Complete NPR Interview with Tony Blair Read and hear NPR's exclusive interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday, in which he defended his decision to support the United States in the invasion of Iraq.
NPR logo Complete NPR Interview with Tony Blair

Complete NPR Interview with Tony Blair

Complete NPR Interview with Tony Blair

  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks during a joint press conference with President Bush at the White House, May 17, 2007. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Tony Blair speaks during a joint press conference with President Bush at the White House, May 17, 2007.

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday defended his decision to support the United States in the invasion of Iraq, but he added that he believed the only way international terrorism could be defeated was "not through force of arms, but through the force of ideas."

In an NPR News exclusive interview with Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep, Blair also discussed global climate change and the genocide in Darfur. Blair was in Washington for meetings with President Bush before stepping down as prime minister next month, after 10 years at the head of the British government.

Inskeep began their conversation by asking Blair about Iraq and his tenure at 10 Downing Street:

Would it trouble you if, after you leave office, your time in office is defined largely by the war in Iraq?

Well, it would trouble me if that was the only thing, but — because there's so much else that's happened in the UK. You know, and I think of the economic stability, the big health and education reforms and pensions reforms, and, you know, the constitutional changes that we've made in the country, the introduction of the minimum wage, and — you know, there's a whole set of things that are very, very big changes for us indeed. But I've got no difficulty with the conflict in Iraq being a major part of what I've done, because it is a major part of what I've done.

If history were to narrow it down to one thing, which sometimes happens with history, you'd be proud of that.

It does sometimes happen in history, but let's wait and see. There's no point in me trying to predict that. And I'd just say to you that, you know, history's got some time to run.

And you remain proud of that — of the choices you've made?

Yeah, because I think it was right to remove Saddam, it was right to give the country a chance to have a democratic process, and it's right now to try to fight people who by terrorism are trying to disrupt that process.

I want to ask about some of the effects of that conflict and how it may have affected other large goals that you have had during your time as Prime Minister.

In 1999 in Chicago you gave a famous speech on the subject of intervention around the world. You laid out some conditions in which Western nations should intervene in various crises. And you said, I've written down the quote here: "First, are we sure of our case?" Does the way the case was made on Iraq make it harder, will it make it harder the next time that it seems necessary to intervene in a crisis situation?

I don't think so because I think people judge them on — you know, each situation on their merits. And I've taken action four times incidentally: Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Iraq. I think it depends very much on the situation. I mean, personally, if we have the capability of doing so, I would intervene in more situations, not less.

Such as?

Well, I think what's happening in Darfur at the moment is a complete scandal, and the world should act.

Which raises another question: Does the fact that the war in Iraq has gone on and on limit your ability as a leader? Has it limited your ability as a leader to intervene in a place like that?

I don't think so, because the trouble with intervening in Darfur is that, really, the African countries would not want the Western countries carrying the brunt of the military action. So I don't think that's Iraq-centered. However, you're right in this sense, that obviously it's a major, major issue; it's a major, major conflict, and there's no point in denying that it hasn't turned out the way people wanted it to. But you know, you will find in the course of this interview that I defend very strongly our position, because my view is that we're in a great danger — both sides of the Atlantic — of deciding that because the enemy that we're fighting is making life really tough for us, so our will to see this through should somehow be diminished. Which is not the way that we would look at most situations, and in my view is not the way that we should look at this.

I mean, if you look at what's happened in Iraq, what's happened in Iraq is the whole of the nature of the conflict has mutated over the past few years. It began as a conflict to remove Saddam and was over within a few months. We've now been — what, four years, American, British forces, the forces of other countries there, with a United Nations resolution, with the consent of the first-ever properly democratically elected government in Iraq. And what we're facing there is a fight against forces that are immensely destructive, using terrorism as a weapon, but who don't represent the majority of the people in Iraq. And our job is to hold firm in those circumstances.

Did it ever occur to you that after that first phase was over and was victorious, that you should have just left at that point, and left Iraq to whatever would happen next?

