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President Clinton on Foreign Affairs, Politics of Health Care and Gun Control

September 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
As the Clinton Global Initiative kicks off its annual meeting, former President Bill Clinton joins Judy Woodruff to discuss the mall attack in Nairobi, prospects for a Syrian deal, politics of health care reform and gun control, plus the potential for a presidential bid by his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to our newsmaker interview with former President Bill Clinton, who kicked off his annual meeting today of the Clinton Global Initiative today.

I sat down with him at the site of the gathering in Midtown New York.

President Bill Clinton, thank you for talking with us.

BILL CLINTON, former President of the United States: Glad to do it, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re here, of course, at the Clinton Global Initiative, and we will talk about that, but first some questions on the news of the day, the terrible, horrific attack in Kenya on a mall, a group of terrorists. Scores are dead, over a hundred wounded.

What does this say about the threat of these groups that say they’re inspired by al-Qaida?

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BILL CLINTON: Well, Al-Shabab has been doing a lot of damage in that part of the world for a long time.

And they attempted to take over Somalia. And they were mad at the Kenyan government for sending soldiers across the border into Somalia to try to keep them from causing trouble in Kenya. So they clearly had been looking for an opportunity to exact retribution.

And it’s a terrible thing, and all of those innocent people. We lost one of our foundation’s people there, one of our health access workers who was a wonderful Dutch nurse who was in Nairobi because she was about to have a baby. And she and the baby’s father were just strolling through the mall. It’s tragic.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this the kind of thing, though, that we just have to expect is going to happen?

BILL CLINTON: Well, yes and no.

That is, I know that, since President Obama has been there and when President Bush was there, when I was in office, we prevented a lot of these. But it’s not like baseball. You don’t get credit for saves. You have got to try to keep it from ever happening.

But these things happen. We had a — even more people killed, you remember, 15 years ago in the embassy bombings, where the car bombs exploded outside the embassies in Kenya and in Tanzania. And we just have to keep working on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Syria, another very troubled part of the world, right now, though, there’s this active initiative under way to get the Syrians to give up control of their chemical weapons.

What effect, if any, do you think this has had perhaps on the Iranian government, which now seems to be saying it’s open to doing something about its nuclear stockpile?

BILL CLINTON: Well, if it’s true, it’s good news.

And I think the Syrian effort on chemical weapons has merit in and of itself, because we want to not have chemical warfare in the 21st century. But the larger hope is that, once Syria and the Russians get into a transparent international arena, that they will help us to restore the peace process in Syria, end the fighting, because you can kill a lot of people without chemical weapons.

And that’s what we’re all worried about, all of us who have hated this, been sympathetic with the rebels, not just Americans, but people all over the world. But it looks to me like Russia may have recalibrated what its national interest is, and thought about what chaos in Syria might mean to the region, and ultimately ricocheting across all the way back to its troubled areas on its southern border.

So maybe this will be the beginning of a peace process, and maybe we will see an opportunity seized by this new president of Iran. We have to explore all those things and work for the best while we prepare for the worst. That’s what you should always do in this circumstance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, the Israelis are looking at this, very skeptical. They are saying they think it could be a trap. And there’s a lot of conversation, President Clinton, that the Israelis are prepared to strike Iran on their own unilaterally.

If they did that, what would the repercussions be?

BILL CLINTON: Well, they could be quite significant.

But I think they haven’t done that partly because they have tried to leave the door open to a settlement, but they want to take a hard line on it, because they have heard all these protestations before, “We have no intention of having nuclear weapons,” and the program just keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger, to give them the capacity to build weapons.

So I think it’s a nice cautionary reminder for all of us that you go into these things with your eyes wide open, and if there are commitments made, they have to be kept and verified. But I think, on balance, this is positive. This new president seems to want a rapprochement with the United States. And we just have to make sure that, if we do this, it’s real.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of news here at home as well when it comes to health care reform. It’s still very unpopular. The majority of Americans say they don’t understand it. A majority say they don’t like it. Would it be a good idea to delay some of the major pieces of health care reform for another year until you can get…


BILL CLINTON: Not if they’re ready to be implemented, no.

It won’t get any more popular, because the Republicans don’t want the government to be able to help make health care both available and more affordable. It violates their ideology. So nothing is going to happen in this next year on the issues still to be resolved in terms of implementation that would change that.

