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February 29, 2008

On the eve of a historic presidential election, five former U.S. secretaries of state convened in Athens to discuss foreign policy issues in order to provide guidance to the next president at "The Report of the Secretaries of State: Bipartisan Advice to the Next Administration" March 27.

The secretaries, whose influence on foreign policy spans nearly 40 years in Republican and Democratic administrations, agreed that the next president should be open to taking diplomatic steps with both allies and unfriendly countries in order to further the nation's standing in the world and ease global issues in which the U.S. is deeply involved.

The two-hour event was sponsored by the Dean Rusk Center at UGA's School of Law and the Southern Center for International Studies. It was the 16th such event, drawing a sold-out crowd of more than 2,100 to the Classic Center.

Colin Powell, who served the post during President George W. Bush's first term, said that despite the country's current standing in worldwide opinion polls, there is still a "reservoir of respect and affection" toward the U.S. that can be leveraged for better fiscal, military and political options in the future.

"The situation is reversible, and that will begin with new president," Powell said. "The new president should close (the U.S. prison facility in at) Guantanamo Bay immediately, and by closing that, we are saying to the world that we are going back to the traditional, respected forms of dealing with people who have committed crimes."

The panel touched on issues ranging from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan to global climate change to the rise of Russia, China and India as major players on the world stage. But in each venue, the secretaries agreed that the first steps toward any solution will be repairing or opening lines of communication.

"I've never seen the world in such a mess. I think the next president is going to have a very big job," said Madeline Albright, secretary of state in President Bill Clinton's administration from 1997-2001.

"Since the president's and secretary of state's jobs are to protect the security of the United States, (our global standing) hurts us because we're not able to get the kind of support we need for whatever the issues we are facing... I don't care whether we're loved or not, but we need to be respected and not just feared for doing the wrong things."

Much of the discussion centered on issues affecting the Middle East. The panel agreed that drawing down the number of U.S. troops in Iraq is inevitable, and advised the next administration to encourage other countries in the region to ease tensions in Afghanistan and aid in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"The evolution has to be dealt with in terms of the consequences of whatever actions we take, and cannot be assessed in what might have been done five years ago," said Henry Kissinger, who served under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford. "From that point of view, we cannot look at (the idea of resolving the Iraq War) as being about Iraq. It's about the Sunni-Shiite relationship, about the role of radical Islam, about other countries, and it cannot have purely military solutions."

Pointing to the decline in America's economy, Warren Christopher, secretary of state during President Bill Clinton's first term, said that the U.S. needs to have financial and domestic strength in order to be a viable negotiating party abroad.

"I am one of those who thinks that to be strong abroad we have to be strong at home, not just militarily, but financially as well," he said. "I see the weak American dollar as a metaphor for the weakness of America abroad. One of the things a new president should do is get our economic house in order."