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September 19th, 2008
02:37 PM ET

Former Secretaries of State to next President: Get over it. Get real. Be smart

Program Note: 5 former Secretaries of State tell Christiane Amanpour & Frank Sesno what advice they have for "The Next President."

Watch The Next President: A World of Challenges. Saturday, 9 p.m. ET

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Frank Sesno | BIO
CNN Special Correspondent

There we were, sitting alongside five people who had made history and shaped American foreign policy for nearly four decades. Vietnam and détente. Hot war with Iraq and Cold War with the Soviet Union. Mideast peace conferences and arms control. Kosovo and Iran. Rwanda and Iraq. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the scourge of drought, poverty and AIDS in the developing world. Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright, Colin Powell. Five former American Secretaries of State. The conversation was remarkable for its candor, depth and realism.

We gathered at the George Washington University, where I teach, to talk about the challenges facing the next American president. Christiane Amanpour brought her experience and hard edge to the questioning. The list of challenges we asked about was daunting– from big global issues like climate change and poverty to decisions about how to deal with the new, more assertive Russia, how to handle Iraq and Afghanistan, whether to reach out to Iran, how to fight terrorism and fix America’s tattered image in the world.

Here’s what the secretaries’ bottom line was: get over it. Get real. Be smart. The world is a complicated place. America has to lead. Play down the ideology, they seemed to say, and approach the world rationally and with perspective. Imagine that.

They didn’t agree on everything but the points of consensus were striking – and refreshing, far from the attack soundbites of the campaign and the seductively quick-fix ideas we often hear from politicians and pundits. In fact, on more than one issue, it was clear that this conversation could not possibly take place in the hothouse of the campaign. Poll-driven comments and rapid reaction war rooms ready to pounce prevent candidates from admitting mistakes or embracing the nuance of the real world – even though it’s the real world in which we live.

Some of their suggestions were practical and incremental, some would be big departures from where we are today.

It’s time to engage Iran, the Secretaries said. Drop the preconditions and the political posturing. “The whole point is you try to … deal with countries that you have problems with.” said Madeleine Albright, who tried to pursue an opening with Iran when she was in office. From across the aisle, James Baker agreed. His advice to the next president: “You ought to engage.”

Engage the whole world, really. The secretaries agreed America’s image is a mess. And they laid out three things the next president should do to start to fix it: close Guantanamo, end torture and take the lead on climate change.

On Russia, the message was similarly realistic. Georgia fired the first shot in that little August war, they reminded us. Not to excuse it, or suggest Russia’s a benevolent, democratic place. Keep the pressure on. Make Russia feel international scorn. But keep perspective. Don’t overreact. “We need Russia for a solution of the Iranian problem,” said Henry Kissinger, father of détente. “We may need Russia if Pakistan evolves in some of the directions that it might… It is helpful to cooperate with Russia, not just on the proliferation question, but on the issues of energy.” His bottom line: “This Russia is not democratic, but is also not– what it was before.” Colin Powell said keep the strategic picture in mind. “The Russian Federation is not gonna become the Soviet Union again.”

One of the most poignant discussions was about ‘soft power,’ those activities we do in the world that don’t often attract headlines – development assistance, humanitarian aid, educational and cultural exchanges, that kind of thing. We need a lot more of it, they all said. Former Secretary of State Baker brought it home with a simple comparison. America has fewer people in the foreign service today, he said, than serve on one aircraft carrier. That’s got to change.

It was a challenge to the next president, who will face a world of them.

soundoff (316 Responses)
  1. Kaye-Jacksonville FL

    Thank you for offering the public such an insightful forum. I am an ardent supporter of Senator Obama and believe that as much as possible his positions reflect much of what these folks are saying...certainly much closer than anything John McCain espouses. Thanks again....

    September 20, 2008 at 8:30 pm |
  2. Grant

    YES! Most issues around the world and also here at home are NOT black and white. Sound bites are fine for getting elected, but you can't run a country on them. I know the forum is non-partisan and and I have not watched the show, but my opinion is Mr. Obama seems to understand that more than McCain. However, the old McCain was a lot more interesting than this current version.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:30 pm |
  3. George Garrett

    Now what great contributions to the American image did these five Secretaries of State make. Which one handled our image after the truck bombers almost brought down the World Trade Center in 1992? Surely all the chit chat that followed that event really spruced up our image. And our world image wss so unimagingable after the death of 260 Marines in Lebannon. Then the Vietnam Secrretary of State. Now there was a real contributor. The murderous thug in Rwanda was really handled so smoothly And then there was Colon Powell. When the going gets tought, the tough opt for retirement. No wonder Bush didn't call on these losers.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:29 pm |
  4. KC

