The words "Obama" and "McCain" weren't spoken until the end of the program, but the five former secretaries of state assembled in George Washington University's Lisner Auditorium Monday afternoon had a lot of advice for whichever candidate becomes the next president.
Henry Kissinger, James Baker, Warren Christopher, Madeleine Albright and Colin Powell shared their decades of foreign policy experience as part of a CNN program entitled "The Next President: A World of Opportunities." Moderators Christiane Amanpour and Frank Sesno probed the panelists for their views a variety of issues, including the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, cooperation with America's allies and the decline in America's prestige around the world.
On day one, the panelists said, the next president has to be ready to aggressively confront numerous problems facing the world. Powell, who served as secretary of state from 2001 to 2004, said that the president should strengthen bonds with allies around the world.
"If you can work with other countries, it's a sign of strength," agreed Albright, who was secretary of state under Bill Clinton along with Christopher.
Amanpour said that U.S. influence is "at an historic low," and a video screen showed the waning popularity of the U.S. throughout the world, even in countries that have historically been allies.
"I don't care if we're popular," Baker said. "It doesn't matter whether we're loved, but whether we're respected."
Asked by Amanpour to put aside "party talking points," the bipartisan group was able to find common ground on such issues as climate change, torture and the need for multilateral cooperation among nations.
"We need to close Guantanamo," Baker said of the controversial detention facility. "It's a very serious blot on our reputation."
Albright called the situations in Afghanistan and Pakistan an "international migraine" and said that it needs to be seen in a larger context. The panelists agreed that both military and diplomatic resources need to be deployed to the region.
"We have more lawyers in the Pentagon than we do Foreign Service officers," Christopher said of the need for greater diplomatic efforts.
Asked about the recent conflict between Georgia and Russia, none of the panelists expressed unequivocal support for Georgia.
"We have to be careful not to jump to one side or the other," Powell said.
Kissinger, whose experience with Russia dates back to his work in the Nixon Administration, said the U.S. should actively engage Russia and realize that there are a number of mutual interests on which to cooperate.
"This Russia is not democratic, but it is also not what it was before," Kissinger said.
On Iraq, the former Secretaries called for greater pressure to be placed on the Iraqis as American troops are withdrawn.
"Make it clear that the drawdown will continue," Powell said. "But any time table should be conditioned on what's going on on the ground."
"The Sunnis and Shia's ultimately have to sort it out," Albright said.
The discussion briefly touched upon the presidential race when an audience member asked about the worldwide significance of electing Obama, the first African-American nominee. Powell, who has been courted by both the Obama and McCain campaigns said that such an event would be "electrifying," but added that he remains undecided on whom to support.
"I will decide when I've seen everything," Powell said, adding that "First and foremost, I'm an American."
Audience members, many of whom waited in line for over an hour to snag a good seat, racted positively to the 90 minutes of debate.
"I thought it was splendid, right in the spirit of GW," former University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said. "It was much more interesting than the presidential debates have been so far."
"It was an interesting look at the different perspectives within the foreign policy community," said sophomore Dan Dupuis, noting the ideological differences between the dignitaries.
Dupuis added, "I was glad they kept the bickering to a minimum."
The program will be broadcast on CNN Saturday, Sept. 20 at 9 p.m.