WASHINGTON—President Bush delivered a progress report on the war in Iraq to 10 former secretaries of state and defense Friday, telling them that militias remain the biggest obstacle in getting a united Iraqi government functioning.
The secretaries described the session as a more open, free-flowing, conversational affair than the session they had with Bush in January.
"I thought it was much less formal than the first," said William Cohen, a former Republican senator from Maine who served as President Clinton's defense secretary. "He was more relaxed in this meeting, willing to listen to whatever suggestions we had. Everyone felt they had a chance to offer comments. No acrimony, no partisanship."
Madeleine Albright, former Secretary of State under Clinton, was skeptical before Friday's session because she thought January's session was "just a photo op."
"This was a freewheeling dialogue," she said after Friday's meeting. "I felt it was much more the beginning of a dialogue."
The former secretaries, who served in administrations from John F. Kennedy's to Bush's first term, were briefed for about 45 minutes by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Administration officials discussed the effort to form an independent Iraqi government and to improve the training of Iraqi security forces so they can assume lead roles in defending their country.
The president praised new Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki as a leader, but he said the problem of militias and death squads must be addressed before a stable, independent Iraq emerges.
"Perhaps the main challenge is the militia that tend to take the law into their own hands, and it's going to be up to the government to step up and take care of that militia so that the Iraqi people are confident in the security of the country," Bush told reporters.
Polls show that Bush's handling of the war in Iraq is contributing to the plunge in his approval ratings to all-time lows.
"We've had our disagreements in this country about whether or not we should be there in the first place," the president said. "Now the fundamental question is how do we achieve our objective."
Bush and the secretaries also discussed other issues besides Iraq. Albright said she congratulated him on the administration's work in helping to achieve a peace agreement between the government of Sudan and the leading rebel group in hopes of ending a bloody, three-year conflict in the country's Darfur region.
They also talked about the standoff between the United States and Iran over the Iranian government's nuclear ambitions. Cohen said the secretaries stressed that the administration should continue to pursue a diplomatic resolution "and not military action at this point."
Albright said she suggested that the administration respond to the letter that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent Bush this week, which questioned how Bush, as a Christian, can justify attacking Iraq, holding prisoners without trial at Guantanamo Bay and supporting Israel. The letter only alludes to Iran's nuclear program.
"I actually think we are involved in a battle of ideas," she said. "While the letter is full of invective, I think it is worth some high-level official to state what our views really are so the letter doesn't stand on the record."
Participants in the meeting were: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld; Former Secretaries of State Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher under President Clinton, James Baker III under President George H.W. Bush and Alexander Haig Jr. in the Reagan administration; Former Secretaries of Defense William Cohen of the Clinton administration, Frank Carlucci for President Reagan, James Schlesinger and Melvin Laird for President Nixon and Robert S. McNamara for President Kennedy.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.