- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 30, 2009

TORONTO | Former President George W. Bush, appearing Friday with his predecessor, Bill Clinton, in what turned out to be a collegial conversation rather than a spirited debate, once again said he would not criticize President Obama — then proceeded to do just that.

“International pressure — diplomacy only works if there’s leverage,” Mr. Bush said. “It sounds wonderful — ‘Let’s go talk to people’ — but you better have leverage in order to make diplomacy work.”

During his presidential campaign, Mr. Obama vowed to open dialogues with rulers of rogue nations, such as Iran and Cuba. After taking office, he lifted restrictions on visits to Cuba — a significant shift in U.S. policy. He also spoke amiably with Venezualan President Hugo Chavez, a vocal critic of the United States.

Asked whether he agreed with opening a dialogue with Cuba, Mr. Bush smiled and said to laughter, “Thank you for bringing up President Obama.”

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“Holding that embargo in place is important,” he said. By easing it, “you’re propping up a regime who puts people in prison based upon their political views. So my view is, if they empty out the prisons and give people a voice, then we change our strategy with Cuba — but not until then.”

But Mr. Bush sought to label his criticism as constructive. “Anything I say is not to be critical of my successor. I didn’t like it when my predecessors criticized me. He never did, by the way,” Mr. Bush said, nodding toward Mr. Clinton.

“He was respectful. Can’t say that for every one of them. And I didn’t appreciate it, and I’m not going to do the same thing to” Mr. Obama. “There’s plenty of critics in American society. I think you heard a few,” he said again to Mr. Clinton before adding with a laugh: “I know I did.”

With North Korea having tested a nuclear weapon and Iran seemingly moving toward acquisition of the world’s most dangerous weapon, Mr. Bush also said that the United Nations is “not really meant for problem solving.”

For his part, Mr. Clinton said that on Cuba policy, he agrees with Mr. Obama’s secretary of state — who happens to be his wife, former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. “He hit it out of the park with that one, an amazingly wise appointment,” Mr. Clinton said to laughter.

“I actually supported what President Obama did,” he said, noting that he also agrees with the current president’s plan to engage rogue dictators.

“We deal with a lot of countries that we don’t agree with on everything. I think it would be a terrible mistake, for example, if we were to say walk away from China — they still put people in jail for their political views. I don’t agree with that.

“On the other hand, Cuba’s our neighbor, they’re here, they ought to be part of this hemisphere, they ought to be part of our future. They have done a lot of good things,” Mr. Clinton said.

The two former presidents, who led the United States for the past 16 years, met Friday at the Toronto Convention Center for an event dubbed a “conversation.” Both looked rested and tan, and both had the crowd in stitches in their opening statements.

“Welcome to the Bill and George Show,” Mr. Bush said, drawing more laughs in his opening than his predecessor.

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