Interview: Former UK PM Tony Blair

Having turned 60 this year, Tony Blair reflects on Iraq, Palestine and the battle to win hearts and minds in the Middle East
By Ed Attwood
Sat 23 Nov 2013 10:42 AM

Tony Blair looks tired.

The lines on his face are a little deeper, the hair greyer. After an espresso and removing his bow tie, he leans back on the sofa at the JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai.

“Everyone has to reform in a changing world, you change or be changed. And that is true of a company or a country, or an ordinary citizen,” he says.

And it is especially true of Blair himself. He still has the confident walk of a man who dominated British politics for more than a decade, the same grin and the same charm that won him three successive elections. But, having turned 60 earlier this year, change has also come to the man who was once the UK’s youngest prime minister for 200 years.

Nowadays, he splits his time between his consulting company, Tony Blair Associates, which he says provides the funding for his philanthropic work; the Tony Blair Faith Foundation; the Tony Blair Sports Foundation; and the Tony Blair Africa Governance Initiative. Last, but by no means least, is his role as representative of the Quartet powers (the US, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia) that are trying to mediate the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.

His Quartet position, an unpaid role he took on the day after he stepped down as British prime minister, is testament to Blair’s determination to stay on as a person of influence in global politics. And in light of his success in helping to broker peace in Northern Ireland — plus his strong personal relationships with negotiators both on the Israeli and Palestinian side — one might have hoped that his undoubted efforts would have paid dividends. Sadly, six years on, no substantive agreement has been reached.

 On the positive side, it’s now nearly four months into new negotiations, brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, between the two sides. But with a nine-month limit on those talks, there is already the feeling that time is running out, not helped by Israel’s mistrust of Iran’s recent overtures to the West over its nuclear programme. When questioned as how those talks are progressing, Blair doesn’t offer a direct answer.

“The important thing is that this negotiation is getting to grips with all the issues,” he says. “This is the most serious negotiation I think there has been for many years, and that is also giving people some hope, because it’s clear that all the difficult issues are all out on the table.

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“We have a whole economic plan that we’re about to put forward in the next few weeks, and that will hopefully give people a sense of the opportunities economically that will come with peace.

“Because the truth is that Israel and Palestine, if they were two states living side by side in peace, the economic dividends for both countries would be enormous.”

Blair admits that the process can be frustrating, much as it was at times during the Northern Ireland peace talks.

“But it’s worth doing,” he continues. “The fact is that I completely disagree with people who see the Israeli-Palestinian issue as now more marginal because of all the upheaval in the region. I still think it’s a central issue in the region, and I think if we were to resolve it, it would have a hugely benign impact on the whole way the region develops.”

The Palestinian problem feeds into wider concerns about the Middle East. Blair points out that he prefers “evolution rather than revolution” and laughs off the suggestion that upheaval in Egypt and elsewhere means that democracy isn’t a viable form of government for the region.

“Democracy is not just a way of voting, it’s a way of thinking,” he says. “Democracy is not simply about how the majority takes power, it’s also about how the majority treats the minority.

“The second thing is that democracy in itself isn’t enough. You also need to have an economy that is open, that is effective, where people can start businesses, prosper, get on and do well. So democracy doesn’t solve all your problems; you’ve still got to have proper economic policies, like policies on taxation and spending and so on.”

The “evolution rather than revolution” line also extends to Syria, where a two-year rule has failed to oust president Bashar Al Assad, and has instead seen Al Qaeda elements, secularists and other groups fight against government forces and themselves in a gruelling civil war. Blair says that he had been in favour of a much tougher line previously, and had also supported the planned military strike led by the US, which was aborted after Russia offered to find a way to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. Now, it seems that intervention is not the answer.

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“I think all the options are troubling, because I think you have extremists that are now part of the Syrian opposition,” he says. “You’ve got to make sure that whatever comes out of this by way of agreement offers a tolerant and inclusive constitution for the future.

“But in the end, at some point, this ghastly business that has claimed so many lives has to end, and the only way of doing that is to put together a political initiative that brings people together and allows for a steady evolution of the country’s politics into a more democratic direction.”

The same is the case in Iran, where the recent election of president Hassan Rouhani has led to reopened negotiations with the West. But when questioned whether he thinks Rouhani can bring change, Blair is blunt: “I don’t know — and he’s not the man in charge [a reference to the country’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei].”