No, that didn't occur to me, because I think once you've intervened in a situation like that, you've then got a responsibility to try and make sure that the next stage of the process is carried through. And it's the same in Afghanistan. We don't get the same publicity in Afghanistan. Not over here. In fact there are more British troops in Afghanistan than there are in Iraq. But it's tough there too. British troops are doing some of the toughest fighting they've done for, I don't know, for decades.

Granting that you believe that Iraq was still the right thing to do, as it's gone on year after year, have you noticed opportunities being missed, where you just don't have the resources, the political capital, the troops, or the allies to do what you want to do elsewhere in the world?

No, I haven't noticed that. But I have noticed that there's been an — obviously, a fall in the confidence that, in your country and in my country, there has been in what we're doing in Iraq. And at the moment we're in a very fragile situation with our opinion. Because people are saying, "Well, okay, but look, there's all these problems happening there, look, it's a mess. It's really difficult."

And that's where you've got, just very carefully and at quite a profound level, to analyze what is actually happening there in order to see what you should be doing.

Help me out there a little bit, because people have heard your statements, your defenses of the war. People have heard President Bush's defenses of the war, and many people nevertheless have grown tired of the war, turned against the war.

Yeah. Of course. Because...

What is it that you know that no one else knows?

I don't think it's that I know anything that nobody else knows. But it's a question of, why is it difficult? That's the question you've got to ask. Look, the reason why people in Britain, people in America have, if you like, lost patience to an extent, is because they see the carnage and the bloodshed going on and they say, this is now four years after the fall of Saddam. So if that is still happening, that must mean that the thing is wrong. Right, that we shouldn't be doing it.

Whereas my question is, why is this bloodshed happening? And the truth of the matter is, it is being driven largely by al Qaida on the one hand, Iranian-backed elements on the other hand, who are linking up with a minority, a small minority of extremists inside Iraq in order to do maximum damage and carnage so that people do lose faith and patience in our public opinions.

And in the end, if we end up in this situation where we're confronted with what is undoubtedly something that is, you know, totally evil — to drive a car bomb into the middle of a crowded market and kill a hundred completely random innocent men, women and children - if in those circumstances we end up saying, well since we're facing that battle, and since it is tough and ugly and we're also losing our troops and our forces and that's a tremendous, you know, thing of grief and anguish for the families but also for our countries — if we end up in that situation saying, well, we then back away, we've handed the most enormous victory to the enemy we're fighting.

I want to ask again about missed opportunities, and I want to stipulate that you feel that on balance it's better to be in Iraq than not, but...

And certainly better than if Saddam and his two sons were still running Iraq, because in my view we'd just have a stack of different problems.

But as you look over the last several years, haven't there been occasions when you've had to say to yourself, I might have been able to make progress on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, but Iraq is in the way, drains energy, drains credibility. Or there are any number of issues where you just did not have the time or the capital to deal with them?

I don't — you know, if you take the Palestinian issue, the reason why there's not — you know the reason why there isn't progress in Palestine in the way there should be? It's because the same forces are at work. Look, there's absolutely no doubt at all that you could get a Middle East peace process that would deliver an independent, viable Palestinian state and an Israel confident of its security, living side by side in peace. The reason you can't is that every time we get anywhere near progress, the same terrorism erupts.

Well, there was a time that people hoped, perhaps you hoped, that the war in Iraq would make it easier to achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Perhaps it's ended up being the opposite?

I don't think it's been the opposite, but I think that if you are able to make progress in Iraq it will help enormously the forces of progress everywhere in the Middle East, which of course is why the forces of reaction are trying to stop us. I mean, you know, there is a sense in which, and I can — if you don't mind me saying so — feel this coming through in the questions, in which we are losing sight of what the enemy is that we're fighting. Now some people kind of don't like, you know, they say, use the word "the enemy," but actually that's what it is. I mean in the last few weeks — it's not gotten much publicity in Britain or America — you've have terrorist acts in Morocco, in Algeria. You've had a series of arrests in Saudi Arabia, just in the last few days. You've had major terrorist incidents in Pakistan, in order to destabilize the government there. This, this is a global movement, with an ideology founded on a perverted and warped view of Islam, that is everywhere.

