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. AA Michael

    Baloney. George the First biggest regret should be George the Second. Clinton's has to be Lewinski.

    January 27, 2009 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  2. Don

    It is very refreshing to see these two men, who had a heated campaign against one another, share a stage and forge a friendship over the years. They both understand that they are still, and will always remain, important figures in our country and the world.

    It is about time that ALL of Washington learn from these two great Americans and the example they are setting.

    Unfortunately, too many Americans insist on focusing on differences and previous bias...we should be listening to these men, not the Rush Limbaugh's of the world!

    January 27, 2009 10:33 am at 10:33 am |
  3. RufusVonDufus

    Yea, I'm sure Clinton was also sorry that he wasn't able to get it all in her mouth, too. That way the dress would have been pristine.

    January 27, 2009 10:34 am at 10:34 am |
  4. The Independent

    Perhaps I lauded George H.W. Bush too much for his decision not to unseat Saddam during Desert Storm when the popular sentiment (which I shared at the time) was to do exactly that. Given the absolute fiasco that is the current war in Iraq, reflecting on Desert Storm I believed Bush's decision had been prescient and that he avoided removing Saddam from power in order to avoid all of the messes with which we are now contending which resulted from the power vaccuum created by Saddam's demise.

    Ironically, it now appears that decision, as some of the current ones, was made in part due to bad intelligence reports. I think that if you really think about it, Bush stating that we might've avoided some of the problems we're facing today if he had removed Saddam from power then is really a condemnation of how the current war was handled. Given the in-fighting/civil war among the different factions within Iraq, one would think that a similar situation to now easily could have arisen with a power vacuum being created back then. However, there are several distinctions between the circumstances of Desert Storm vs. the current war that might have lead to a different result. For one, we had an actual REASON to be there after Saddam invaded Kuwait. This fact enabled the U.S. to build a genuine, strong coalition of partners to aid the war effort (and could have aided the peacekeeping effort) as well as it would have given legitimacy to the U.S. as peacekeepers after the war ended instead of being viewed as occupiers. We also had a lot of ground troops in Desert Storm which might have been able to protect Iraq's infrastructure from being destroyed the way it was by looters immediately after the end of the current war. Perhaps the most important distinction is that Bush Sr's. administration would have handled the entire matter more competently than his son's.

    January 27, 2009 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  5. patNY

    White stained blue dresses and cigar jokes from Clinton bashers in 3...2...1...

    George HW Bush – your reall biggest regret was not insisting Barbara get her tubes tied after having Jeb!

    January 27, 2009 10:35 am at 10:35 am |
  6. TJ in Austin

    CNN...shame on you. Your one-liner headlines on your front page are misleading and often put spin or have little to do with the longer story.

    January 27, 2009 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  7. osakwe Chinedu

    Thanks President Clinton. You really did a lot in the middle East peace process while your in office and the World appreciates.

    January 27, 2009 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  8. Michael "C" Lorton, Virginia

    Presidents have to make tough decisions, however, when the opportunity knocks and you have the opportunity to go for the jugular; you go for it; because the second time around is the most difficult. It proves that although they are Presidents---they are only human-and we all have regrets.

    January 27, 2009 10:42 am at 10:42 am |
  9. Lynn in NM

    OK, Bill. How about not defending the US when the USS Cole was attacked, or the World Trade Towers? How about coddling the terrorists? Was that not a mistake? Oh, I'm sorry. I forgot you and Hillary speak French.

    January 27, 2009 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  10. gem

    I think Bubba Clinton has a very short memory! What about the oral olympic's in the yellow oval office????

    January 27, 2009 10:45 am at 10:45 am |
  11. Jane

    Bill must feel left out now that we have a black president and his wife is sec of state. He must be looking for another 15 minutes of fame.

    January 27, 2009 10:46 am at 10:46 am |
  12. gem

    I think Bubba Clinton has a very short memory! Has he forgot about the oral dialogue in the side room of the oval office with the 22 yr old intern. I guess he doesn't consider that a mistake........

    January 27, 2009 10:47 am at 10:47 am |
  13. JL

    LOL; woulda-coulda-shoulda................................blah, blah, blah. How about what you did correct while in office?

    January 27, 2009 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  14. Greg Elgin

    It's amazing that his biggest regret isn't the shame he brought to the office for having an affair and lying about it to the American People.... but I guess being a cheat is something he has become accustomed to for many may years

    January 27, 2009 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  15. Art Michaelson

    Will we ever know WHAT WENT WRONG WITH THE SON?

    January 27, 2009 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  16. Steve from Florida

    I would like to hard what W considers his biggest mistakeS!

    January 27, 2009 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  17. Bubba

    Yeah, I've often wished I'd done everything completely different ten years after I did it. We've ALL wished that. Even presidents wish Plan A had worked instead of Plan B. So what?

    January 27, 2009 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  18. Montclarion

    What is this obsession with Saddam that the Bush family seems to have hard-wired into them? He was a nobody who happened to control or threaten a lot of oil. I have to believe that if we had not spent billions (and we're not done paying), Israel would have taken care of any political/military aspirations that Saddam might have had. Either that, or the arab states could have actually defended states like Kuwait, instead of relying on The Great Satan to do that for them.

    January 27, 2009 10:58 am at 10:58 am |
  19. Thomas Koshy

    History repeats repeats itself.People do make mistakes and people in power will make mistakes,but as president Clinton said President Obama should try hard not to repeat the same mistakes.Looks like the Middle East was not ready for peace then.Hopefully they are now.Good luck President Obama,Secretary of State Clinton and Sen.Mitchell

    January 27, 2009 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  20. Jean, Indiana

    How is Bush 41 privy to information from FBI agents who interrogated Saddam?

    January 27, 2009 11:00 am at 11:00 am |
  21. Bob

    The main sentence of your whole story contradicts itself!
    And this guy said, I'm absolutely convinced he would have. My experts tell me he wouldn't have."

    So whats the point?

    January 27, 2009 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  22. Josie, Phila, Pa

    I agree with the ex-presidents on the recollections of their mistakes. Bill is right that the current president should learn from his precedessors to avoid repeating their mistakes. Bush 43 has given Pres. 44 a laundry list to learn from!

    January 27, 2009 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  23. Robert Matheny

    As this country's first black president, I think John McCain has what it takes to negotiate peace between the the Israelis and the Pakistanians.

    January 27, 2009 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  24. RealityKing

    Of course we all know Bill's regrets. No, it's not Monica..

    January 27, 2009 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  25. southern_belle

    Idiot 41 doesn't need to ponder over things that Idiot 43 eventually took care of for him.

    January 27, 2009 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
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