    Wasn't this what Baker suggested to Washington in his report? Diplomacy is how you exert your political sphere of influence, not by force. Force has only led us as an occupant of a country, alienated us from our allies, and further reinforced radical islam. By reaching out to Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and other potential foes we save face in the international community, save American lives, and save American taxpayers' money.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:28 pm |
  5. Jerry Rodriguez, Corpus Christi, Texas

    It is never a sign of weakness for the United States to negotiate for a peaceful solution when relations with a foreign power are strained, so long as the other party or parties know where our President and his or her nation stand. Had President Roosevelt used cowboy-diplomacy with Japan before the attack on Pearl Harbor, even though Tokyo was playing dirty and had been doing so since its seizure of Manchuria in 1931, the Allies might have viewed Washington’s position very differently. Instead, they saw America as a power who, right up until the day that does indeed live in infamy, played by the rules which is what made our war all the more righteous and just. President Kennedy once said, “Let us never negotiate out of fear but let us never fear to negotiate.”

    September 20, 2008 at 8:22 pm |
  6. Bill

    Hey I have a masters degree in history and another in international studies, I will gladly join the foreign service if they let me in. I'm just a phone call away State Department.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:20 pm |
  7. JR

    Does ANYONE think McCain or Palin capable of doing what the secretaries suggest? Of course not, more posturing, more threats, more incompetence is all they have to offer.

    What was McCain's funny line...
    Bomb, Bomb, Bomb....Bomb, Bomb, Iran....

    I'm sure that attitude will improve relations, NOT.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:18 pm |
  8. thomas

    So exciting to hear from all the ex Secretaries of State.So scary and demoralizing to know Ms. Palin is meeting with Pres. Karzai next week.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:14 pm |
  9. Greg

    If you the media did news like this more often you wouldn't be in my disfavorite five.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:13 pm |
  10. Charles

    It will be good show. I cannot wait to see it. The content should be pretty substantial for a TV program. It probably won't get down to the nitty gritty where there could be substantial differences (devil is always in the details), but the show should still be good.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:12 pm |
  11. Pete - Vancouver, BC, Canada

    Isn't the clarity and simplicity of common sense and reason amazing? And just as amazing, is the utter lack of all of these things during the George W. Bush administration.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:11 pm |
  12. Gary in Portsmouth, VA

    Americans listen to your former 5 Secretaries of States and how there leadership and ideas parallel with Senator Barack Obama. Common sense and rational sound thinking can take you along way. Obama is the future of the United States of America.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:09 pm |
  13. Plus

    "The secretaries agreed America’s image is a mess. And they laid out three things the next president should do to start to fix it: close Guantanamo, end torture and take the lead on climate change".

    I think the first and foremost thing to regain the world's trust is to hand over George W. Bush to The Hague for prosecution and hanging. He's committed the most heinous crimes against humanity since the holocaust! How many people died in Iraq? Who knows? Just for his lies.........

    September 20, 2008 at 8:06 pm |
  14. Katherine

    Great article! I would love to see this show. I´m a currently serving Peace Corps volunteer and don´t have a TV. Any way I could get the transcript?

    September 20, 2008 at 8:01 pm |
  15. John Kantor

    Just Liberal-Speak for turning our back on terrorism and letting the UN's incompetence dictate our foreign policy.

    September 20, 2008 at 8:01 pm |
  16. Dennis Drake

    Let's See , Henry Kissinger was the one who brokered the agreements in the 60's for the Oil countries to tie Oil to the Dollar & Invest in US Derivatives or Debt ! All the Mideast Countries signed except Iran & Iraq . Think about this hard and goggle Rev .Linsey Williams story. I don't trust any politician except Ron Paul who was slighted by the Media even thru he was winning on the internet by a wide margin . We need to clean house of all the special interests groups,crooked politicians and put Bush & Cheaney on trial for criminal conduct against the Republic of America and the original Declaration of Independence and Constitution and the American People.

    September 20, 2008 at 7:53 pm |
  17. Missy

    "CNN confirms that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will meet with Afghan President Hamid Karzai next week in New York during the opening meeting of the United Nations General Assembly."

    God help us all.

    Will somebody please, please make sure Gov. Palin watches this show? Then, for the sake of my grandchildren, will somebody patiently explain to her the terms Bush Doctrine, engage, preconditions, political posturing, proliferation and soft power? And for the sake of the entire world, will somebody convince her that it's intelligent, even heroic, to blink – and think – before starting a war?

