- The Washington Times - Friday, January 6, 2006

President Bush yesterday sought to counter press reports of insularity by soliciting advice on Iraq from a dozen former secretaries of state and defense from Democratic and Republican administrations.

“Not everybody around this table [agrees] with my decision to go into Iraq,” Mr. Bush said in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. “But these are good solid Americans who understand that we’ve got to succeed now that we’re there.

“And I’m most grateful for the suggestions that have been given,” he said. “We take to heart the advice; we appreciate your experience.”

Participants in the unusual meeting included representatives of every administration in the past 45 years, starting with Robert S. McNamara, who was defense secretary during the Vietnam war under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Also present was Madeleine K. Albright, who was secretary of state under President Clinton.

Although these Democrats have been publicly critical of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy, they were generally deferential to him during yesterday’s meeting, said Lawrence Eagleburger, a secretary of state under former President Bush.

“You have to understand when you’re in the presence of the president of the United States — I don’t care if you’ve been a devout Democrat for the last hundred years — you’re likely to pull your punches to some degree,” the Republican told reporters after the meeting.

“Now, there was some criticism, but it was basically: ‘You haven’t talked to the American people enough.’ And it was very mild.

“I don’t think the president can come out of that meeting with any sense that there was a bunch of bureaucrats who were about to revolt,” he said. “We’re all has-beens anyway.”

Harold Brown, President Carter’s defense secretary, emphasized the difficulties of the ongoing war in Iraq, where violence has spiked this week.

“It’s a very tough situation,” the Democrat told reporters. “There are some signs of progress. My own belief is that the evolution of the political situation there over the next two months is going to be crucial to how it all turns out.”

Melvin Laird, who was President Nixon’s defense secretary, said the group had a “good exchange” with Mr. Bush, but also said: “A couple of the things he heard he probably didn’t like too well.”

For example, Mrs. Albright made no secret of her displeasure with the president’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein in the first place.

“I did say that I thought Iraq was a war of choice, not of necessity, but that getting it right was a necessity and not a choice,” she told Fox News Channel.

The meeting began with remarks by Mr. Bush and Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and featured briefings by Army Gen. George Casey, U.S. commander in Iraq, and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Then the former state and defense officials asked Mr. Bush questions and proffered advice.

None of the participants endorsed an immediate pullout of U.S. troops, which has been proposed by several Democratic lawmakers, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania.

“One of the generals indicated that the number of troops, which is at about 160,000, would be going down to something like 138,000 by March or summer,” said Frank Carlucci, defense secretary under President Reagan. “But nobody urged a cut-and-run policy.”

Alexander Haig, who was secretary of state under President Reagan, said he was encouraged by reports of progress in Iraq.

“There were very few indicators that we looked at today that had not improved substantially,” the former Army general told reporters. “Everything is proceeding, but it isn’t going to be easy.”

James Schlesinger, defense secretary under Presidents Nixon and Ford, said there is too much focus on minor setbacks suffered by U.S. forces and not enough emphasis on major setbacks suffered by insurgents.

“Instead of dwelling on the daily bombings, we ought to keep in mind the problems that the other side has been having,” he said. “[The insurgents’] first goal was to stop the political process; they failed. The second goal was to prevent recruitment into the Iraqi security forces; they have signally failed, even though they have inflicted substantial casualties.”

Yesterday’s meeting came in the wake of various press reports that portrayed Mr. Bush as averse to input by anyone outside a small circle of advisers. Last month, Newsweek magazine ran a cover cartoon of the president trapped in a bubble.

“I don’t feel in a bubble,” he told NBC afterward. “I feel like I’m getting some really good advice from very capable people and that people from all walks of life inform me and inform those who advise me. I feel very comfortable that I’m very aware of what’s going on.”

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