Which is able to send its people to Iraq to get trained, and back out again.

But they were able, before that, to send them to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, there are some of them being trained in Pakistan; they're being trained now in Africa. But what does that mean? That you - it means one thing to me, which is that you get out in every place they are and you try and stop them, and you try and also help those countries through a process of development and change, in order to be able to withstand those elements of terrorism.

And the other thing is that, I mean, if I — you see, if I have a criticism of our policy, if you like, it's not the criticism that most people make. Most people say, "Why have you done this? You've provoked even more terrorism. You know, haven't you made this situation worse?" My answer to that is, emphatically not. The fact is, September 11th came before Afghanistan or Iraq. This terrorism has been a generation growing, it'll take a generation to knock it out. The criticism that I think is more telling is that the only way you are going to knock out this terrorism eventually is not just through the force of arms, but through the force of ideas.

And if there is a weakness in our position, it is, in my view, that you need to construct an agenda that is about freedom, yes, and democracy, yes, but also about justice and about opportunity for people, which is why progress on poverty in Africa matters, in my view. I think a deal on climate change matters, even for this broader picture, and I think the Middle East peace process matters. So if you want to defeat this terrorism, you have to defeat it at the level of ideas as well as the level of security.

Do you think that the Western world has been a little slower to come around to paying attention to an issue like climate change, which you've called the single most important issue we face, a little slower to come around to that because of the distraction of the war? Has it been harder to get public attention?

No, I don't think the war's made any difference on this, but I think, the fact is, there's been a situation in which there have been people who've been doubtful as to whether climate change is happening. I think that argument is largely dissipating now, I must say. But I also think there is an issue which we're trying to resolve now in the context of the G8 summit in the next few weeks, based around this process I established at the Gleneagles G8 summit a couple of years ago, which is how do you get a climate change deal that involves China and India and the developing world as well as America and Europe and Japan? So that's the tough question, I think.

Do you find it frustrating that your own country, where you have spoken out earlier than many people on this issue — even in your own country, it appears to be difficult to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? They've actually gone up during your tenure.

Actually, greenhouse gas emissions haven't, they've fallen significantly. But CO2 emissions...

If you take aviation and some other things out of it.

No, on any basis, greenhouse gas emissions have fallen. But you're right, it's actually CO2 emissions have risen very slightly, although nothing like what they would have risen, incidentally, if we hadn't have taken a whole set of actions. Well, you see, my attitude to this is that you won't get the big reductions in greenhouse gas emissions unless you get a climate change deal that involves more than countries acting on their own. Now, we've actually formulated this European emissions trading system, which over the years to come are going to deliver major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in Europe, and we're part of that. And we ourselves in Britain have now got a, quite a radical action plan to take a whole series of measures, you know, everything from renewable energy to energy efficiency, to things that are quite controversial like the renewal of nuclear power and so on, which are going to be, which will make a big difference to what we do.

Why does China, for example, have to cut its emissions in order for you to cut your emissions in Britain?

Well, it doesn't, but the reality is, if we shut down the whole of Britain, right, shut it down, nothing emitted, within two years, the growth in Chinese emissions would wipe out the difference we would make. That's the reason. I mean the reason is because China is almost at the same level of emission today as America, and within a few years will pass it. So if you - my point is very simple to people, and this is why, you've got to get the big countries in the deal - is that, I mean, Britain can be the most radical country it wants to be, with two percent of world emissions. And it's falling as a percentage. If you don't get China and India and America in this deal, I mean, you kind of, you're not really where it's at, I'm afraid.

I want to ask another question about how your country has changed during your ten years as prime minister. Is it a little harder now, maybe even a lot harder, to define who's British, and what that means?

