Tony Blair: “I warned Gaddafi”
The Middle East is erupting in flames — and Tony Blair has to fix it. When the former British Prime Minister became the international community’s Middle East envoy in 2007, that meant leading the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It still does, but now his job includes democratic transformations and civil wars, too.
Blair, the charismatic modernizer of Britain’s Labour Party, was elected Prime Minister in 1997. But leading Britain through 10 years of reforms was rather easy compared to Tony Blair’s current task. As the Middle East envoy of the Quartet – UN, EU, US, Russia – Blair is the international community’s point man in the volatile region.
Metro met Blair at his sunny office at London’s posh Grosvenor Square. Blair is an occasional visitor at his own desk: most of his time is spent traveling in the Middle East. Despite having run a major country for 10 years, and now trying to make the Middle East stable, Blair looks remarkably fit and youthful. His famous charisma and verbal virtuosity remain in prime form, too. Blair, now 58, offered Metro’s reporter coffee, showed family photos and shared a laugh over the Pope’s first tweet. (He converted to Catholicism after leaving Downing Street.)
When you were appointed Middle East envoy, the one hot issue was the Israel-Palestine conflicts. Now there are conflicts in Syria and Libya, Iraq is still not stable, and Yemen and Bahrain are on the brink of collapse. Which Middle Eastern country is your top priority right now?
The Israel-Palestine peace process is still my main task, but I’ll inevitably get involved in the situation in the Middle East as a whole. It’s extraordinary, exhilarating, but of course it has also got real challenges.
What’s the main challenge?
The big question in any revolution is not where it begins but where it ends. The question now is, will the forces of modernization use this push to democracy and take it to a place where it allows a functioning democracy to develop in their respective country, or will various elements, for example Islamists, take the situation in a reactionary direction. The biggest risk in the current situation is that countries get destabilized through the revolution and don’t take the right economic decisions to create jobs and prosperity for people. Then you end up with the revolution going in a reactionary direction.
The Arab Spring is a result of citizens’ frustrations with their dictators, but the dictators were friends with the West. Was it a mistake for the West to be friendly with Middle Eastern dictators?
Mubarak, for example, is very different from Gaddafi. But the case of each leader, there’s a reason we were dealing with them. In the case of Mubarak, he was a force for stability in the Middle East. Thanks to the West’s engagement, Gaddafi gave up his country’s nuclear weapons program and stopped sponsoring international terrorism. Does that justify internal repression? No, but it poses us – the West – with a problem, since we’re dealing with the respective leader from the outside. The reality of politics is that you can’t simply say, “the only countries we’re going to deal with are the countries that emulate our political system”. So, you’re always in a situation where you’re making difficult compromises.
On the other hand, Gaddafi and Mubarak kept their countries stable, as have Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers. Is stability sometimes better than democracy?
The most important thing now is to recognize the fact that the countries that are dictatorial are often not going to remain stable. So, the lesson of the Arab Spring is that unless those countries evolve they’ll destabilize. One of the things we’ve learned from the Arab Spring is that even though an authoritarian country looks stable and sustainable, it’s going to collapse.
Generally speaking, you can engage and work with an authoritarian ruler while at the same time urging them to make changes. This was a constant refrain I had with the Gaddafi regime. I told him, “you’ve got to change. You’ve changed your external policy; change your internal policy, too.” In the end, he didn’t want to.
What did he say?
Things like, “we are changing our internal policies”. Obviously it wasn’t enough. It was the same thing with Assad in Syria. Anyone who has met Assad during the last 10 years will have heard him say, “yes, we’re going to undergo change”, and they didn’t. Things are not black and white. You can’t engage with such leaders while saying nothing about democracy, or not engage at all. If you have a reason for engaging, you do, but at the same time it’s perfectly possible to say, and we did say to these Arab governments, “at some point you’ll have to evolve your systems”. Steady evolution is better than evolution.
When Gazans vote Hamas into power the West responded with sanctions. What should the West do if the people of Egypt, for example, vote the Muslim Brotherhood into power?
Then we have a major problem, unless the Muslim Brotherhood reforms.
Iran has been under international sanctions for several years, but the sanctions don’t have much impact. Isn’t it time to do away with the sanctions and engage with Iran?
The sanctions do have an effect. And it’s not that people haven’t tried to engage with the Iranian leaders to get them to stop doing what they’re doing. The objection to what Iran is doing is very simple: it’s trying to develop nuclear weapons, which would be very dangerous and detabilize the whole region. And they’re support for terrorist groups around the region, for example Hezbollah and Hamas. There has been a huge engagement with Iran to try to get them to stop.
What’s the solution?
To keep pushing, and that’s why sanctions are important. If you withdraw sanctions, they’ll think they can do whatever they want.
But doesn’t Iran have a point when it says it’s being unfairly targeted for its nuclear program, which is says is civilian, while Israel is not being punished for developing nuclear weapons?
Iran knows what the difference is. Look, Iran developing nuclear weapons would completely change the balance in the region. If Iran got nuclear weapons, its neighbors would try to do the same. It wouldn’t be sensible to allow that. The fact is that Iranian President Ahmadinejad has said that he wants to wipe Israel off the face of the map, so it’s not a great idea to give him a nuclear weapon.
You had a successful period as Prime Minister, but many people remember you only for your decision to invade Iraq. Do you regret that decision?
We’ve just been talking about dealing with dictators. The West engaged with Saddam in the 1980’s, and they did so in order to use Iraq against Iran. The results were disastrous. We ended up with millions of casualties in the Iran-Iraq war, and we ended up with the war in Kuwait. I thought it was better to get rid of him, because he was a threat. It’s odd that people say, “you shouldn’t dealing with such-and-such dictator” and then criticize you when you get rid of one who was far worse than any of the Arab dictators we talked about earlier.
People will come to a rational view about the pros and cons of the Iraq war at a later time. When I look at Iraq now, for all the challenges it has, I don’t think you’d get a majority of Iraqis saying they want Saddam back.
The Palestinians will declare statehood in August and ask for UN recognition in September. How should the international community respond?
The best thing we can do is to get a resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The problem with unilateral declarations is, what happens the day after? What changes? You’ll only get real change through negotiation. The Quartet will have a meeting in a few weeks, and we’ve been working hard to get a set of principles of negotiation together so that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have confidence that the negotiation will be credible and serious. There’s absolutely no alternative to assuming negotiations.
I understand that you read the Koran every day. How has it enhanced your understanding of Islam?
I do — the Bible and the Koran. The Koran interests and fascinates me. It has given me clearer idea of what Islam is about. The problem with Koran, like the Bible, is that sometimes people take phrases or short passages and use them to justify what’s clearly unjustifiable.