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Five ex-secretaries of state urge talks with Iran

September 15, 2008 - 7:05pm

 

 

Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, left, and Madeleine Albright are pictured in Washington, before a discussion with former Secretaries of State at the taping of CNN's "The Next President: A World of Challenges", Monday, Sept. 15,2008, at George Washington University in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

 

By BARRY SCHWEID

AP Diplomatic Writer

 

WASHINGTON (AP) - Five former secretaries of state, gathering to give their best advice to the next president, agreed Monday that the United States should talk to Iran.

 

The wide-ranging, 90-minute session in a packed auditorium at The George Washington University, produced exceptional unity among Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell, Warren Christopher, Henry A. Kissinger and James A. Baker III.

 

But they didn't agree on who should move into the Oval Office next January.

 

Albright, a Democrat, surprised no one by endorsing Barack Obama. "It would be sending a message of diversity" to the world, she said, drawing cheers from an audience of dozens of diplomats and hundreds of students.

 

Baker, a Republican, said he wished to send a "powerful message" to America as well as abroad. After a dramatic pause, he evoked applause and some laughter by saying tersely, "But I am for John McCain."

 

Powell, the first African American secretary of state, said he had not decided yet. "I am an American first," Powell said.

 

He said he had told Obama, "I am not going to vote for you just because you are black." The critical issue, he said, "is who is going to keep us safe."

 

The Bush administration has dragged its feet on even minimal contact with Iran under hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a course the five former secretaries of state implicitly criticized.

 

Nor did they suggest the United States should keep its distance out of concern for Israel, which Ahmadinejad has said "one day will be wiped off the map."

 

"The military options are very poor," Christopher said. "And we have to tell the Israelis that."

 

Kissinger, for his part, said he favored negotiations with Iran but that the United States should spell out its objectives at the outset. And that, he said, included a stable Middle East.

 

Kissinger, secretary of state in the Nixon and Ford administrations from 1973-1977, said the U.S. negotiators also should seek a halt to Iran providing weapons to militant groups.

 

Albright said she would begin the talks at the State Department level. "You need to engage with countries you have problems with," she said.

 

Secretary of state in the Clinton administration from 1997-2001, she said "the more we criticize Ahmadinejad the stronger he gets" within Iranian society.

 

As the five former secretaries cruised through world issues, they hewed to a line that the U.S. had to project its standing but also work with other countries.

 

Christopher, who preceded Albright in the Clinton administration, serving from 1993-1997, offered the proposition, though, that the United States should outlaw torture of captured terror suspects.

 

And Powell, who served President Bush from 2001-2005, sought to allay suspicions that Russia was turning into a second Soviet Union, even though it acted "brutally" in its conflict last month with Georgia.

 

It was "foolhardy," he said, for Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili to "light a match" with a military operation in South Ossetia to forcibly reassert is authority over the breakaway region.

 

And Baker, secretary of state for President George H.W. Bush from 1989-1992, said he did not think "there is a deal to be struck" between Israel and the Palestinians. But he said the U.S. should get on good terms with Syria when there is a better chance for a deal. "It's ridiculous for us to say we are not going to talk to Syria," he said.

 

 

(Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

 

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