President Bush with Former Secretaries of State
President Bush pauses for a photograph on Thursday with present and former Secretaries of State and Defense in the Oval Office at the White House.
Evan Vucci -- AP

Voices From History Echo Anew

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By Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006

President Bush summoned most of the living former secretaries of state and defense to the White House yesterday for what participants described as a cordial but pointed discussion about the future of Iraq.

The bipartisan advice-seeking was virtually unprecedented for this White House, which has drawn criticism even from Republicans for being insular in its deliberations and dismissive of dissenters.

The session in the Roosevelt Room came complete with a photo opportunity and presidential statement after Bush spent an hour with such prominent foreign policy voices as Robert S. McNamara, a Democratic secretary of defense during the Vietnam era 40 years ago, and James A. Baker III, the secretary of state for Bush's father during the Persian Gulf War of the early 1990s.

While the president was challenged once or twice in the meeting, according to participants, White House aides believed they accomplished their twin goals of portraying a more solicitous president and underscoring the broad bipartisan agreement that a speedy withdrawal from Iraq would be unwise and potentially devastating to U.S. interests.

"Not everybody around this table agreed with my decision to go into Iraq," Bush said of the 13 former Cabinet members who attended. "I fully understand that."

It was a rare event for Bush, inviting and listening to sharp critics of his Iraq policy, including Madeleine K. Albright, President Bill Clinton's secretary of state.

Harold Brown, defense secretary for President Jimmy Carter, said the meeting was clearly designed to provide a public relations boost to Bush and show that "there is a fairly broad consensus" that "we have to try make it work as far as we can." That happens to be true, he said.

Albright, who advised Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry in 2004, said a few participants complained that it took Bush five years to bring together Democratic and Republican foreign policy luminaries. "This all should have happened a lot earlier," Albright said in an interview.

Since the earliest days of the debate over invading Iraq, Bush has been criticized for ignoring those who do not share his views and relying on a small band of like-minded, pro-war advisers. But in recent weeks, in response to falling poll numbers and rising complaints about the course of the war, Bush has reached out through meetings and public acknowledgments that things have sometimes not gone as well as he hoped. Albright and Brown praised Bush for the effort.

Albright was among the most aggressive in challenging Bush in the private meeting, complaining about the president's characterization of the conflict as unavoidable.

"I feel very strongly it is wrong to say something publicly critical of the president and then don't say it to his face," she said. "I said this was a war of choice, not necessity. But getting it right is a necessity and not a choice."

Brown said he pressed Bush and his advisers on the prospects of creating a broad-based democratic government that a vast majority of Iraqis, regardless of religious or tribal allegiances, can support.

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