    September 20, 2008 at 7:53 pm |
  18. Irfan Haqqee

    Get real about Palestinian issue too. Stop giving a blank check to Isreal about what it does in the occupied Palestine. After all, what has Israel done for USA (except spying) ? Why cannot any Presidential candidate expect to win a ticket for election without pledging unconditional support to Israel? That beats the rest of the world. Its about time American citizen start thinking about why America has to bear the wrath of the muslim world for that unconditional support for Israel?

    September 20, 2008 at 7:51 pm |
  19. wow!!!!!!!!!!!!

    A BIG SLAP on their faces: mc c and palin will make the obvious remark:
    Those five are NAIVE.

    and palin meeting the president of Afghanistan?, to the press corps: please after the meeting, ask her what her impression was? oh I forgot, there will be no Q&A....is todd pailin along for the ride?...oh yeah, he is the enforcer LMAOL

    September 20, 2008 at 7:41 pm |
  20. Everett

    Engaging Iran in talks w/out preconditions? They continue to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons, support / train terrorist groups – Hezbollah, playing political games in Lebanon, deny the Holocaust, & repeatedly express that Israel's "Zionist regime should be wiped off the map."

    Yeah I'm sure that's the intelligent course of action (sarcastic). Let's just forget that those UN imposed sanctions too.....sure let's take Iran's word that they have no intentions of building nuclear weapons because they wouldn't ever do anything like that. Oh, here's another interesting fact about Iran; they have one of the largest militaries in the world, estimated to be about 1 million strong.

    September 20, 2008 at 7:36 pm |
  21. Colin

    Ironic, these five people are also five people who have helped create the mess we find ourselves in today both at home and abroad. Taking the advice of these people is like taking the advice of a drug dealer on how to get clean. Real change requires new fresh ideas from people who really want to create change not people who are deeply invested in the status quo. Well they have done something right, they seem to be getting their new world order, for now.

    September 20, 2008 at 7:34 pm |
  22. Frank Opera

    I am not political minded, and am not American, but from a realistic perspective these former foreing secs. and secs. of state have proved to be the most objective minded and visionary leaders whose insights are needed to prop USA up fom her economic and political paralysis.
    It is a shame that the adult population in the US are clueless, extoling mediocrity at the expense of intelligence and sound judgement. from the observation of these statesmen, It is evident that McCain 'the Marveric' is after all claims not the messiah. It is either Obama or some one else

    September 20, 2008 at 7:33 pm |
  23. Ann from TN

    I will be watching tonight. Lets hope that finally people will shut up long enough to hear what these people have to say. It is so important. We have had enough of the cowboy mentality. Look at history so we don't repeat this same mistake.

    September 20, 2008 at 7:14 pm |
  24. FreeNLovIt

    Thank God for people like McCain and Palin, but unfortunately, they are WRONG for the country, at this point in time.

    We need someone with the judgement to take everything into consideration before he/she acts, the vision to move America past an oil rig culture and propel our economy to the future and the patience of all great leaders and inventors of America.

    Thomas Edison created the light bulb in his 1000th tries.

    September 20, 2008 at 7:07 pm |
  25. Lennox Fraser

    Notice that the writer (Mr Sesno) never acknowledges that the consensus opinion is almost a carbon copy of Barack Obama's.

    The media including CNN is bending over backwards to show that they are being fair since they have been accused of being too soft on Obama. Another example of this is the constant comment that both (emphasize both) of these campaigns "are being nasty" ...or have "stepped up the negative rhetoric" without so much as an attempt to determine who started with the really nasty stuff.

    The best solution is to turn them all off and decide for yourself based on the policies stated on the campaign websites.

    Mr Sesno...please don't hurt yourself telling the truth!

    September 20, 2008 at 7:02 pm |
  26. Jack

    It goes to show how even these heads of state can be wrong. They remind us that Georgia fired the first shot but they forget to say it was within their borders. They should not hide from the truth to make a point. Russia is a large powerful country and needs to addressed peacfully. But to hide the truth only empowers those and allows them to get away with murder. But everyone has a point of view and should be heard.

    September 20, 2008 at 7:00 pm |
  27. Ya_Ya

    Obama is Andy Griffith (cool, calm, rational, thoughtful), to McCain's Barney Fife (trigger-happy, clueless, boastfull, and dangerous, even with that one bullet he's been given.)

    September 20, 2008 at 6:56 pm |
  28. Ya_Ya

    This sounds like what Obama has been saying ALL ALONG. I don't know what further proof anyone else would need.