Well, I would like to say to that, no, that it's not harder to define it, because I think we are, as a country today, you know, very proud of the British values, which are about freedom and democracy and respect for other people, and those are values that we share in common, and we're proud of our history and we're proud of our traditions. But we're also proud of the fact that we have people of different races and cultures and faiths who work very closely together. And when we won the bid for the Olympics a couple of years ago, and London made the successful bid, what was interesting about London was that today it's a country — it's a capital city with so much dynamism and energy, but partly because it's got, you know, lots of people from all sorts of different parts of the world who work together and get on together. And I think immigration is one of the toughest issues for any modern democratic country in the Western world. And it causes tremendous problems and tensions, but at the same time, actually, migration for us in Britain has in many ways also strengthened our country and given it a dynamism and an energy that it needs.

And also raised questions about religion, Islam vs. Christianity vs. anything else. Raised questions about homegrown terrorists in some cases.

Yeah, but you know, the way we defeat that is to bring people of different faiths together, and let the true faith of Islam — which is a peaceful religion actually, it's not a violent religion at all — let it, let those sensible, moderate, majority voices in Islam be heard. But you know, this is — to go back a bit to what we were talking about before — but my view is you will never defeat this unless you don't just argue against the methods of these terrorists, but also their ideas and their presumed sense of grievance against the West.

I mean — look, one of the people who were responsible for the 7th of July bombings in Britain that killed so many innocent people, and — this is the guy who made the video, and he was talking about the oppression of Muslims, and you know, I remember watching it and thinking, but you were born in Britain, you know, you had the benefits of a free national health service, of a great education system, of growing up in a prosperous country where you're free to express your views, and — where is the oppression? You know, you have more freedom than you do in many Muslim countries.

There's the challenge, though: he probably knew all that, and still felt as he felt. How do you win a battle of ideas like that?

You win it by confronting it all the way through. You confront this nonsense that — look, you can say that Iraq was the right thing or the wrong thing to do. Or Afghanistan was the right thing to do or the wrong thing to do. What is completely absurd is to say it was done because the countries were Muslim. The first military action I took was Kosovo, where we went in to defend Kosovar Albanians, who were Muslims, against Serbia, that is an Orthodox Christian country. Now I didn't actually take the action because they were Muslims or because the Serbs were Christians; I took the action because I thought it was the right thing to do. But you've got to go right into the depths of their ideology and confront it head-on if you want to defeat it, I think.

Will you be working on that issue after you leave office?

Well, I'd like to, yes, I mean I'd — I would like to, because I think this question to do with religious faith and how the faiths come together and understand each other better is an important part of this. I mean, one of the things that's very difficult sometimes is the 20th century was a century dominated by political ideology, very fundamental nature. And then at the end of the 20th century, really, those fundamental divides of political ideology have largely disappeared. You know no one, apart from a very few people, argue for the old communist position — I mean it's all a form of market economy. And what's strange is that suddenly in the early 21st century it's almost a religious ideology that has become prominent. And I think what is important is that we try to get a better understanding and better dialogue between people of different faiths, because a lot of it's - you know, a lot of it's just based on misunderstanding. And I think this is why it's interesting for Christians to read the Koran, to get an understanding of the fact that, for example, Muslims revere Jesus as a prophet. And it's important for Muslims to understand that Christianity is not about, you know, the Crusades of the centuries ago. It's actually a very tolerant religion. So, you know what I mean? I think that these are important things for us to explore.

How would you focus on that issue or call attention to that issue as a former prime minister?

I don't know. You know, I'm so busy still being the actual prime minister, I've not worked out exactly how...

People have spoken about some kind of foundation; they look at the Clinton Foundation, perhaps, as a model...

Well, all these things are possible, but I just don't know at the moment. But I am interested in the interfaith ideas, and it's something that I, you know, I think a lot about and would like to work on, but whether that's possible or not, I just don't know.

I want to ask you about a couple of other things, Prime Minister. In your speech announcing your departure from office, you said you looked back on 1997 when you first came to power, and spoke about the high expectations of that time, and said in fact that the expectations were too high perhaps. Which expectations proved to be too high?

