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Secretarial Consensus

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When five former secretaries of state -- three from Republican administrations and two from Democratic - -sit down to give foreign policy advice to the next president in the midst of two wars and a heated campaign, sweet reason and unanimity is not guaranteed.

Include polar opposites like Henry Kissinger and Madeline Albright in the mix, and the odds become longer.

Yet bipartisan consensus is what emerged last week at the University of Georgia, where I moderated the 16th Conference of Former Secretaries of State, produced by the Southern Center for International Studies, which will be broadcast on PBS next month. The roster included Colin Powell, James Baker and Warren Christopher, along with Kissinger and Albright.

All five agreed that the next president should close the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and open a dialogue with Iran without preconditions. They also advocated a more pragmatic, open-minded approach to Pakistan, continued close ties with India, further efforts to engage China and a renewed push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Guantanamo, they said, has become a blot on the U.S. reputation abroad. Even Kissinger, who said he had concerns about how to handle the inmates in the U.S. legal system, agreed that the camp should be closed.

Talking with Iran is essential, they said, because of the key role Iran plays in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. "One has to talk with adversaries," said Kissinger, the man who forged the opening to China three decades ago. Colin Powell agreed, recalling the talks he conducted with Syria during his tenure in President George W. Bush's first term. "They are not always pleasant visits," he said, "but you have got to do it."

The secretaries agreed as well that the U.S. embargo against Cuba has failed and should be dropped. "When policies don't work for 50 years," said Warren Christopher, "it is time to think of something else. The audience of 2,300 at the Dean Rusk Center broke into applause.

Perhaps politics can stop at the water's edge, after all.

Terence Smith's blog appears at terencefsmith.com