Clinton Global Initiative

Bill Clinton: Debt ceiling as strategy is 'disastrous'

Bill Clinton: Putin thinks if U.S. looks bad, he looks good
Bill Clinton: Putin thinks if U.S. looks bad, he looks good

Using the debt ceiling fight as a political strategy to reduce government spending is "disastrous," former Democratic President Bill Clinton said Thursday.

Policymakers have long used budget fights as an opportunity to call attention to another issue they care about, Clinton said. "That's fine, but to do it as a strategy to actually stop from paying America's bills is disastrous."

Clinton, who served two terms from 1993 to 2001, presided over two government shutdowns. Appearing on "Closing Bell," he said a government shutdown would be a "significant negative" today, though, because economic conditions were much better in the '90s and "it was still bad."

"This is coming not at a time like in '96 when the economy is picking up and the deficit's going down and people think we're going in the right direction anyway," he said. "We managed our way through it, but it's a lousy way to run a railroad."

The threat of a government shutdown looms as lawmakers debate whether to raise the $16.7 trillion debt limit and pass a spending bill to keep the government funded beyond Oct. 1, when the new fiscal year starts. Clinton suggested the problem is uniquely American.

"They've already voted to spend this money, so under our system, which other countries don't do, they have to vote again to borrow the money to cover the spending they've already voted for," he said. "So that creates an opportunity since it always sounds bad 'raising the debt ceiling.'"

Maria Bartiromo speaks with Bill Clinton at the CGI 2013 annual meeting in New York.
Adam Jeffery | CNBC

On the issue of the ongoing military conflict in Syria, Clinton said if still president he would "keep the door open" for diplomacy, but also put pressure on Syria and Russia to work together to remove chemical weapons from the war-torn country. Due to Syria's ethnic diversity, Clinton said negotiation is the best way to bring peace "if you don't want war to break out again."

Asked by CNBC's Maria Bartiromo what President Barack Obama could have done differently, Clinton said "he could have used air power sooner." Then again, he said things worked out after Russia-led negations led Syria to agree to turn over all of its chemical weapons. After all, he suspects Russian President Vladimir Putin must be perturbed by al-Qaeda linked terrorist groups "interfering in the Syrian conflict."

Speaking of U.S.-Russian relations, Clinton said Putin will eventually have to rethink his anti-American stance because Russia will not be able to operate an energy-driven economy forever.

"Russia's economy should be based on the fact that every year in the international computing contests, with lots of, scores and scores of universities, there are always two Russian universities in the top five. That's the key to Russia's future," Clinton said. "So I think Putin may be rethinking some of his strategy. He has milked this anti-American cow about as long as he can milk it."

—By CNBC's Drew Sandholm with Reuters. Follow him on Twitter @DrewSandholm