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. Terry in NY

    That's my man no regrets for a BJ in the oval office! Some things never change. America's current white Bi-racial President should learn from these 2 morons.

    January 27, 2009 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  2. lola Planner, Houston, Texas

    He has to answer being a cheat with his god and his wife. W. disgraced the office far more than Clinton's indiscretions!

    January 27, 2009 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  3. SoCalGal

    Billary prostitutes the White House and brings the Oval Office down to scum level...& no regrets! Hope those who voted for him feel proud! Guess we'll get another taste of that with Hil.

    January 27, 2009 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  4. Robert Matheny

    But if Bush 43 hadn't encased Al Gore in carbonite, he wouldn't have been able to fight terrorists with his newly built Deathstar.

    January 27, 2009 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  5. Sye the Pychic

    Bills big mistake was NAFTA,selling out to the chinese and giving our jobs to India.it cost his wife the election as far as I was concerned.

    January 27, 2009 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  6. Dan

    "RealityKing January 27th, 2009 11:07 am ET

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

    Nobody, but NOBODY spent more while in Office than W and the GOP run congress. Nice try, but you guys spent us into this mess.

    January 27, 2009 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  7. jeff

    Wasn't Bill Clinton the one that forced Israel to release prisoners during the Oslo accords and one of those prisoners was one of the 19 hijackers during 9/11 most americans forget hamas has american blood on there hands such as the bombing at the jerusalem college and the murder of 3 US diplomats in gaza

    January 27, 2009 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  8. Michael Washington

    C'mon we all now that if Bill never met with Monica, George W. Bush would have never been born, thereby creating an alternate universe where James Hetfield is manager of a Taco Bell.

    January 27, 2009 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  9. James, Ho. TX

    The truth is that Geo.H. Bush was facing "Impeachment" proceedings ! Therefore Saddam gets to live another day !

    January 27, 2009 11:59 am at 11:59 am |
  10. csmith

    every president has and will make mistakes. obama will have a laundry list just like the rest. we have to remember to not judge others so quickly when we have not seen what the current is capable of.

    January 27, 2009 12:00 pm at 12:00 pm |
  11. Proud American

    I think Bush 41 biggest regret in getting Barbara pregent with Georgie.

    January 27, 2009 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  12. Outspoken

    The regrets they left off their lists:

    Clinton: Marrying Hillary
    Bush: NOT abandoning George W. as an infant

    January 27, 2009 12:02 pm at 12:02 pm |
  13. Proud American

    I think Bush 41 biggest regret in getting Barbara pregent with Georgie. It sure would be mine.

    January 27, 2009 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  14. Speider

    "Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it."
    – Winston Churchill

    January 27, 2009 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  15. Sandford K

    Bill Clinton talk about the "you can make same mistake, but not
    repeat the same old mistakes", Yeah, right!!!

    How many Monica mistake he repeated.

    Is he talking about his regret? or his achievement? When Bill talk
    remember, there is always spin. 1998 is the best year in middle east.
    that is under his watch. that is what he want to say.

    But in all fair ness, all and all, he did some nice work. 41 laid
    ground for the 90s discovery. American Engineers deserved the
    most credits.

    January 27, 2009 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  16. Stephanie

    Gee, Greg. You think that Bill Clinton's regret of not saving thousands of lives in Rwanda should be less important than his regret about cheating on his wife just like millions of other people in this country have done?

    What did the people of Rwanda ever do to you?

    January 27, 2009 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  17. RR

    So Bill has no regrets about the NASDAQ bubble of the Enron or Worldcom scandals that broke during his admin?

    January 27, 2009 12:03 pm at 12:03 pm |
  18. KJ

    To southern_belle,

    Calling #41 an idiot only shows that you don't know much about the 1st Gulf War and what 41 did. You need to brush up on your history and perhaps you'll realize that 41 was smart on he handled the war and more importantly, what he did with our Servicemen and Servicewomen.

    It's folks like you who really need to brush up on their Presidential History before posting blogs....educate yourself...it's all free on the web.

    You cannot blame 41 or call him an idiot because of what his son, 43 did with the war in Iraq. Also, don't you people have any respect anymore when it comes to the highest office in the land?

    January 27, 2009 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  19. lisa

    That I didn't have s_x with that woman.
    Couldn't resist!

    January 27, 2009 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  20. Kathleen

    Hey Greg,

    There is nothing I could care less about than Bill Clinton's personal life. I never asked him if he had an affair, because I do NOT CARE BECAUSE IT DOESN'T HAVE ANYTHING TO DO WITH THE AMERICAN PEOPLE. It only wasted our money and time because political agendas were pushed forward to prosecute him for that by people who CALL themselves conservatives. Real conservatives like myself would never waste our money chasing some hounddog to find out what we already know....he's a hounddog.

    His biggest regret should have something to do with the presidency, and NOTHING to do with his pants.

    Now let's get back to policy...

    January 27, 2009 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  21. Beth

    ADULTERY has everything to do with your wife and nothing to do with your country. I didn't understand all the attention it got then and I don't understand it now. Judge Bill on what he did for the country, not what he did to his family.

    January 27, 2009 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  22. Humored In Texas

    I know something Bush should have "pulled-out" of, but I can't express it on these boards!

    If he had, there's no last 8 years, get it?!

    January 27, 2009 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  23. Michael King

    What damage did the Monica scandal bring to the country? Did it cause the collapse of the housing and credit market? Did it create the largest crisis since 1929? Did it kill thousands of innocent americans?

    All those who still speak of Mocia Lewinsky are nothing but a bunch of illiterate individuals who cannot see further than their nose.

    January 27, 2009 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  24. Humored In Texas

    One thing you'll never hear a GOP president admit to – we should stop nation building because we (GOP) handle it wrong!

    January 27, 2009 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  25. Brandon

    Why are all of you so persistent on making Clinton's biggest failure out to be a simple BJ? Seriously, why that's reflective of someone's legacy, I don't know. That's a personal matter, the press never should have gotten involved to begin with. President Clinton had a successful eight years in office, BJ and all.

    January 27, 2009 12:10 pm at 12:10 pm |
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