    September 20, 2008 at 6:51 pm |
  29. Ed

    McCain, Obama, Biden and Palin, along with their campaign managers, ought to be made to get together in the same room, sit down, shut up and listen to the people who have been out there as America's face to the world. Amazing how far common sense can go. But apparently our politicians think we have very little of it, because they feed us emotion-driven sound bites instead of thoughtful ideas to consider.

    September 20, 2008 at 6:22 pm |
  30. Tim

    Second guessing President Bush and feeling bad that others in the world don't support our policies (yet look to us to lead) has become the game of choice. I'm sick of it, the President has done the best he could given the cards dealt. I don't see Cowboy politics, only a Man who cares about his country. I wore the uniform for 21 years and unlike during President Clinton's terms I haven't seen a single service member tear up a retirement certificate with President Bush's name on it...a sign that despite our sacrifices we respect his vision as I believe historians will.

    September 20, 2008 at 6:18 pm |
  31. Chris, McKinney TX

    Great! We need to talk about this. As a former military expert on terrorism, let me say that this war was the most ineffective and destructive route (both in lives and to our economy) .

    The best way to fight terrorism in NOT with the military. I believe that the next President should get a good understanding on how to fight terrorism, and once they do, they will see that decreasing the size of our military, and equipping the CIA, FBI, and other Law Enforcement agencies is the way to go. This, along with dipomacy (cooperation between nations, intelligence agencies, and law enforcement agencies) is what will make it nearly impossible to terrorists to move around and conduct their missions.

    I say this as retired military man. The military needs to be reduced, and those funds need to be shifted to homeland security and intelligence.

    September 20, 2008 at 6:18 pm |
  32. Ijaz Abid

    Mccain is too old to learn new techniques of intelligent dialogue and theory of intelligent manipulation like that of cold war. That dude wants a cowboy language for the whole world just like bush and the results are evident now we are even leaving behind our closest allies.

    September 20, 2008 at 6:14 pm |
  33. Chris

    Let's see.

    Obama wants to:
    1. Engage with Iran without preconditions
    2. Focus on fixing America's image as opposed to "winning" the unnecessary war we started in Iraq
    3. Not start a new cold war. Tread carefully with Russia. As opposed to John McCain, who makes statements like "Today, we are all Georgians".

    I don't know why John McCain would be seen as the foreign policy candidate.

    September 20, 2008 at 6:12 pm |
  34. Patrick Era

    The Secretaties’ advice to the next President on what our attitude toward the rest of the world, particularly our adversaries and those who disagree with us, should be – goes along way to once again validate Senator Barack Obama’s insightfulness, thoughtfulness and sound judgment when it comes to vital national interests. As my beloveth Mother used to tell us her children – ‘it is not how far but how well.” Experience may be good, but it is not the be all, end all. For me, it is good judgment that counts.

    September 20, 2008 at 6:06 pm |
  35. Drew, Appleton, Wisconsin

    We need more voices of reason such as this. I too hope the next President turns his attention from running the divisive "permanent campaign" favored by the Bush administration and instead chooses to lead by shining example. There is much work to be done to rejoin the world and little time to waste.

    September 20, 2008 at 6:00 pm |
  36. Benjamin Schmaus

    Can we just elect those five to share the presidency? Their ideas seem like the correct move for our county. Obama and McCain only care about sound bites and bashing each other. I have yet to hear solid ideas with explanations from either candidate. I would even welcome Ross Perot back at this point.

    September 20, 2008 at 5:45 pm |
  37. Tim

    I pray that this discussion from the former heads of state will be covered by all the news outlets. Some news outlets put a spin on things that divide us instead of bring us together. That`s a real shame that it is being allowed to happen, especially now in this time of uncertainty.

    September 20, 2008 at 5:35 pm |
  38. clint

    we can see from these wise men that we need to get rid of cowboy diplomacy that Mc'cain is embracing and elect Barak Obama as the next president because he favors the approach of these wise men, a word is enough for the wise, NO THIRD TERM.

    September 20, 2008 at 5:24 pm |
  39. revolutioncalling

    We can't afford to appease the terrorists or 'reach out to them'. Clinton famously said that Americans prefer Presidents to be 'strong and wrong rather than weak and right'. Any nuanced or qualified position on terrorism or keeping us safe is going to lose to the absolute 'with us or against us' position. Being right or wrong is irrelevant. We can't afford to think about right or wrong. We need to feel safe and only a strong absolute policy can make us feel safe and that's what the people want.

