Bush calls on former defence secretaries for policy advice

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The Independent US

He may have heard few home truths, and changed few minds. But at least George Bush can now claim to be hearing other points of view on his unpopular policy on Iraq.

In a remarkable White House occasion, a president frequently accused of being surrounded by a coterie of advisers who tell him only what he wants to hear, summoned to the Roosevelt Room more than a dozen former secretaries of state and defence, Republicans and Democrats, to ask their advice.

The most recent of them was Colin Powell, Mr Bush's increasingly unhappy secretary of state during his first term. The most venerable was Robert McNamara, now almost 90, occupant of the Pentagon under presidents John F Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and an architect of the Vietnam war to which Iraq is often compared.

The group included not only supporters, but also outspoken critics of his handling of the war, among them Madeleine Albright, General Powell's predecessor under the Democrat president, Bill Clinton.

The assembling of such political and intellectual firepower was part of the new White House PR strategy, to show Mr Bush was open to all shades of opinion on Iraq, and prepared to admit big problems remained. But there is scant sign the session will change his policies.

The President promised to "take to heart" their suggestions, only to reiterate his double-track strategy of keeping US troops in Iraq, while helping Iraqis to build their own democracy and the security forces needed to defend it.

Afterwards, participants were coy about what was said. "He heard some things he liked, and some things he didn't like," said Melvin Laird, the defence secretary under Richard Nixon, and a supporter of the Iraq war. "That's the sort of meeting you want."

But everything seems to have been very gentlemanly and polite. Lawrence Eagleburger, the secretary of state under Mr Bush's father, told reporters after the meeting: "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 past 100 years, you're likely to pull your punches to some degree."