here. We should expect that from someone with such high political esteem. This esteem will, in the eyes of the reader, either grant the book a favorable “grade” or subject it to ruin. Some are instinctually distrusting of any political person; yet others distrust only those opposite their chosen political party. Those giving favorable grades are those who either carry an open mind and trust the writer, or those who believe anything their chosen political party tells them. Who is right in this scenario?

I think most are guilty of prejudice when it relates to the two topics of this book, politics and religion. Combine them and all hell breaks loose, no pun intended. The tumult which seemingly can’t be avoided will just have to be taken as best the writer and responders can. Once again, though, to Albright’s credit, she doesn’t resort to unwarranted political figure bashing, perhaps with the keen awareness that the same repugnance will likely be thrown back in her face upon the books printing. When she does “lash out” at politicians who approach things differently, she backs up her “tirades” with very poignant reasoning. Thankfully, though, most of this book is dedicated to expressing her views on world subjects and not the bashing of others’.

I enjoyed this book for its concise categorizations and well-managed chapters. The book is worthwhile for everyone because these are real issues facing us all. No one is exempt from the wars being waged in the name of God. For proof, think of the innocent and unsuspecting lives lost on September 11.

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