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.

“Clinton and I used to believe in free speech,” Mr. Bush said to roars of laughter from a crowd of 6,000, all of whom paid hundreds of dollars to attend the event. “So thanks for coming!”

No one will say how much each will take home, but estimates run as high as $150,000 apiece for the two-hour appearance. The estimates may be far too low — 200 people in the front rows paid $2,500 each, a total of $500,000, for the privilege of having photos taken with the 42nd and 43rd presidents of the United States.

Although he said “it’s hard to go from 100 miles per hour to zero,” Mr. Bush, dressed in a blue suit with a blue tie and the ever-present flag pin on his lapel, said, “I do not miss the spotlight.”

But he did say his life has changed — dramatically. After leaving the White House, “I’m sitting in Crawford, Texas, I have my feet up on the couch, and I said, ‘Free at last.’”

His wife, Laura, he said, responded: “‘Free to do the dishes, free to mow the lawn.’ I said, ‘Baby, you’re talking to the former president of the United States,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, just consider it your new domestic policy agenda.’”

The couple moved to an exclusive enclave in Dallas, and Mr. Bush, former two-term governor of Texas, said he hadn’t walked in a neighborhood for 14 years. Walking his dog, Barney, he said, “the little fella’ sees this unbelievably manicured yard and there I was, former president, with a plastic bag on my hand, picking up that which I had dodged for eight solid years.”

Mr. Clinton, in a light-brown suit with a bright orange tie, said, “There is no job description for a former president.

“I’m amazed President Bush is here,” he said. “It takes a while, actually, to figure out you’re not president anymore.”

He said “nobody plays a song when you walk into a room now,” noting that “Hail to the Chief” once rang out on his every entrance. “It’s totally disorienting; I was lost for three months.”

There are, he said, pluses and minuses of leaving the presidency.

“The great thing about not being president anymore is I can say whatever I want, about anything,” he said, but he noted that now, “of course, nobody really cares what I say.”

“And now I have the worst of all worlds — my wife has become the secretary of state, so no one really cares what I say — unless I mess up,” he said to laughter.

The two former presidents later sat in large, green leather chairs to answer friendly questions from a moderator, former Canadian ambassador to the United States Frank McKenna. They mused over just a few hand-picked questions on Cuba, Afghanistan, Iraq, AIDS, Rwanda, Darfur, same-sex marriage and the new passport requirements at the U.S.-Canadian border — to which both professed little knowledge.

Mr. Bush, a Republican, and Mr. Clinton, a Democrat, differed most on Iraq.

“We should’ve concentrated on Afghanistan,” Mr. Clinton said, who noted he had supported a resolution in Congress to employ force.

In perhaps the most vehement disagreement of the afternoon, Mr. Bush said, “I don’t buy the premise that our attention was diverted.

“I think it’s false — in fact, I know it’s false, I was there. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein made the world a more peaceful place,” he said to hearty applause from the audience of Canadians, who have been steadfast U.S. allies in the Iraq war.

Mr. Clinton expressed remorse for not doing more as president to prevent the 1994 tragedy in Rwanda, when some 800,000 people were killed in a 100-day period. “I have no defense. We did not even have a meeting on it in the White House,” he said, calling it “one of the greatest regrets of my presidency.”

Asked about genocide in Darfur, where an estimated 400,000 people have been killed, Mr. Bush said, “The first option is, let’s go get ‘em.”

But there was a consensus in the White House, he said, that the United States not act unilaterally, that it would be “another invasion of another Muslim country.” Privately, he has expressed frustration that foreign leaders, including in the United Nations, failed to step up.

“The U.N. is a vital institution, but it is not really meant for problem solving,” Mr. Bush said to laughter and applause. He also defended Mr. Clinton on Rwanda, saying, “I think you’re being a little tough on yourself. You can’t just pick up the phone and say, ‘20,000 troops.’ ”

On the issue of same-sex marriage, Mr. Bush said he doesn’t agree with the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act. But Mr. Clinton said his view on the issue is evolving, although he deferred to the states, saying, “I was hoping we’d stay away from national amendments.”

Mr. Clinton praised his successor for his efforts on AIDS in Africa and also for what he said was “the most racially and ethnically diverse Cabinet of anyone in history.”

But by then, after the last question of the day, people in the audience were streaming out the doors. Kyle Ratham of Toronto said he had hoped for more. “I thought they were going to debate, not agree on everything. I’m disappointed.”

Outside, several hundred protesters behind barricades across the street grouped the two presidents together. “Bush and Clinton: War Criminals Not Welcome in Toronto,” said one large banner. The crowd chanted. “Arrest George Bush,” while some protesters held signs that said, “Clinton’s Sanctions Killed 1,000,000 Iraqis.”

To people pouring out of the convention center, one protester yelled: “You’re on the wrong side of the street!”

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