WASHINGTON – President Bush promised to "take to heart" suggestions on Iraq he heard Thursday from former secretaries of defense and state who have disagreed with his approach there.
But Bush offered no evidence he plans any significant changes in strategy.
The president joined Gen. George Casey, the top American commander in Iraq, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad, to give a detailed briefing on Iraq to more than a dozen foreign policy leaders from previous administrations, split nearly evenly between Democrat and Republican. Current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld also helped update the former secretaries.
The White House's hope was that the prominent figures — many of whom have publicly opposed Bush on Iraq — would be persuaded by the president's argument that he has what he called a "dual-track strategy for victory," and they would then spread the word.
With the White House also sometimes criticized for taking in too few outside opinions, the session wasn't designed for administration officials to do all the talking. In his brief remarks to reporters afterward, Bush emphasized the portion of the meeting in which the former secretaries offered "their concerns, their suggestions about the way forward."
"Not everybody around this table agreed with my decision to go into Iraq. I fully understand that," the president said, sitting at a long table in the Roosevelt Room with his guests arrayed silently around him. "But these are good solid Americans who understand that we've got to succeed now that we're there. I'm most grateful for the suggestions they've given. I take to heart the advice."
Participants told reporters outside the West Wing afterward that there had been some dissent gently voiced, but they wouldn't describe it.
"When you are 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," said Lawrence Eagleburger, a secretary of state under former President George H.W. Bush. "Now, there was some criticism. But it was basically, you haven't talked to the American people enough. And it was very mild."
"He heard some things he did not like. He heard some things he did like," said Melvin Laird, a Pentagon chief for Nixon. "That's the kind of meeting you want."
Laird said Bush's recent campaign to talk more, and particularly more candidly, about Iraq has been wise. "You have to do that," he said. "If you level with the American people you'll get their support."
Harold Brown, defense secretary under former President Carter, said he suggested a stepped-up focus on the Iraq insurgency's failure to stop the political process from moving forward and to prevent recruitment into the Iraqi security forces.
"Instead of dwelling on the daily bombings, we ought to keep in mind the problems the other side has been having," Brown said. "We must make them fail."
The president then offered a quick summation of his strategy in Iraq that, while not getting into detail, appeared unchanged.
"On the one hand, we will work to have a political process that says to all Iraqis, the future belongs to you. On the other hand, we'll continue to work on the security situation there," Bush said. "We're making darn good progress."
The unusual gathering continues an aggressive public relations push by the president that began last month. The White House hosted similar briefings for several groups of Congress members, including Democrats sympathetic to Bush's approach in Iraq.
The president also delivered a series of high-profile speeches, including one delivered from the Oval Office in prime time, in which he offered the public a more candid assessment of the situation in Iraq and acknowledged some early missteps.
As the year drew to a close, Bush saw his record-low poll numbers begin to rebound slightly.
Among those at the meeting Thursday were several former Clinton administration officials: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and defense secretaries William Cohen and William Perry. Perry helped develop Sen. John Kerry's foreign policy positions during the Massachusetts Democrat's campaign against Bush last year.
The others from previous Democratic administrations were Brown, defense secretary under former President Carter, and Robert McNamara, the Vietnam-era Pentagon chief under presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
Those from Republican administrations were Colin Powell, Rice's predecessor under Bush; former secretaries of state James A. Baker III, Eagleburger, Alexander Haig and George Shultz; and former defense secretaries Frank Carlucci, James Schlesinger and Laird.