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. Stevem7

    What a delight it is to watch you people bash the former presidents. Not a stinking one of you takes responsibility for electing them. Much like the 47 million people who were in Yankee Stadium the day Roger Maris hit #61, all 250 million of you never voted in any election. People, get over yourselves. WE THE PEOPLE elect these Presidents so if they are failures then WE THE PEOPLE are responsible. And for those who say I didn't vote you have no say, for those who say I didn't vote for so and so you need to understand that no matter what political party is in power they are the political party that represents ALL the people.

    January 27, 2009 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  2. James

    Bush 43 is too dumb to know his regrets, so we will have to inform him of them for the rest of his life. Hope he enjoys a terrible retirement, divorce, isolation, bankruptcy, lawsuits, indictments, arrests, and prison to cap it all off, and he still won't suffer nearly as badly as the rest the world has. But at least it will take the stupid smirk off his face.

    January 27, 2009 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  3. Ambrose Smith, Borrego Springs, California

    Bush 43 never bothered to read his daddy's book, epecially the part where it would be a quagmire if we went into Iraq. We would be considered occupiers.

    January 27, 2009 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  4. theo

    Steve from FL,

    I am guessing it would be not enough was done for education. That obviously had an effect on your ability to spell.

    January 27, 2009 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  5. Steve

    Greg Elgin: "t'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…. "

    And you honestly think that's more important than peace in the Middle East? That, to me, is what's amazing.

    January 27, 2009 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  6. Robin

    Not only does an ex-president get CIA T.S access, but George Bush Sr. is a former head of the CIA.

    January 27, 2009 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  7. Tate

    the 3000 people killed on 9/11 probably can point to clintons biggest mistake, instead of messing around with a HS student he should have killed or captured Bin Laden when he had the chance. However we know how dangerous hot potatoes can be!

    January 27, 2009 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  8. tess

    clinton's biggest regret was that he didn't get to have a catastrophy during his watch so he could prance around wiping tears from his eyes and twitching his bottom lip! but only when the cameras were on! he is the biggest fake ever to sit in the oval office and hopefully the last of his kind to fool the people!!!!

    January 27, 2009 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  9. jeff

    Can not wait to hear Obama's regrets after he ruins the country.

    January 27, 2009 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  10. J.C, GA.

    The obsession with Saddam is that he killed millions of his own people. So many people elect not to remember that. All of these people want to say it's all about oil. I think that a bunch of garbage. Everyone wants to sing the praises of "King Clinton" which in my opinion left a mess for 43 ie. Osama Bin Laden. Clinton had a chance to take him out and said no thanks! Just think, if he had taken out Osama 9/11 may not have ever happened!

    January 27, 2009 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  11. Antonio from KY

    Sorry Bill, but you should regret what you did in Bosnia and then in Dayton, OH. You are a tool for the elite.

    January 27, 2009 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  12. Monika

    What about sub-prime mortgage fiasco??? Isn't it your regret president Clinton??? Who in a right mind puts attorney in charge of a bank?

    How long would it take for his 400K/year salary to pay off all the losses that he caused?????? I request that he donates his salary to the charity fund that starts paying off all sub-prime mortgages for all people that got conned by mortgage sharks.

    January 27, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  13. lr

    Those countries in Middle East and Africa and Asia – who practice the crazy/insane hate relationships they have there are almost not possible to solve. It is the people who got the power they should not have. It is the narrow minded people who are not able to live in peace and tolerate accept the different views while letting the others live....
    How can we teach fast the ethics, the morals, the tolerance, the value of life when their hate goes through centuries...?

    January 27, 2009 11:38 am at 11:38 am |
  14. Susan

    I would think that Clinton's affairs and the arrogant way that he carried on his affairs, demeaning the office of the President, would be a regret......

    January 27, 2009 11:39 am at 11:39 am |
  15. Jerry

    I have to agree with montclarion, what the heck is the Bush's obsession with Saddam? If I knew better, I'd say Saddam had something on them that they wanted him to take to the grave. With all of their dealings with Saddam during the Iran hostage crisis and the following years of AWACS support in the region, and the atrocities they claim he did while we supplied him weapons to fight Iran, kinda makes you wonder. It'll teach anyone to be America's ally in the future. Who knows when the americans will turn on him.

    January 27, 2009 11:40 am at 11:40 am |
  16. AJ

    How does Hillary rank in Bill's biggest mistakes???

    January 27, 2009 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  17. Seriously

    Jean, Indiana, all former Presidents hold a security clearance even after leaving the Oval office. Most of the time, former Presidents are used as last minute advisors on decisions only a President would ever have to consider.

    Former Presidents have a ton of perks and work to do even afterward, so it sucks for them to see the intel and know what they could have done to change things... To know and be powerless about it sucks...

    January 27, 2009 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  18. John in AZ

    I can't believe people are bringing up Lewinsky. The question was about the biggest regrets in their presidencies, not their personal lives. I never cared what Bill Clinton did personally, that's between himself and his family, he was a great president in spite of it. And the supposed shame he brought to Americans was merely how moralizers perceived him, he never shamed me. As Oscar Wilde said: "Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

    January 27, 2009 11:41 am at 11:41 am |
  19. Charles in MN

    So are we to gather from this story that Clinton doesn't regret the Monica Lewinsky affair? Or any of the others?

    January 27, 2009 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  20. xcusme

    Bigger regret for 41 is having 43.

    January 27, 2009 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  21. Dennis from NJ

    Clinton doesnt regret failing to get Bin Laden? Imagine if he had done that. The world would be a very different place. The world would probably not hate W if 42 had taken care of him. Unfortunately, Clinton was afraid to finish that job.

    January 27, 2009 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  22. AB

    Not surprisingly, Clinton did not mention his decisions that significantly contributed if not drove us into the subprime crisis (the Community Reinvestment Act, etc.).

    January 27, 2009 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  23. MikeMaz

    Every single President of course has regrets. Thats human nature and we can all look back and think of ways we should have done things differently. Although I have to say to the guy in here who brought up Clintons affair...really you should get over that already. That is something that is between him and his wife. If anything it was the conservatives ridiculous obsession with his sex life that was more regrettable. Yes it was an ugly period for him, but seriously what person would admit to an affair? It didnt hurt the country that he did it.. what hurt the country was the republicans making it a bigger issue than it was

    January 27, 2009 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  24. Unbelievable

    Wow. The hate mongering wedgie republicans, after eight years of their golden boy peeing on the constitution, allowing the first foreign terrorist attack on US soil, embroiling us in nonsensical foreign conflicts costing thousands of US lives, ruining decades of environmental legislation at the dubious behest of big business, kowtowing again to big business and allowing the worst failure of our economy since the great depression, and you guys still try to hang Clinton with Monica? Are you kidding me?

    I know Bush seniors's greatest regret – Bush junior.

    January 27, 2009 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  25. Sharon Kitchen

    If you want to know what went wrong with 43 check out his g.father,
    Prescott Bush......this will explain alot about the bushys.

    Now-–Obama gets to clean up 43's mess,along with all the other dire needs oc 2009.

    Yes.........he can.

    January 27, 2009 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
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