Albright: Gadhafi's Death A 'Watershed Moment'

Former Secretary of State Madeline Albright reflects on the death of ousted Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi. She calls it a watershed moment for the people of Libya, the international community and "what is known as the Arab Awakening."

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NEAL CONAN, host: Libya's Moammar Gadhafi died outside of his hometown of Sirte, earlier today, but the decisive moment in Libya's civil war came this past spring, when NATO launched an air campaign to protect civilians and provide protection for rebel fighters. Back in 1999, Madeleine Albright served as secretary of state when NATO intervened in the civil war in the Balkans and launched weeks of air strikes there. She's now chairman of the National Democratic Institute and joins us by phone from Atlanta. Secretary Albright, nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Thank you. It's great to be with you, especially on such an important day.

CONAN: And why is it so important, do you think?

ALBRIGHT: Well, because I think the people in Libya have been able to really, now, see a new path for themselves after four decades of a really brutal dictator. And there's so many aspects of this that show how important it is for the international community to really get involved in helping on this. It is important for the people of Libya. It is important for the possibilities of democracy on the ground. So there are just many, many aspects of this that I think are kind of a watershed in a lot of different events that are taking place in what is known as the Arab Awakening.

CONAN: The United States, its NATO partners and some Arab allies, including, most prominently, Qatar, joined in the air attacks against the Gadhafi forces. There were no boots on the ground, no American casualties. And the whole thing, according to Vice President Biden, cost about $2 billion, a sharp contrast to other American interventions.

ALBRIGHT: Well - exactly. I think it's very, very important. It shows so many different things. I mean, there have always been discussions about whether you could win through an air war. That was one of the issues that happened when we were dealing with the Balkans. I think when - it doesn't mean that NATO has to be on the ground. Obviously, the rebels there were fighting, practically hand to hand. But it does mean that international intervention can be done in this particular way through an alliance structure in - and a way that is through the air and with no loss.

And I think that it really is - I mean, no loss of American lives. And so I think it's very important. I do think that this shows the leadership of the Obama administration on this. They took a lot of flak, frankly, but I think that they knew what they were doing, and that this was a very important step forward for how America gets involved these days.

CONAN: We're talking with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. It was an alliance operation, yet only nine members of the alliance took active part. Many of them put sharp restrictions on the way their forces could be used. The two major members of the alliance, besides the United States, involved - that was Britain and France - ran out of ammunition and had to buy some smart bombs from American stockpiles. They're the lessons learned for NATO as well.

ALBRIGHT: Many - and frankly, let me tell you, one of the things that happened last year - there was a new strategic concept for NATO that the secretary-general, Rasmussen, put together. But before he did that, he was, in fact, asked by the heads of state to have a group of experts that would help in putting some ideas forward, and I chaired that group. And we looked at a whole host of issues about what NATO was about in the post-Balkan experience and how it operated in Afghanistan and what the next years were going to be about. And the issues we did talk about, was how the economic constraints in a variety of countries were hurting their defense budgets, who was doing what, whether people were really fulfilling their responsibilities.

One of the issues in Afghanistan was - also, and continues to be - is that each country has kind of national mandates that makes it difficult to have a joint command. But I think NATO is learning, we all are, as we are in a somewhat different situation. But I know there are questions of, kind of, coalition a la carte or how this is going to work. But despite the constraints, I think obviously this is a NATO victory.

CONAN: There was also a speech by the president last spring in which he said, the United States cannot use force to battle repression everywhere, but that does not mean that we cannot do the right thing when the opportunity presents itself. We're now in a situation in Syria, where according to the United Nations, 3,000 civilians have been killed by that government. Is it time to do the right thing in Syria?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I do think that it's very important to understand that this has to all be done on a case-by-case basis. And as the president said, not everything, you know, we can't be everywhere. I do know that there is a great deal of concern about what's going on in Syria, and ways that the international community is keeping pressure through multilateral sanctions ad a variety of other ways that they are working on that. But each situation is different, and that is what the policymakers have to do is to kind of assess what works where.

And I think the hardest part really is always telling people that each situation is different, you know? One wishes that everything were always the same, but it's not. And the part that's so interesting generally about what's going on in the Arab world is that while there is obviously a similarity to people motivated by social media and by demonstrations, there is a difference in each of these countries. You know, whether it's Libya or Tunisia or Egypt or Syria. Every one of these is a bit different.

CONAN: Or Bahrain. Secretary Albright, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

ALBRIGHT: Good to be with you. Thank you.

CONAN: Madeleine Albright about to leave for the World Economic Forum in Jordan. We appreciate her time with us today. When we come back after a short break: fundamentalism and intellectualism, a growing divide among evangelical Christians. We'll also remember Piri Thomas, who wrote "Down These Mean Streets." Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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