The only thing that will change public opinion is when it works. And we do know, from what we have seen so far, that the cost of insurance for modest-income people might be as much little as $100 a month. We do know, based on what we have seen so far, that, in the aggregate, the insurance premiums are coming in at 20 percent below their estimated cost, even by the Congressional Budget Office.

We also know that, for all of the attacks on health care, it is less unpopular than President Bush’s Medicare drug program was when it started. And there were horrible problems with the implementation. The Democrats didn’t try to repeal it, even though most of them voted against it. Instead, they tried to make it work.

That’s what you do with a law. We tried to help. So the members of Congress should be doing what the Democrats who voted against the drug program did. They should be telling their citizens how it works and how to make the most of it. And that’s what the administration should do. And that’s what we’re going to try to do.

I mean, my library is going to help people enroll in Arkansas. That’s what everybody should do. It’s the law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two other quick things before we get to the Clinton Global Initiative, number one, guns.

Another mass shooting, this time in Washington, D.C., this week, and yet the appetite for gun control doesn’t seem to be there. The president said yesterday there just seems to be no will to do this. Is gun control effectively dead for the time being in this country?

BILL CLINTON: Well, we have two options that would make sensible gun measures possible.

One is, we can put them on the ballot state by state. In Colorado, keep in mind, where you had Aurora and Columbine, in 2000, the voters of Colorado voted 70-30 to close the gun show loophole, something the Senate can’t get done now. Why is that? That’s the second issue.

We can defend the people who vote with the majority if the voters who support this will vote for the candidates on the basis of it. This is a very simple political problem. It’s arithmetic. All these measures, limiting the size of the ammunition clips, not having assault weapons, anything — Americans will support reasonable things as long as they don’t interfere with the ability to hunt, sports shoot, or defend your home.

They will support other measures. But the people who are for these things won’t vote against you if you’re on the other side. The people who are against them will vote against you if you’re on the other side. So that creates a political imbalance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One question about your wife, Secretary Clinton. She confirmed, for the first time this week, this past week, that she is wrestling with the idea of running for president.

Why did she choose to say this right now, after months of avoiding the press on the subject? And how much does she talk to you? You two are so close. How much do you talk about it?

BILL CLINTON: I must say, until I read the reports of her interview, it struck me that she was pretty much saying what she always did.

We don’t need a four-year presidential campaign. It’s amazing how much longer they are now. She doesn’t have to declare now or in three months or six months. And so I think she should just enjoy her life and finish her book, and do her — do this work she wants to do with this Too Small to Fail initiative.

I just want her to be happy. And I think she will make a better decision about this political issue if she’s — everything is going well in her life. That’s what I think. So, we’re not nearly as political as everybody thinks we are. We don’t sit around all the time talking about this.

We — we swim in the late afternoon every day. And if either one of us even mentions a political topic, we will stop the other one and just talk about the weather or whatever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the Clinton Global Initiative, this is your ninth year, is that right? The theme this year is mobilizing for impact.

Most people, I think, in this country look at the incredible poverty that exists around the world, developing countries. What do you see? How do you measure that progress has been made?

BILL CLINTON: I will give you an example. That’s the best way to answer it, from our own foundation.

In Malawi, we have got this anchor farm, about 400 acres. We teach people the best farming techniques. We buy for the farmers cheaper seeds, cheaper fertilizer, cheaper insecticide. We take their crops to market for free. We store them properly so they can wait until they can get a high price.

And we’re talking about women on an acre of land farming with a hoe. I met with — I was down there planning with this woman farming with a hoe an acre — 21,000 of them, first year, average increase in income, 567 percent. Average increase in outcome, they’re producing two-and-a-half times as much food on the same piece of land.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, to those Americans who are listening to you right now, President Clinton, and they’re saying, this is all well and good, but we have got a lot of problems in this country — this is a question you get all the time.

What do you say to Americans who say, why don’t you focus more energy on what is going on right here?

BILL CLINTON: That’s why I have a meeting of this Global Initiative just for the American economy every year.

And we’re going to Denver this year. And I try to identify specific things that we can do to try to grow the economy and that companies can do. I try to find things that are working, and then spread it in other parts of the country. That could be done now and quickly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So your focus is everywhere?

BILL CLINTON: Yes, but I’m — I really do care about the American economy.

It’s just that I have to be very disciplined in what is likely to have a positive impact. We can talk until the cows come home. I’m interested in doing something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Bill Clinton, thank you for talking with us on the NewsHour.

BILL CLINTON: Thank you. Thank you.