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. obama-mama

    Shoulda woulda coulda....please

    January 27, 2009 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  2. RealityKing

    As we are about to find out from Obama and his drunken band of liberal spenders..., hindsight is 20/20.

    January 27, 2009 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  3. Tyler

    Jean, Ex-presidents still get CIA T.S access for life if they so chose after there presidency.

    January 27, 2009 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  4. Deann

    What about Somolia Bill?

    January 27, 2009 11:11 am at 11:11 am |
  5. Scott

    Wow didn't take long for the bloggers to bring up GW. Move on people.

    January 27, 2009 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  6. Paul

    @ Bob

    Read it this way: "And this guy said, 'I'm absolutely convinced he would have.' [But] my experts [at the time] tell me he wouldn't have."

    January 27, 2009 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  7. Jonathan

    To Jean in Indiana, I believe I heard it mentioned in 'Farenheit 9/11' that all Presidents have access to secret service information if they wish. I believe the logic is that it lends to the same subject of former Presidents being able to provide informed advisements to their sucessors.

    January 27, 2009 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  8. cnnnewser

    So, Bush Jr. tried to finish the job and look at the mess we're in.
    Bush Jr. is a cowboy – and is proof positive that joe-six packs do not belong in the white house.

    January 27, 2009 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  9. Jason

    Now if only Bush 43 could honestly reflect on his regrets, instead of blaming others or saying "time will tell."

    January 27, 2009 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  10. Phillip

    I would think Clinton's biggest regret would be hooking up with an intern in the oval office and being impeached in front of the entire country. He lied to the country and made it impossible for kids to look up to the president. Hopefully Obama won't repeat that mistake.

    January 27, 2009 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  11. Dee

    @Montclarion: Saddam "was a nobody who happened to control or threaten a lot of oil"???
    Try reading some history, friend.

    January 27, 2009 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  12. Ginny

    I bet Bush regrets having a son.

    January 27, 2009 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  13. Mazias

    "It depends on what the meaning of what the word 'is' is."

    Enough said...

    January 27, 2009 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  14. patrick

    Its funny to see people talk about regets it the past it time to look forward not backward and I just wish obama the best of luck

    January 27, 2009 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  15. Andy

    Clinton's major regret should be: disgracing the office of the presidency, further exacerbating a time-wasting cultural war. His ego and sexual needs should not have outstripped his respect for this country and its citizens.

    Bush's major regret should be: not discouraging his imbecile son from (over)reaching for the presidency. Bush Sr.'s own knowledge of the job's rigors should have trumped his parental pride. Now, we all have to dig out from eight years of arrogant, dangerous Bush Jr. blunders.

    January 27, 2009 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  16. Bwood

    Apparently no regrets from Bush 41 over the S&L scandal. Unbelievable!

    January 27, 2009 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  17. Michael Washington

    I agree with Robert, if Israel doesn't return Palestine's lawnmower, they may never be able borrow their new power drill to finish the garage door.

    January 27, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  18. Henry Miller, Cary, NC

    Bush 41's greatest regret ought to be Bush 43.

    January 27, 2009 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  19. David Greenville, tx

    Funny that Bush 43's only mistake- according to him- was landing his plane in the wrong place after Katrina. Other than that, it was a flawless presidency.

    January 27, 2009 11:23 am at 11:23 am |
  20. Doug B

    Arafat never intended to accept any peace plan. The "plan" is to remove Isreal, not coexist with it. What part of that is not perfectly clear by now?

    January 27, 2009 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  21. Nick

    Clinton's regret #1 – I should have captured/killed Bin Ladan. Regret #2 – I should have followed up the missle strike in Kost with a secret incursion of special forces troops to kill/capture Bin Laden and his men. Regret #3 – I should have had an affair with a woman who knows how to keep her mouth shut. Regret #4 – I shouldn't have angered Al-Queda and then done no follow up at all, I called them the buzzing of flies, I should have invaded Afganistan in 1996 and wiped them out.

    January 27, 2009 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  22. jonnyknow

    You would think that Bill Clinton would list "lying under oath" as one of his regrets......but I guess that just shows what kind of guy he is.

    January 27, 2009 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  23. JW

    If 41 had blown through Iraq like crap through a goose (as Patton said) , maybe we'd not have been there today.

    January 27, 2009 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  24. sean Atlanta

    hello everybody! Bill was a good president and i think everyone knows about that!

    January 27, 2009 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  25. Greg

    Bill Clinton should express regret for lying to us and getting himself tangled up in an impeachment hearing. For an intelligent guy, that was hubris personified.

    January 27, 2009 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
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