President Bush says he has "great hopes" that Iraq's incoming unity government will meet the aspirations of the Iraqi people, and he is optimistic that U.S. efforts in the country will be successful. Mr. Bush met with current and former secretaries of state and defense to discuss the situation in Iraq and the broader Middle East.
Flanked by the former cabinet officers, some of whom served as far back as the Kennedy administration, President Bush acknowledged that America's role in Iraq remains a point of contention and debate. But he suggested the critical question is not the merits of having invaded Iraq, but rather the future of U.S. engagement in the country.
"We have had our disagreements in this country about whether or not we should be there [in Iraq] in the first place," said Mr. Bush. "Now, the fundamental question is: how do we achieve our objectives, which is a democracy that can defend itself, sustain itself, a country that is an ally in the war on terror, and a country that serves as a powerful example for others that desire to be free."
President Bush said challenges lie ahead for Iraq's government, including the need to crack down on militias that operate outside the law. He said the Iraqi people must feel secure if the country is to move forward, and that U.S. policies and actions must be consistent.
"I know that the only way we will not succeed is if we lose our nerve, if we do not have faith in our values, and if we are constantly changing our tactics on the ground to achieve our objectives," he added.
Aside from the president, none of the participants in the gathering spoke to the news media. The meeting came amid news from Iraq that a Shi'ite political party had pulled out of talks on forming a unity government, as well as continued bloodshed that has claimed hundreds of lives in recent weeks.
Mr. Bush said, for those dealing with Iraq, it is useful to hear the views of former officials. Some participants, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who served in the Clinton administration, have been highly critical of President Bush's decision to invade Iraq, as well as his administration's handling of subsequent events in the country.
This was the second meeting the president has held in recent months with former high-ranking officials to discuss foreign affairs.