Return to Transcripts main page

Fareed Zakaria GPS

Interview With Former President Bill Clinton. Aired 10-11a ET

Aired September 18, 2022 - 10:00   ET



FAREED ZAKARIA, CNN ANCHOR: This is GPS, the GLOBAL PUBLIC SQUARE. Welcome to all of you in the United States and around the world. I'm Fareed Zakaria coming to you from New York.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Today on the program, the 42nd president of the United States is my guest. Bill Clinton opines on populism in America and the state of the Democratic Party. Will it fair well or badly in the upcoming midterms? We talk about Russia's war in Ukraine, and whether Washington played a role in the rise of Putin and his policies.

BILL CLINTON, 42ND PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I am more convinced today than I was then that we did the right thing.

ZAKARIA: Finally, September always means back-to-school for kids. This year, though, a special group was amongst them. The children of Ukraine went back to class last week for the first time since war broke out. GPS had the great privilege of speaking to some of them when we visited Kyiv last week.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My dad can get injured or my home can get destroyed.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not something that only affects Ukrainians, it's something that will sooner or later affect the whole world.


ZAKARIA: But first, here's my take. At first glance, Kyiv looked strangely normal. There were a few barricades here and there, but mostly the streets were busy, traffic was moving, shops were open, and restaurants were full. You could buy French wines, American energy drinks, and candy from around the world at the local grocery store.

The city looked much as it had on my last visit a year ago, though get thing this time was far more complicated. I flew to Poland, drove to the Polish-Ukrainian border and then took a 12-hour overnight train to Kyiv. Scratch beneath the surface, however, and I found a society profoundly scarred by the Russian invasion. Every Ukrainian I spoke to had a friend or relative who had been killed or wounded or displaced.

At least 14 million Ukrainians have moved from their homes. More than half of them refugees abroad. Millions of able bodied men are fighting or in some way assisting the war effort. Millions of children are in foreign countries.

People are experiencing fear, loss, sadness, and anxiety all at the same time. But they are determined to carry on. Air raid sirens sounded off once or twice a day. But people paid little attention to them, since they were precautionary.

In contrast to the early days of the war, Kyiv is now well removed from the fighting. Ukrainians seem determined to show that life will go on. That the Russian invasion has not brought their lives to a halt.

That is why the Victor Pinchuk Foundation decided to hold its annual Yalta European Strategy meeting on schedule, as it has for 17 years. The meeting used to be held at Yalta, but after the 2014 Russian invasion of Crimea, the venue moved to Kyiv, though the name defiantly remains the same.

Among those who attended in a show of support were Poland's prime minister, Latvia's president, Germany's foreign minister and a delegation of British members of parliament from all major parties. U.S. National Security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke via video conference. More impressive than any of the distinguished visitors however were the Ukrainian heroes who were highlighted throughout the conference.

For example, a 15-year-old boy by the name of Andrii Pokrasa explained that he used his own drone to provide the Ukrainian Army with the coordinates of Russian armored vehicles and tanks. Thus reportedly helping to destroy 100 of them, or Ukraine's rock legend Sviatoslav Vakarchuk who talked about going around the country and performing for free, even in the trenches, even when there were just a dozen soldiers as his audience.

The war in Ukraine pits a top down attack against a bottom up response. Russia's invasion is largely one man's decision. Russian society might approve, but it does not appear enthusiastic. To get new recruits, Russia is apparently recruiting from prisons, offering large cash bounties and employing mercenaries like the Wagner Group.


Ukraine's response is society wide. Starting with its elected government, but involving almost all the country's citizens. One key aspect of the astonishing advance of Ukraine's army in the east and the astonishing collapse of Russia's forces is the gap in morale. Ukraine's soldiers are fighting for their country and freedom. Russians are fighting out of fear and for money.

This divergence between a top down invasion and a bottom up response may also apply to the wider reaction to the war. Putin's strategy is clearly to bet of the weakness of Western voters. As winter comes, he's warned that people in the E.U. will freeze if he cuts off all energy supplies. He believes that at that point, Western governments will start to sue for peace. But I am not so sure. The Western public is unusually united on this

issue. Large majorities of Americans and Germans back the support for Ukraine. The numbers are not so different in most European countries.

