WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Five former secretaries of state from both parties Monday discussed how they would advise the next president on a wide range of foreign policy, including relations with Russia, Iran and the Middle East.
"I would advise the president to fully engage with Syria," former Secretary of State James Baker said at a George Washington University forum co-sponsored by CNN. "I think it's ridiculous for us to say we're not going to talk to Syria, and yet the Israelis have been negotiating peace with them for the last six or eight months." Baker served under President George H.W. Bush.
(The full comments will air on "The Next President: A World of Challenges" this Saturday night at 9 p.m. ET and again Sunday at 2 p.m. ET.)
Baker, who has endorsed Republican Sen. John McCain's presidential bid, appeared with former Clinton secretaries of state Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher; Henry Kissinger, who served under Nixon and Ford; and former Bush Secretary of State Colin Powell. Albright has been an active supporter of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.
Powell, who said he has not decided which candidate to back this year, said Monday the election of an African-American president "would be electrifying, but at the same time [I have to] make a judgment here on which would be best for America."
As the former diplomats urged a cautious approach in the conflict between Russia and Georgia, Powell seemed to take a swipe at McCain's tough criticism of Moscow.
"Some debate in the presidential elections has basically been, 'We are all Georgians now,' " said CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour. "What does that mean? It's the same as was said after 9/11."
Responded Powell, "One candidate said that, and I'll let the candidate explain it for himself." Pressed to explain his response, the retired general said the crisis called for caution.
"The fact of the matter is that you have to be very careful in a situation like this not just to leap to one side or the other until you take a good analysis of the whole situation....
"The Russian Federation is not going to become the Soviet Union again. That movie failed at the box office. But they do have interests. And we have to think carefully about their interests."
When the crisis began in early August, the Obama campaign called "for all sides to show restraint and to stop this armed conflict," echoing the statements from the White House and the European Union.
Kissinger told the panel the United States needs "Russia for resolution of the Iranian problem. We may need Russia if Pakistan evolves in some of the directions that it might."
"I would urge the new president, as I'm urging this president, to explore the possibilities of cooperation and be very sure before we go the route of cutting off WTO [World Trade Organization] and the other international measures for which cooperation with Russia may be very important," he said.
Baker said the U.S. needs to cooperate with Russia "where we can, where it makes sense, but we ought to also be willing to confront them where our vital interests are involved. We are committed to the independence of these former republics of the former Soviet Union."
The former secretaries of state also focused their attention on talks with Iran. The Bush administration joined the other members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, France, China and Russia, along with Germany -- in offering Iran a set of political and economic incentives similar to the ones North Korea was given in exchange for suspending its uranium enrichment program.
But the United States has refused to sit down with Iran until that suspension takes place.
"When I was in office, we had a standing policy with the Iranians. We were ready to talk to them, provided it would be done at an official level, at the level of the secretary of state, and they did -- they wouldn't -- they didn't have enough domestic political support for that," Baker said.
Kissinger added: "Well, I am in favor of negotiating with Iran. And one utility of negotiation is to put before Iran our vision of a Middle East, of a stable Middle East, and our notion on nuclear proliferation at a high enough level so that they have to study it. And, therefore, I actually have preferred doing it at the secretary of state level so that we -- we know we're dealing with authentic."
Albright told the panel that she doesn't think the United States understands Iranian society and that could be a problem in dealing with the nation.
"It is not monolithic. There are various aspects of the fact that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is not particularly popular. There are economic issues. And the more that we go around vilifying them, we create -- put him a stronger position. And so not only should we do these steps that the others have been talking about, but we have to make sure that we're not undercutting what we want to do by creating a bigger problem than we have."
Christopher said checking the authenticity of the negotiations is a key factor.
"I think the first thing you do when you've got a message from the Iranians is to find out whether it's authentic or not," he said. "Then, I think you have to move forward. ... We can't be complacent about the nuclear possibilities in Iran, but nevertheless we cannot afford not to have a comprehensive dialogue to see if it can be stopped because, frankly, the military options here are very, very poor."
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