“I would feel a lot more optimistic about the region if the current regime was not in power in Iran,” he continues. “But they are, and we have to deal with that. I think the fact that Iran has taken, at least in words, a different position, obviously means that we’ve got to engage with them.

“My attitude is very simple. Engage and talk, but do it with our eyes open and mindful of two things. The first is that the only reason why the Iranians are coming forward and talking now is because the sanctions’ pressure is severe and has made a difference.

“And secondly, for the past 20 years, they’ve been trying to acquire this nuclear weapons capability. So maybe they are now prepared to change course, but they do have to change course.”

But despite the charity work, the foundations, the three general election wins, the interventions in both Kosovo and Sierra Leone and the expansion of the welfare state in Britain under his premiership, Blair is today overwhelmingly remembered for his role in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. A decade on, questions still remain about the way in which Blair committed 45,000 British troops to a coalition that toppled former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, but which also left the country embroiled in an insurgency that has, in many ways, persisted to this day.

Ensuring that Iraq still remains high up on the news agenda in the UK is the Iraq Inquiry — the report into the UK’s role in the war, which was commissioned by Blair’s successor, Gordon Brown, in 2009. The Chilcot Report, as it is also known, is set to be released at some point next year, although reports suggest that the US is attempting to block its publication to prevent transcripts of telephone conversations that took place between Blair and president George Bush entering the public domain.

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Blair says he doesn’t know when the report will be published, adding that he has no further comment on the matter. But the issue still rankles; in an interview with the BBC in February, Blair said he had given up trying to persuade others of his views on Iraq.

“I don’t believe we’d be in a better situation today if Saddam Hussein was in power,” Blair says, also adding — somewhat tenuously — that if the invasion hadn’t occurred, Iraq could be undergoing the same kind of civil strife Syria is facing today. “If you look at the region today, none of these types of regimes are surviving,” he says.

And when asked whether the US-led coalition should have had stronger plans to rebuild Iraq post-invasion, Blair appears to agree.

“I think there are lots of things we could have done better,” he says. “The difference in Kosovo [a 1998-9 conflict in which NATO airstrikes helped remove the Yugoslav army in the European province] is that we were able to create stability.

“In Iraq, we had Iran on the one side and Al Qaeda on the other…creating instability, and I believe it was important, and remains important to fight that instability.”

“I don’t think the future of this region lies in dictatorships that are secular, or theocratic or religious,” Blair adds. “Those dictatorships of the past are not the answer…we should be standing up for the majority of people who want tolerant societies.”

The ongoing furore over Iraq has meant that Blair is still a divisive figure back home in the UK. But as Britain faces some difficult choices over the course of the next couple of years — especially Scotland’s independence vote and growing discontent over its place in the European Union — it’s clear that the former prime minister’s passion for domestic politics remains undimmed.

“There is a mood in the West at the moment, which I understand, somewhat to disengage with the problems of the world,” he says. “And  people get very angry about the difficulties that they face; we’ve been through a very severe financial crisis and then a great recession, so I understand why people feel like this.

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“But what is important is for political leaders to give people a real sense of vision today and say what Britain’s USP in the 21st century is. It is as a dynamic, open-minded country living by its brains in a world where intellectual capital is everything, which is connected, and which uses its alliances to build influence and build power — to me it’s just very obvious.

“I hope very much we hold together as a United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom holds together in the European alliance. Yes, let’s argue for change in Europe, and it’s right that we argue for that. To leave Europe would be a historic mistake.”

So what next? There’s no question that Blair is still an extraordinarily valuable asset in some quarters. Last year, as the $80bn mega merger between commodities behemoth Glencore and mining firm Xstrata hit the skids due to opposition from key shareholder Qatar Holding, Blair was credited with saving the deal, brokering a meeting in London between Glencore and Qatar’s then prime minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani. It is tough to think of anyone else with the diplomatic heft needed in order to negotiate that kind of deal.

In the past, Blair has hinted that a return to public office could be on the cards. But age, at last, may be beginning to take its toll. When the question is put to him, he replies fairly wistfully.

“I think that’s very unlikely. Look, I would have taken the Europe job if it had been offered [the first presidency of the European Council, a position that went to Belgium’s Herman Van Rompuy], but it wasn’t,” he says.

“In the meantime, what I’m doing is building up an organisation which is going to be active in many different countries in the world, promoting the ideas I believe in. And central to that is the belief that the future belongs to the open-minded, and that countries succeed from good and effective governance, and that people succeed when they’re open to each other and not closed-minded.

“And that’s what I’m interested in dedicated my life towards.”

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