The right-wing coalition likely to win in the upcoming Italian elections does include parties that have been soft on Russia, but the probable next prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has whole heartedly backed the Western response. And to the extent that there might be some faltering, countries on Europe's eastern flank, Poland and the Baltic States in particular, are staunchly opposed to any relaxation of efforts.

It's always easy to underestimate the staying power of democracies. They are noisy, contentious, and open. They air all their anxieties, doubts and critiques in public. When there is a sense that the struggle is not central, or that the goals chosen by leaders are fundamentally flawed, as in Vietnam and Iraq, there are constant calls for course correction.

But when the stakes are high, and the cause is just, democracies can stay the course. They did it for almost five decades during the Cold War. And they will do it for a couple of winters in this pivotal struggle.

Go to for a link to my "Washington Post" column this week. And let's get started.

Let's get right to my interview with Bill Clinton. I met the former president at the Clinton's home in Chappaqua, New York. He was gearing up for the Clinton Global Initiative, which starts Monday. This used to be an annual conference, but hasn't been held since 2016. The 76- year-old Clinton is energized that it's been reborn. And he's energized as always by American politics.


ZAKARIA: President Clinton, pleasure to have you on the program.

CLINTON: Thank you. I'm glad to be back.

ZAKARIA: When you look at the midterms, do you think because of abortion and because of the passage of a few very important bills, could Biden break the historical pattern of the, you know, midterms going badly?

CLINTON: Absolutely. But we could hold both these Houses. But we have to say the right things. And we have to note the Republicans always close well. Why? Because they find some new way to scare the living daylights out of swing voters about something. That's what they did in 2021 where they made critical race theory sound worse than smallpox. And it wasn't being taught in any public schools in America.

But they didn't care. They just scare people. And at the end, the breakpoint in American politics is not much different than it was in the '90s. As you still have to get those people, it's just that there's so many fewer, because as the parties have gone more ideological and clearer and somehow psychically intolerant, they pull more and more people toward the extremes. But there's still some people hanging on there who are really trying to think, and trying to understand what's going on. So I think that's very important.

ZAKARIA: The way Tony Blair puts it, is he says that -- I think I'm paraphrasing correctly that you and he understood that you had to appeal to peoples on cultural issues to reassure them that you weren't crazy eyed radical. And then they would be open to listening to your economic policies which are going to help them. But if they thought you were somehow alien, they would just not going to be listening.

CLINTON: That's right. And it applies to other things. When I -- when we succeeded in breaking the filibuster and getting the assault weapons ban passed, I said look, I grew up in a hunting culture.


You know, I had a .22 when I was 10 years old, a .410 shotgun, a tiny one, when I was 14. I don't want to do anything to interfere with your right to hunt, sport shoot or to protect yourself, especially if you live in a rural area where the police response time might be pretty extended. But if I keep that commitment, wouldn't you like to help a lot of these kids that are being shot down in drive-by shootings? Wouldn't you like to do that? We need your help here.

And that's what I did. I didn't call them killers. I didn't, you know, talk about the NRA. I talked about people. There aren't so many of them, but you just need a few to flip from one side or the other, and you've got a healthy governing majority. It is hard, and it's much harder now than when I did it. And it was hard then. So -- but what Biden's reason was, I just have to keep at it and I'll either get something done or I won't, but I can't win a war word with these guys.

I've got to win based on things that will help people. And now you see he's getting a little more robust in his rhetoric but it's because he's got a platform to stand on that will help other people's lives. Politics is about other people. And the problem with the culture war is that it always tries to turn it back to the politicians, what's wrong with them, and this is what the press has to guard against because if you have to worry about daily ratings, you know, the drama of two people duking it out is far more profound.

They're effective. But it always, in the end, winds up helping the right because we -- it's harder to build a barn than it is to kick one down. And then when you build it, you've got to explain what you built and why it's a good thing to put your animals in your barn. And it's just -- it's harder. But it's really worth doing.