    September 20, 2008 at 5:24 pm |
  40. Joel

    And I hope the recommended dropping the embargo against Cuba. That has to be the most pig-headed and senseless foreign policy we've ever mounted. After nearly 50 years of failure, we're still doing it.

    September 20, 2008 at 4:48 pm |
  41. Fol Lawal Temecula,CA

    I hope this is a forum for the next president to listen depth of knowledge on world affairs. I will definitely would watching this programme.

    September 20, 2008 at 4:45 pm |
  42. Bob

    The shame of it is is that at least one candidates will refuse to tolerate these kinds of views being seriously discussed. And there is one VP candidate who probably doesn't even know who these 5 people are. W, as a nation, have sunk very far...

    September 20, 2008 at 4:42 pm |
  43. Ap / Skokie / IL

    It is quite a disappointment that we have couple of risky presidential candidates on our hand. We have got possibility of George Bush saga on one hand and nightmares of Jimmy Carter on other. I have watched all these Secretaries of State in action over my life time and have lots of respect for them. These are the people who make or break America !! All I can hope for is the next President of United States of America shows courage by selecting bunch of capable people while ignoring party and politics ... otherwise we are at a critical stage of existence and one more mess up and its all down hill from here ... I think both the presidential candidates should be asked about their possible cabinet / secretaries during the debate... at least in case of Finance, State and Defense !!

    September 20, 2008 at 4:36 pm |
  44. Patti Zimmerman

    Interesting commentaries!
    We are so off course in this country, as the opinions expressed by the former Secretaries of State confirm. Hindsight is foresight, but having a President with vision, intellect and the ability to surround themself with talented people is key.

    September 20, 2008 at 4:30 pm |
  45. Paul

    James Baker would have made a great president. I am voting for Obama but have always liked and admired Mr. Baker.

    September 20, 2008 at 4:15 pm |
  46. Evelyn in Alabama

    Thank you for this show; I look forward to seeing it in its entirety.
    Really do like CNN!

    September 20, 2008 at 4:14 pm |
  47. Jayvee

    Hey jrq in La Habra,

    Sec'y Baker was not referring to the size of our Armed Forces and saying we need more...he was referring to the fact that there are more people on 1 aircraft carrrier than in our Foreign Service...He meant we need more people in our Foriegn Service............The Foreign Service Officers serve in our Department of State and consist of approximately 3200 civilians who are Diplomats, not armed forces members.

    BTW, our armed forces offer very healthy bonuses by way of trying to attract and maintain personnel.....some bonuses up to $150,000.....of course you must pay more for your armed forces if you intend to keep them voluntary and not spread the honor of serving evenly amongst the entire population.

    September 20, 2008 at 4:13 pm |
  48. The Independent

    We ought to follow these bi-partisan cool-headed Secretaries. The Cowboy Go-It-Alone foreign diplomacy has hurt our country so much in the eyes of the world! We must elect a president who knows the subtlety of careful talk in international affairs instead of always threatening people like what Mr. McCain did during the Georgian-Russian war. As former President Clinton said: The world admires us because of our power of examples instead of our examples of power!!!

    September 20, 2008 at 4:11 pm |
  49. Paul

    Interesting! However, I am always amazed at how the left thinks we can defeat our enemies by talking to them. The only way talking will work is if we move towards there way of thinking because they are not going to move towards our way.

    These people strap bombs to themselves and...

    Do you really think we can talk to them?

    September 20, 2008 at 4:10 pm |
  50. Randy from Vancouver

    It would certainly be nice to see an end to the "If you ain't with us, yur agin us" approach to international diplomacy which has been practiced over the past two presidential terms. My country, Canada, declined to participate in the Iraq coalition, and were roundly vilified for it by our US ambassador and the U.S. popular press. This, while Canadians and other nationalities are fighting and dying shoulder-to-shoulder with American soldiers in Afghanistan.

    I believe that most of the people around the world who say "I hate America", really don't. What they hate are the gunslinger policies of the government; not the American people.

    John McCain is praised by conservative commentators for his fast, decisive and unequivocal responses to interviewers' questions. Obama is mocked for taking time to consider the questions, and offering more nuanced responses. IMHO the ability to forcefully state a knee-jerk reaction to any given question is precisely what needs to change.

    This is an American election which will be decided by the American people. Some will say it is no business of "foreigners" like myself to "interfere" and offer opinions. You are all my neighbours. When your government behaves more like a neighbour, and less like the neighbourhood bully, your lives and those of many people around the world will be improved immeasurably.

    Whoever is elected REALLY needs to get this right.

    September 20, 2008 at 4:07 pm |
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