January 27th, 2009
09:40 AM ET
8 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. Grammi

    Clinton disgraced the Oval Office
    Clinton was impeached
    Billary is no better and she only "stood by her man" because she wanted the White House and a divorced woman of an ex-president would find it impossible to win.
    The Clintons are self-serving and Chelsea is being molded likewise.
    Chelsea became fair game when Billary had her out stumping.
    I dislike Billary so much, but I want her to succeed as SOS because it is the best for this country that I love so much. I am happy that Obama can keep her under his thumb and get rid of her if she "comes under fire in Bosnia."

    January 27, 2009 02:46 pm at 2:46 pm |
  2. Craig

    RJ – Clinton had Bin Ladin on his radar before the public and other members of the senate and congress even knew the guy was a viable threat to our country. You point blame at clinton for things that occurred on GW's watch and also point at a pie-in-the-sky collapse with the dot com, but compare that to the great depression GW led us to now or the economic downturn during GW I reign.

    January 27, 2009 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  3. Jeanne H.

    At the time, if Bush Sr. has pushed ahead and removed Saddam Hussein, he would have had the same problem on his hands as his son stupid Bush Jr. got: Al Queda was absolutely ready to jump in to fill the vacuum and be involved in Iraq (in fact, Al Queda suggested to the Saudis to let them remove Saddam at the time – an offer that the Saudis rejected in favor of help from the U.S.).
    As most fathers do, Bush Sr. is trying to lessen his son's failures in the eyes of the world... Nice try...

    January 27, 2009 02:48 pm at 2:48 pm |
  4. d

    Clinton's biggest failure? Monica of course..... it cost the entire country 8 years of incompetence by allowing Bush to win... sort of....

    Clinton's biggest mistake? China MFN.... I said it then and I'll say it now.... MFN was a terrible mistake. It feeds into every economic problem we've had since. Even the Sub-prime mortgage crisis and the bank failures woul NOT have occurred (at least not so quickly) if we weren't selling our futures to China on the cheap..... What China doesn't "own" in toxic financial instruments, they drove the cost up on by being flooded with American Dollars.....

    January 27, 2009 03:21 pm at 3:21 pm |
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