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Excerpt: 'Read My Pins'

Chapter 1: The Serpent's Tale

The idea of using pins as a diplomatic tool is not found in any State Department manual or in any text chronicling American foreign policy. The truth is that it would never have happened if not for Saddam Hussein.

During President Bill Clinton's first term (1993 1997), I served as America's ambassador to the United Nations. This was the period following the first Persian Gulf War, when a U.S.-led coalition rolled back Iraq's invasion of neighboring Kuwait. As part of the settlement, Iraq was required to accept UN inspections and to provide full disclosure about its nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs.

When Saddam Hussein refused to comply, I had the temerity to criticize him. The government-controlled Iraqi press responded by publishing a poem entitled "To Madeleine Albright, Without Greetings." The author, in the opening verse, establishes the mood: "Albright, Albright, all right, all right, you are the worst in this night." He then conjures up an arresting visual image: "Albright, no one can block the road to Jerusalem with a frigate, a ghost, or an elephant." Now thoroughly warmed up, the poet refers to me as an "unmatched clamor-maker" and an "unparalleled serpent."

In October 1994, soon after the poem was published, I was scheduled to meet with Iraqi officials. What to wear?

Years earlier, I had purchased a pin in the image of a serpent. I'm not sure why, because I loathe snakes. I shudder when I see one slithering through the grass on my farm in Virginia. Still, when I came across the serpent pin in a favorite shop in Washington, D.C., I couldn't resist. It's a small piece, showing the reptile coiled around a branch, a tiny diamond hanging from its mouth.

While preparing to meet the Iraqis, I remembered the pin and decided to wear it. I didn't consider the gesture a big deal and doubted that the Iraqis even made the connection. However, upon leaving the meeting, I encountered a member of the UN press corps who was familiar with the poem; she asked why I had chosen to wear that particular pin. As the television cameras zoomed in on the brooch, I smiled and said that it was just my way of sending a message.

A second pin, this of a blue bird, reinforced my approach. As with the snake pin, I had purchased it because of its intrinsic appeal, without any extraordinary use in mind. Until the twenty-fourth of February 1996, I wore the pin with the bird's head soaring upward. On the afternoon of that tragic day, Cuban fighter pilots shot down two unarmed civilian aircraft over international waters between Cuba and Florida. Three American citizens and one legal resident were killed. The Cubans knew they were attacking civilian planes yet gave no warning, and in the official transcripts they boasted about destroying the cojones of their victims.

At a press conference, I denounced both the crime and the perpetrators. I was especially angered by the macho celebration at the time of the killings. "This is not cojones," I said, "it is cowardice." To illustrate my feelings, I wore the bird pin with its head pointing down, in mourning for the free-spirited Cuban-American fliers. Because my comment departed from the niceties of normal diplomatic discourse, it caused an uproar in New York and Washington; for the same reason, it was welcomed in Miami. As a rule, I prefer polite talk, but there are moments when only plain speaking will do.

This excerpt from Read My Pins by Madeleine Albridght is used by permission of Harper Collins.

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Madeleine Albright