In United States politics, presidents are forced to make difficult decisions, and often they face harsh criticism no matter what they choose. While in office, presidents usually stand by their decisions in public despite private misgivings in order to appear strong and avoid political turmoil. However, once their terms are over, presidents sometimes admit to their mistakes.
The biggest regrets of US presidents often involve mishandling foreign affairs and internal conflicts. Bungled wars and poorly planned invasions often lead US presidents to rethink their decision-making during their time in office. Difficult decisions - especially those that result in the loss of life - can haunt a president for the remainder of their days. The United States presidents' biggest regrets reveal a rare glimpse of the vulnerable side of powerful leaders.
When asked in a 2008 interview about his biggest regret as president, George W. Bush surprisingly listed the Iraq War. While he did not regret everything that occurred in Iraq, the president seemed distraught over intelligence failures. He claimed this was the biggest regret of his presidency, stating, “I wish the intelligence had been different, I guess.”
Bush denied accusations that his administration had intentionally misled Congress. He noted members of Congress read all the same reports his staff did and still decided to go forward with the invasion. While he was disappointed things in Iraq did not go as planned, he still stated, “I will leave the presidency with my head held high.”
When John Quincy Adams took office, the Indian Springs Treaty was waiting on his desk. The treaty forced the Creek Nation, living in what is now Georgia, to give up their land and move west. As Congress had already voted in favor of the treaty, Adams signed it as soon as he took office. This was an act he regretted almost immediately.
Leaders of the Creek Nation met with Adams, changing his views on the nation’s treatment of its Native American populations. Adams tried to annul the treaty, but his attempts were blocked by Congress and the state of Georgia threatened military action. While a new treaty was eventually drafted, the Creek Nation still had to cede two-thirds of their land to Georgia. A third treaty, passed a year later, forced the Creek Nation to give up all remaining land.
Adams both regretted the Indian Springs Treaty and the nation’s treatment of Native Americans overall. He would go on to write about this in his personal diary. “We have talked of benevolence and humanity, and preached them into civilization," he wrote, "But none of this benevolence is felt where the right of the Indian comes in collision with the interest of the white man.”
Had George H.W. Bush succeeded in getting Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein out of power, perhaps the Second Iraq War could have been avoided. Bush regretted not continuing with action in Iraq until Hussein surrendered. He believed, had the Gulf War gone on longer, Hussein could have been removed from power.
Apparently, an FBI agent told Bush that he was certain Hussein would have eventually surrendered had military action continued. While Bush still considers the ending of the Gulf War a military success, he regrets it did not have a cleaner conclusion. He feels that, had he forced Hussein into surrendering, the present troubles in Iraq could have been avoided.
In 2011, Obama helped remove Libyan dictator Muammar Gadafi from power. While he knew intervening was the right decision, he regrets his lack of a follow-up plan. Libya was thrown into turmoil after Gadafi’s removal, and the country is still recovering today.
Obama said in an interview that his failure to plan for the day after the intervention was his worst mistake as president. Nevertheless, Obama expressed pride in other achievements he made during his time in the Oval Office. Despite his bungling of the Libya situation, Obama is confident his leadership helped the country recover from the 2008 economic crisis.