In one of his first public appearances since leaving office, former president George W. Bush defended his administration's focus on Iraq despite criticism that more attention should have been paid to the situation in Afghanistan during his tenure.
"I don't buy the premise that our attention was diverted" by Iraq, Bush said. "I think it's false. Matter of fact, I know it's false. I was there."
Bush made the comments in Toronto while sharing the stage with another ex-president, Bill Clinton, for a discussion on global and domestic challenges facing the United States and Canada. It's the first time the 42nd and 43rd presidents of the United States have ever shared a stage at such a forum.
As for Clinton, he said, "We should have let Hans Blix finish, and we should have concentrated on Afghanistan."
Blix, a former Swedish diplomat, served as the United Nations' chief weapons inspector and was tasked with searching for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Clinton said of the current situation in Afghanistan and its troubled neighbor Pakistan, "I still think it's an enterprise that can be salvaged."
"We need to hang in there with these good people," Bush said, because it's "in the national interest, it's in the world's interest."
Bush and Clinton did not sell out the auditorium of the cavernous Metro Toronto Convention Center, but the star power of the pair sold about 6,000 seats ranging in price between $229 and $2,500 each.
Thursday night in Detroit, Bush reflected on his presidency in a speech to the Economic Club of Southwestern Michigan, defending the harsh interrogation of the terrorist who masterminded the 9/11 attacks.
"I made a decision within the law to get information, so I can say, 'I've done what it takes to do my duty to protect the American people,'" Bush said. "I can tell you, the information gained saved lives."
But in contrast to former Vice President Dick Cheney's recent criticisms of the Obama administration's national security and economic programs, Bush laid down a disclaimer for his comments: "Anything I say is not to be critical of my successor."
Noting his appreciation that his predecessor, Clinton, held his tongue, Bush added, "He was respectful -- can't say that for everyone."
"If you don't agree with someone, you can say it without dissing them," Clinton agreed.
Clinton, Bush Share Presidential Camaraderie
The pair appeared to share a warmth on stage, with Bush welcoming the audience to "the Bill and George show" and Clinton teasing that the pair would try to meet expectations that they would "devour each other," and saying, "We'll do our best to thwart them."
Today's event represents something of a passing of the torch in the world's most exclusive club. While in office, George W. Bush called on his former president father and Clinton to join forces in raising awareness and funds for the recovery efforts following the 2004 Asian tsunami, and then again in 2005 for victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The 1992 campaign opponents, Clinton and Bush Sr., formed a close relationship on those assignments during recent years. According to a profile of Clinton in the upcoming issue of The New York Times Magazine, both former presidents recorded a video for the outgoing President Bush, the 43rd president, to watch on his flight home from Washington to Texas on Inauguration Day.
Both Clinton and Bush shared their views on life after leading the free world.
Bush said that retirement "is not all that bad," but acknowledged that "it's hard to go from 100 miles per hour to zero."
His dog, Barney, who had been a fixture at the White House, "had never walked in a neighborhood," Bush said, noting that on a recent walk, he had a plastic bag in his hand, "picking up that which I had dodged for eight years."
Clinton said he was impressed that Bush has already returned to the public sphere with his recent speaking engagements, though the events are certain to be a downshift from presidential addresses.
"Nobody plays a song when you walk in a room," he said. "It is totally disorienting."
"All of a sudden -- poof, like that -- it's over," he added. "It takes a while to figure out you're not president anymore."
Clinton's 'Worst of All Worlds'
But Clinton is still close to the Washington scene, as his wife Hillary Clinton is the secretary of state.
Calling it the "worst of all worlds," he said, "No one cares what I say unless I mess up."
Although it was the elder Bush who was defeated by Clinton, it may have been tougher for Clinton to forge a relationship with President George W. Bush.
"President Bush the latter didn't like me very much because I defeated his father, and it was obvious to me when he came to the White House when I was president and he was governor of Texas. ... Jeb was a better actor," Clinton told The New York Times.
Clinton also described to the Times a conversation between the two men aimed at thawing tensions between the Clinton and Bush camps after Bush succeeded Clinton in the Oval Office.
"I had a talk with him about it one day, a real frank talk, because they were being rough," Clinton said. "I told him that I understood how he felt, and it didn't bother me. I liked the fact that he loved his father and that I felt a great affection for his father, too. But I said, 'I'll tell you what, I'll make you a deal. If you ever need me to do something for you and I can do it consistent with my conscience, I'll do it.'"