ZAKARIA: I'm struck by how, when you watch the Republicans campaigning for this midterm, it's almost all about cancel culture, about critical race theory.


ZAKARIA: It's about what your kids are going to be taught in school. Ron DeSantis' fundraising e-mails are all about that. Will it work? CLINTON: Look, he's sending Venezuelans who were coming here fleeing

the successor to Hugo Chavez's disaster because the guy doesn't want to go and he has no economic answers. Right? So he sends them to Martha's Vineyard. Why? Because Martha's Vineyard is this symbol of where the elite goes to vacation.

And for people who know more on the East Coast, it was also the first place that welcomed black professionals and business people from the south to come and live on equal terms in a community that was largely created for religious reflection and study. So it's a -- you know, that's what's going on. And I don't know what Massachusetts is going to do, but I bet that they will make those people feel at home.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, we'll move to the world stage with President Clinton and we'll talk about Vladimir Putin, his war in Ukraine, and how the fall of the Soviet Union and the immediate aftermath might have influenced what is happening today.



ZAKARIA: We have just passed the 200-day mark of Putin's war on Ukraine, and despite Kyiv's recent successes fighting back against the invader, there is no real end in sight. I wanted to hear President Clinton's take on the war and how events 30 years ago might have started it all in motion.


ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about Russia and the war in Ukraine. You know there are a lot of people who argue that it's all your fault. That the reason that Russia has invaded Ukraine is that the United States, by expanding NATO, provoked that. The largest almost significant expansion of NATO took place on your watch. What do you say to that?

CLINTON: You're wrong. And here's why. When I did what I did, I offered Russia not only a special partnership with NATO, but the prospect of eventual membership of NATO, arguing that our biggest security problems in the future were going to come from non-state actors, or from authoritarian states selling chemical, biological, and nuclear capacity to terrorist groups. And all of that happened. And that we should do this together.

But I looked at him and I said, you know, do you really believe I would use an air base in Poland to bomb Russia? And he said no. But a lot of little old ladies in western Russia do because their historic memory includes Hitler and their grandparents' memories included Napoleon.


I said OK, I concede that. But our historic memory includes the notion that your greatest days were under Ivan, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great. In other words, when you could control your neighbors. And people don't want to be controlled any more. They want to be free to chart their own course.

I'll never forget the first time a man with impeccable military credentials, (INAUDIBLE) who was Viscount Montgomery's aide-de-camp in World War II, said, you know, you're going to have to leave Vietnam for the same reason we had to leave Nigeria.

We left Nigeria, that was a horrible war, three million people died, but we had to go and you're going to have to go. And I said why? He said because they don't want you. You know, people want to chart their own course. They have to feel secure in their own identities then they have to have the courage to work with others.

And this is not easy psychologically. And there are dueling historical narratives, but to go back to your original case, I am more convinced today than I was then that we did the right thing. When President Putin made no secret of the fact that he thought the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a great tragedy in world history, he made no secret of the fact that he thought President Khrushchev or Premier Khrushchev had done a terrible, terrible job in giving Crimea to Ukraine.

And that he only did it as a gift, assuming Ukraine would be always part of the Soviet Union. So -- and I remember talking to him about this. I said I got a deal with Russia to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. And I got the British to go along and NATO to go along and we all signed the deal. He said yes, you did, but he said you also never got it confirmed in the parliament, because -- they did, they had all these nationalists.

He said you never got it confirmed in the parliament, and therefore, I'm not bound by it and I don't agree with it. I mean, I don't see how we could be surprised by all this. But I think the fact that the Ukrainians are willing to stand up is encouraging. And who is providing a lot of those weapons and training? NATO. And what does Finland want to do? Join NATO.

So, you know, I'm sorry, I just disagree. I think we did the right thing at the right time. And if we hadn't had done it, this crisis might have occurred even sooner. But you can't tell people you're supposed to tell the Poles they should live for the rest of eternity with insecurity that Russia won't try to come after them again? Or the Hungarians or the, you know, the -- all the others. The Baltic States. Really, after what they did, did they ever want to be in the Soviet Union?

