January 27th, 2009
09:40 AM ET
4 years ago

Clinton, Bush 41 reflect on regrets


Watch Clinton and Bush 41 name their regrets as president.

(CNN) - Two former presidents reflected on their greatest regrets in office Monday, each looking back to issues that continue to plague the nation years later.

Former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton appeared together at a question-and-answer forum before the National Automobile Dealers Association in New Orleans.

Asked his biggest regret after leaving office, Bush said he now wonders whether he should have tried to get Saddam Hussein to leave office at the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. He told the gathering, "I've thought a lot about it, but at the end of Desert Storm the question was should we have kind of kept going on that road to death and all this slaughter until Saddam Hussein showed up and laid his sword on the table, surrendered. And the common wisdom was he wouldn't do that."

But he said a conversation with an FBI agent who interrogated Saddam after he was captured has made him reconsider. Bush recalled their talk, "I said, what if we just say he has to come to surrender, would he have done it?

And this guy said, I'm absolutely convinced he would have. My experts tell me he wouldn't have."

Bush said, "We ended it the way we said we would" as a military success, but noted a cleaner ending "would have been perfect."

He added, "If we had tried to get Saddam Hussein to come and literally surrender and put his sword on the table, I think it might have been avoided some of the problems that we did have in the future from him."

On a day that President Barack Obama dispatched George Mitchell to the Middle East as the latest U.S. envoy, Clinton discussed the failure to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He said, "my No. 1 regret is that I was not able to persuade Yasser Arafat to accept the peace plan I offered at the end of my presidency that the Israelis accepted."

He said, "If he had done that ... we had had seven years of progress toward peace. We had one year in 1998, the only year in the history of Israel where not a single soul was killed in a terrorist act. The Palestinians had more control over West Bank then, than they do today. And if he had taken that deal, we would have a Palestinian state and we would have had I think now normal peaceful relations with Israel and all of its Arab neighbors."

Clinton said a deal would have helped the U.S. handle other issues in the region, saying, "We'd be much better positioned to deal with problem of Iran and we would have taken away about half the arguments of terrorists around the world by giving the Palestinians their state and creating a cooperative, positive interdependence in the Middle East, not a negative one. And so, I think that would have done more good to save more lives and help more people, and I wish I had been able to do that. "

Clinton also said he regretted not doing more to "stop the Rwandan genocide," and succeeding on a new health care plan.

He said "presidents should share freely … the mistakes they made" with historians, because it teaches lessons. He said he shared problems during the lunch with Obama and the four living presidents, saying, "You want each new president to make new mistakes, not the same ones."

Clinton added, "all of us know if you make enough decisions, you're going to make a few of them aren't right."

Filed under: Bill Clinton • George H.W. Bush
soundoff (179 Responses)
  1. BB

    Both wise men.

    Bet W never matures to the point where he can be honest with himself and the rest of the country.

    January 27, 2009 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  2. FreeNLovIt

    thank you for sharing the experience. I didnt think Saddam was that evil. He seemed reasonable to deal with. Yes, the DEVIL we do know.

    January 27, 2009 10:03 am at 10:03 am |
  3. Agnes Fleming

    It takes courage to admit one made mistakes and then to reflect upon them, but will be who follow have the same courage not to repeat them? Where we are now is because we failed to heed the lessons of history and have repeated its mistakes.

    January 27, 2009 10:04 am at 10:04 am |
  4. Capital Insider

    Wow I really enjoy reading both men's candidness about their mistakes. I think it takes real character to admit, even after the fact, the things they wished they had done differently. These will be good learning points for President Obama. I agree wholeheartedly with Clinton, it is better to make new mistakes than repeat the same ones over and over.

    January 27, 2009 10:05 am at 10:05 am |
  5. grahame

    REGRETS,I'VE HAD A FEW..BUT THEN AGAIN TOO FEW TO MENTION. I DID WHAT I HAD TO DO, I DID IT ALL WITH OUT EXEMPTION............ forgot the rest of it anyway, you get the idea. Clinton failed in the Middle East. Bush failed with his family. That's it.

    January 27, 2009 10:07 am at 10:07 am |
  6. Mark

    Please Bill, go away!

