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Staying civil in Iraq debate

At a dinner here last week two former secretaries of State offered their views on the state of US foreign policy and where it should go.

George Shultz and Madeleine Albright are very different in their politics and personalities. Mr. Shultz is a Reagan Republican, courtly, and measured in speech, albeit a man of steel underneath it all. ("Once a marine, always a marine," he greets fellow ex-marines.) Mrs. Albright is a feisty Clinton Democrat, irrepressible and volcanic in her private estimates of policies and personalities, equally tough (famous for once snapping at Colin Powell: "What's the point of having this superb military you're always talking about, if we can't use it?")

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To declare my personal conflicts: In the Reagan administration I was Shultz's spokesman. During a stint later at the UN as Boutros Boutros Ghali's communications director, I on occasion clashed diplomatic swords with Albright, who was then US ambassador to the UN, as she waged a Clinton-directed campaign to remove Mr. Boutros Ghali from office.

But these two different personalities, despite disagreements, share a moving patriotism and dedication to country. Shultz, a native New Yorker and child of the Depression, has had a distinguished career in the worlds of academe, business, and government. Albright, born in Prague to a diplomat's family, came as a refugee to the US as a young girl - she becomes understandably emotional on her rise as a foreign-born American to representing the US as secretary of State, the only woman to do so.

The ground rules for last week's dinner were for no attribution of quotes in the media. But I do not dishonor that commitment by applauding the great concern of both these distinguished foreign policy practitioners for more civility in public discourse and for continuity in foreign policy between administrations.

It would have been profitable if President Bush and Senator Kerry could have been present last week. It would be well if, in their long months of speechmaking and debate ahead in the campaign, these elements of civility and continuity could underlie their discussion of foreign policy.

On the critical issue of Iraq it might seem fanciful to talk of continuity from a Bush to a Kerry administration, should there be one. Though Mrs. Albright, for example, has been critical of the timing of the Bush administration's military move into Iraq, and the failure to secure broad international support for it, she herself had much earlier advocated regime change in Baghdad. Moreover, in reacting in media interviews to President Bush's address on Iraq last week, she made her view clear that the US "must not fail" in Iraq.

As for the candidates, there isn't as much daylight between their positions on Iraq as one might think. Kerry accents the need for more international support in Iraq and a broader role for the UN. He talks of encouraging NATO to assume a security role. But in the challenging aftermath of the war, Bush has moved significantly toward seeking a larger role for the UN and NATO, and has been engaged in fencemending with members of the international community who did not lend their support to the war. They both say the US "must not fail" in Iraq, although they may differ some on methods.

While criticizing various aspects of the Bush administration's prosecution of the war, Kerry has so far been reluctant to leap on the antiwar bandwagon, and has been at pains to praise the valor and commitment of US forces engaged in Iraq. His advisers are acutely aware that though public support of the war has been slipping, it was overwhelmingly supportive of Bush in the initial stages. The challenger to an incumbent in time of war must tread carefully lest he antagonize a patriotic electorate.

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The elder Bush had it right at Memorial Day celebrations when he said the sacrifice of US soldiers defending freedom in World War II may have been on a larger scale, but the commitment of American soldiers today in defense of freedom is just as noble.

There are many foreign challenges that demand continuity from one US administration to another. There is terrorism, North Korea's nuclear threat, and a restive Iran, to cite just a few. But none is more immediately pressing than the need "not to fail" in Iraq.

John Hughes is a former editor of the Monitor.