And the Czech of course was the most republic of all and the best managed in -- from the fall of the Cold War for the next 10 years. The fall of the Berlin wall for the next 10 years.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, I'll ask Bill Clinton about the existential challenges he says the world faces today.



ZAKARIA: On Monday after a five-year absence, the Clinton Global Initiative will hold an annual meeting. In attendance will be world leaders, Hollywood stars, corporate titans, NGO heads and activists from around the world. They will meet to discuss many of the problems that plague society and commit to help solving them.

Clinton explained that he, Hillary, and Chelsea were bringing back the meeting because the world faces an urgent and historic moment including several existential challenges.


ZAKARIA: I want to ask you about the Clinton Global Initiative and many of the issues that you're dealing with there. One of the issues that you've talked about is inclusive growth, and the difficulty of getting that kind of inclusive growth. And it feels like this is so much of the heart of the inequality, the political tensions.

Is there a simple solution to this? People have been trying to do it, but the problem seems to be in a knowledge economy, in the world we're in now, that games do tend to accrue to people who are educated.


CLINTON: They do. They tend to accrue. So you need public policy and private action. Businesses, NGOs, to figure out how to take advantage of the good things about the modern world and extinguish the bad. I'll give you an example. One of our partners who sadly just passed away, founded BRAC. And BRAC and another one of our partners, Muhammad Yunus, and the Grameen Bank they're the biggest microcredit banks in the world. And they're both -- they started in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has had terrible political problems, as you know. It's been deeply divided between two dynasties, headed by two women, one lost her father, one lost her husband in political violence, and then their successors.

So for years, there were six years in a row where, in effect, they had no government. What happened in Bangladesh? It grew at six percent a year, six percent a year.

Why? Because they proved that if the ground was thick enough with small loans to people who had talent and the willingness to work you could still build an economy that worked. That's the most successful example in the world I'm aware of. But I can give you lots of other examples. If you look at --

ZAKARIA: Tell me about the U.S., because you know that people are going to say, well, what about inclusive growth in America. How do we get it --


CLINTON: OK. Well -- so, one of the things we have to do is make more growth inclusive in the 1990s. We need to have more microcredit in America. The Grameen Bank has opened a branch in New York City and it's working. Poor people are paying back their loans and they're, you know, making money.

ZAKARIA: Let me ask you about another issue you guys are going to take up at CGI, refugees. And one of the things that I think the right has hammered at, with regard to the Democratic Party and President Biden, is this issue of refugees coming into the United States.

And I think it's fair to say that the asylum system seems to be broken. This was meant to be a system that allowed people who were in desperate circumstances, and now what you have is a lot of people who are essentially economic migrants coming in, essentially gaming the system, using the asylum way to get in. Isn't it -- isn't it true that there has to be some order placed on this, some control on this?

CLINTON: I agree with that. There is a limit to how many migrants any society can take without severe disruption and assistance. And our system is based much more on an assumption that things would be more normal.

For example, as long as I can remember, we've had an immigration system, we've given green cards to people from other countries who had valuable skills that we needed. And it generally had a lot of support until somebody felt their economic interests were threatened.

When I was a boy, when I was a young man even, Mexican citizens moved freely back and forth across the Rio Grande River and did agricultural work. And it worked for people. NAFTA happened at a time when there was increasing industrialization. Everybody knew that was going to happen, but it did displace jobs.

El Paso lost 6,600 jobs when the manufacturing of jeans went across the border. But they supported it, because they knew that over the long run, they had to find a way to live together and work together. So this is -- it's an old story. But now you just got the largest number of refugees since World War II because of Syria and now Ukraine. And other problems in the middle.

What happened in Venezuela had more than 2 million refugees pouring into first Colombia and then to nearby countries. It's created unprecedented new challenges. And meanwhile, it provides opportunities for stunts like Governor Abbott's sending his refugees to some place that he thinks is advocating for a broad minded policy, doesn't have to live with. And then Governor DeSantis sending those people to Martha's Vineyard was amazing. That might come back to haunt him a little bit.


ZAKARIA: We will be back with the end of my conversation with President Bill Clinton.


Don't forget, if you miss a show, go to for a link to my iTunes podcast.