    January 27, 2009 10:09 am at 10:09 am |
  7. Jeff

    Bill, you are and always will be one of the best!!

    January 27, 2009 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  8. Helene

    Thank God they are history ...

    January 27, 2009 10:10 am at 10:10 am |
  9. Marty from Grand Rapids, Mi

    George, I think your son proved you made the right decision. The reality is no one was prepared for long term occupation and government development.

    January 27, 2009 10:12 am at 10:12 am |
  10. NY Dem

    Yeah, Bill is right. He shoulda done much more to end the Rwandan genocide.

    January 27, 2009 10:18 am at 10:18 am |
  11. David

    I guess Bill doesn’t regret the Monica situation. If not for that, he would have had more credibility at home and abroad. Arafat might have listened then.

    January 27, 2009 10:18 am at 10:18 am |
  12. Stained Blue Dress.

    Had Clinton not chosen to screw around with Lewinsky, the world would not be in the shambles it is in today. The ensuing witch hunt by the kook Republicans stole the election from Gore and allowed W, the worst, most criminal and corrupt President in the history of America to take office.

    Clinton owns allot of the guilt in this matter and all for a not so beautiful skank of an intern. PATHETIC.

    January 27, 2009 10:21 am at 10:21 am |
  13. facts are facts

    It wouldn't have mattered what Bush 1 did as Bush 2 and his entire administration were going to war with someone for the money and ideology. Google PNAC and get the truth.

    January 27, 2009 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
  14. Babs

    Okay.. would have, should have, could have... every one makes mistakes, however at their level they are magnified. It appears everyone is blaming Geo W. Bush for our economic troubles, it's not ONLY his fault, congress wasn't doing their job, watching the banks etc, and Obama was part of that congress. Congress and the Presidency should only have a 6 year term period, because as soon as they get in office they are planning their re-election plans. Obama was for change well lets start with terms, this way we won't have someone in congress who is not in touch with reality, and their are soooomany of them

    January 27, 2009 10:23 am at 10:23 am |
  15. John Farah

    Bush must be high on something....It was a military success? 4,000 troops and a country in a mess is military success....what would failure have looked like?

    Thank God for our new president.

    January 27, 2009 10:24 am at 10:24 am |
  16. walter

    I love it that these two travel the globe to spread good will!

    January 27, 2009 10:25 am at 10:25 am |
  17. Nick, Minneapolis, MN

    Nice to see these guys admitting that they're human. Hopefully we can see W do the same thing in a few years – but he'll need a full week workshop just to get through his biggest errors.

    January 27, 2009 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  18. PC from DC

    Hey Bill, Monica Lewinsky should top your list!

    January 27, 2009 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  19. The One

    You mean not all of Obama's decisions will be right?

    Even the best Presidents make mistakes. Hindsight is 20-20; foresight not so clear, despite what some would like to believe.

    January 27, 2009 10:26 am at 10:26 am |
  20. Bob in Pa

    Apparently, Bill has no regrets ??

    January 27, 2009 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  21. Stacy from Leesburg VA

    I am a Democrat, but I have to admit respect for George H.W. Bush. His handling of the Persian Gulf War was commendable. He did things the right way–built a coalition, offered the olive branch (leave or be forced out), and when Iraq did not comply, he smartly used Military might. He did not exceed the mandate of the UN and complied with international law. Too bad the brains did not run in Bush family.

    January 27, 2009 10:27 am at 10:27 am |
  22. Dave

    I love how Clinton's biggest regret is what somebody else didn't/wouldn't do. The biggest thing I'd change if I could go back is the mistakes of others.

    Interesting that Clinton does not regret some notorious oval office activities.

    January 27, 2009 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  23. Greg Bayol

    Clinton's biggest mistake was not getting the constitution changed so that he could serve eight more years saving us from the worst, most damaging administration in the history of our country – and many other countries.

    January 27, 2009 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  24. Greg

    Gee you would have thought the adultery, the perjury, the 8 years of ignored terrorism and the refusal to take Bin Laden when he was offered by the sudanese would be on there too...

    January 27, 2009 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  25. Mark Leonard

    so where's Bill's regrets?

    January 27, 2009 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
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