ZAKARIA: The great political trend of our time remains populism. Which is still, well, popular in many places around the globe. America's not immune, of course. Look at Donald Trump and his hold on the Republican Party. I wanted to hear President Clinton's take.


ZAKARIA: A lot of people look at these various populist movements and say it all comes out of the excesses of the neoliberal era, the '90s, when, you know, we had a lot of growth, we had a lot of markets opening up, free markets, free trade, but it left behind some people and it left behind particularly the white working class. You presided over this incredible period of growth in the United States. Do you think there's something to that critique?


CLINTON: There is, but let's look what happened. That no one ever talks about, although we finally got two great articles on this sharp decline in poverty over the last 35 years in America, because we keep adding on to what's working, and stopping what doesn't, which is what the government should really do, what anybody does with their lives.

But the truth is, there were problems with a market oriented economy where whenever you change the technology, and we moved into I.T. related business, there's always an advantage to the people who get there first, and the people who get there first are those with the money, with ideas, with the access to technology. And then society has to catch up. And the real problem is, that in the United States and several other countries, there wasn't enough done to do the catching up.

That's all true. That's what my campaign in 1992 was all about. That's why, you know, when I left office, we moved 100 times more people out of poverty into the middle class than my predecessors because I understood that. It's the only time since the end of World War II when, percentage wise, the incomes of the bottom 20 percent, rose slightly more than the top 20.

Not that I wanted to make them poor, but if you look at a graph of say their most successful president was Reagan, because it was the first time we had ever been on a deficit fueled sugar high in peacetime. But in every quintile, except the top five percent really, they did better in the 1990s, the American people did, with more shared prosperity.

So I think that's a legitimate critique, but it doesn't really explain the rise of Viktor Orban in Hungary and the transformation of a young sort of more progressive oriented, open politician to a person who ran against Muslims and immigration generally. And that's something that happens to the mindset of a people, and a skilled politician can make the most of it and one who doesn't want to follow the traditional practice in democracy, which is term limits for chief executives, wants to stay forever will do what they can to make the most of that. ZAKARIA: Why are we so prone to this cultural populism at this moment?

CLINTON: Because the world got on fire at the same time from economic disorder, starting with the crash, and rising inequality, and a wildfire of culture wars. So what happened in America is we should have been the best position to resist it. We didn't but four years later we did. And you see what happened.

If you compare, for example, Hillary's concession speech to what Trump did, it's daylight and dark. Why? Because we actually believe, those of us who don't support negative populism, divisive populism, that you can be an inclusive populist or an inclusive conservative, as long as you believe in the fundamental principles of democracy, majority rule, minority rights, shared decision making, restraint by the rule of law and -- so that's really the battle we're fighting here in America.

But it's going on all over the world, as you pointed out. And this new world got off to a good start with the collapse of communism, and with the rise of information technology, with all of its economic and other potential. But it was bound to have growing pains.

I mean, there were bound to be people, as there always are, who wanted to take advantage of the opportunities of democracy, and then pull up the ladder behind them when they got in. It's an old, old story.

There's a reason America is the longest lasting democracy in history. They're hard to preserve. They're hard to treasure because when they're not particularly functional, we all live with it, and all we can do is vote for something else, we think.

ZAKARIA: I have to ask you this in conclusion. Ken Starr just passed away. This was the special prosecutor, independent counsel for Whitewater, never filed a charge on Whitewater, but turned your presidency -- the second term upside down.


Do you have any thoughts? Any reflections?

CLINTON: Well, I read the obituary, and I realized that his family loved him, and I think that's something to be grateful for. And when your life is over, that's all there is to say. But I was taught not to talk about people that I -- you know, I have nothing to say except I'm glad he died with the love of his family.

ZAKARIA: President Clinton, pleasure to have you on the program.

CLINTON: Thanks.


ZAKARIA: Next on GPS, for months we focused on things like how many missiles have been launched, or how many square miles were gained or lost in Ukraine. But forgotten in those details are the lives of Ukrainians, especially Ukrainian children. Well, last week when we were in Kyiv, GPS had the privilege of speaking to some as they returned to school for the first time since the war began. Prepare to be inspired when we are back in a moment.



ZAKARIA: And now for the last look.


ZAKARIA (voice-over): Schools in Ukraine have been shut since the Russian invasion in February. Thousands of them shelled and battered by Russian bullets, bombs and rockets. But on the first of this month, they opened again to millions of students.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy marked the milestone by visiting a school in Irpin. And a week later, we took our cameras to visit a posh private school in Kyiv, to talk to students about what it felt like coming back after months of war.

LERA, 14, HOMETOWN KYIV: There was a lot of hugging on the first day of school, laughing. But we also sang the hymn of the -- of Ukraine. And we just live like a normal back-to-school day. It was perfect.

MARSHA, 13, HOMETOWN KYIV: It was really good. I was really happy that day. I felt just like fulfilled.

ZAKARIA: But, of course, even in the relative calm of this private school, everything is not normal. Air raid sirens still sometimes punctuate the day in Kyiv. When the children go out to play, they have to bring so-called safety bags with them. These are filled with food and water and books and toys, what they need for times spent in the school's air raid shelter. In fact, no school in Ukraine was allowed to open for in-person classes without a shelter.

MARSHA: I don't want to leave in this war circumstances where I just -- I want to study and it was air raid sirens two days in a row. And I was in school at this moment. And it's just -- it's really painful. I just want to develop my knowledge. I want to meet with my friends, but I need to go to shelter.

ZAKARIA: For many of the kids, memories of the day of the invasion are fresh.

YULIA, 16, HOMETOWN KYIV: I woke up because of bombs and went with my family to unknown direction. We thought that maybe we would never return home.

LERA: I was shocked, astonished, devastated.

POLINA, 16, HOMETOWN SLOVIANSK: It's really difficult to understand that my town, my hometown where I am from, is being destroyed every minute, and a lot of people are dying and a lot of -- a lot of my acquaintances are dying, and it's really horrible.

ZAKARIA: Some recall painful separations from friends, from family members. Mattviy moved to Spain with his mother, brother and grandmother. His father stayed behind under martial law.

MATTVIY, 10, HOMETOWN KYIV: Of course, I think like every day that I worry that maybe it will be a shot in the western Ukraine, and my dad can get injured so -- or my home could get destroyed. So it was really worrying for me.

ZAKARIA: About one subject, almost all the children we spoke to were extremely clear, their feelings about the architect of this bloody war, Vladimir Putin.

MARIA, 10, HOMETOWN CHERNOBYL: He is the stupidest thing that ever was in this world.

YULIA: What are you doing? Look, look, you kill -- you kill small children. You kill people. But we definitely know that he know what he do.

MARSHA: I urge you to visit all of these places that were destroyed by your soldiers, by your decision, and talk to all of the people whose lives were destroyed by you.

ZAKARIA: The anger is understandable. But most remarkable about these children, forced to see and live through the unthinkable, was that they somehow managed an extraordinary grace, and they were determined to forge a better future, not just for themselves, but for their country.

ANASTASIA, 16, HOMETOWN SLOVIANSK: We are the generation who has to promote it, to develop our country after the war.

VIKA, 13, HOMETOWN KONOTOP: Soldiers now are fighting in the south and east of Ukraine, and we have to fight here. We have to develop our skills. We have to make a future and history for our country.

ZAKARIA: Before we left, we asked these young students, future leaders, if they had a message for our viewers around the world. So many of them said the same thing.


LERA: Ukraine is not just a trend. It's something that is happening right now. It's a real crime, a real genocide, and you cannot forget about it.

People need to remember. People have to care, and it's not something that only affects Ukrainians. It's something that will sooner or later affect the whole world. And, yes, you cannot escape that.

MARSHA: If you don't help us now, you will be next. You will be the next who will be in a war with this evil who has arisen from the ashes of your indecision. So decide now, or you'll just -- you will need to fight with this on your own land. I don't think that you want it, really.

It's just excruciating to see people dying because of their nationality, because they are Ukrainians. So you just -- you don't need that. So help us now.


ZAKARIA: Thanks to all of you for being part of my program this week. I will see you next week.