Well, back in 1997 — it's almost impossible, if you weren't there, to understand this — I mean, we'd had 18 years, 18 years of one government. And, you know, it was like you came into power on the crest of this wave of the most enormous enthusiasm. And I suppose people thought things would just change overnight. And that's never possible to do. And I think it was Mario Cuomo who once said that you campaign in poetry but you govern in prose, and that is absolutely true. However, having said that, I also said in that — the speech I made when I announced my resignation, that there was only one British government since the war that had got sustained growth in every single economic quarter, a larger amount of jobs, lower unemployment, cut crime and improved results in outcomes in health and education, and that was our one, so.

Do you find yourself at this moment thinking, if I just had one more year, there's one more thing I could do?

Well, you try and knock that idea out of your head, because it's just in the nature of politics. And the important thing sometimes about power, because we don't have any term limit. You guys, in one sense it's a completely different system, and in one sense you're fortunate to have it — I'm not saying we should have it in Britain, but you know, you have term limits, there's two terms the president does and that's it. Strictly speaking, in theory in Britain you can go on, you know, forever, but it's not very wise.

Well, I do want to know your own expectations. Was there something at the beginning that you thought: I'm going to be able to change the world in this way? And you discovered very quickly that you couldn't? Or eventually that you couldn't?

No, I don't think so. I don't leave disappointed in that sense at all. Actually, I'm still immensely optimistic about the world and the possibility of changing it. I think the interesting thing for me is, if you'd said when I came in 1997, what was the balance between domestic and foreign policy, I would have, you know, foreign policy was something, you know, in the bottom drawer. Now I happen to think that it's just the way the world is today, that the line between domestic and foreign policy is increasingly blurred. I mean, you know, and the nature of the world today, I mean I'm convinced of this, its defining characteristic is interdependence. And yet politics, both left and right, hasn't really quite worked out the implications of that yet.

One other thing I'm curious about, and my producer Madhulika may have a question for you as well.

All right, this is sort of, everyone joins in, right...

Right, like a press conference. Before you took office, you gave an interview in which you spoke about your father, who, as some people will know, ran for Parliament and had a stroke, never was about to complete the campaign. You said that your father transferred his ambitions to his kids, and "I felt I couldn't let him down." Have you gotten to the point where you think he'd be satisfied with you now?

Well, that's a very difficult question, and my dad's still alive. Well, I let him down in one sense, since he was a Conservative and I went the other way. But no, I think he was really proud that I became leader of the Labour party and prime minister. And you know what families are like; in the end they stick together and they have a sense of pride in achievement. But actually, the single thing that my father did that made most difference to me in a way was that he, he was a guy from a, very much a poor background. He was a foster child, he grew up in Glasgow in the 1930s, he was a Communist then; he went to war, came out a Conservative, which wasn't very usual in those days. But the thing for him, because he was a self-made guy, was that he believed that if you became successful than you became Conservative. And that the trouble with the Labour party was that it always held you back. And I always took, I kind of imported that notion.

You believed that part of it?

Well, I believed that that was the problem with the Labour party. That in progressive politics, we have a danger of sort of looking on people who are ambitious or successful and saying, well, maybe, you know, that means that they should then change their political allegiance. And I was always — the biggest change I think and I hope I made in the Labour party was to say that the Labour party should be the marriage of aspiration and compassion. That there's nothing wrong with wanting the best for yourself and your family, it's just that you don't want to exclude that possibility for other families, too. That that's the basis upon which our politics works. And that early lesson from my dad as to what was the thing that was kind of wrong with the Labour party was a very formative influence in then shaping the changes I made in the Labour party.

And that was close enough to his beliefs to avoid any uncomfortable dinners or...?

Uh, no, there were a few, although, being a good Tory, he was just pleased his boy had done well. (Laughs) And he then actually joined the Labour party later, but I never quizzed him too carefully on whether he'd switched his beliefs or not, since I might have got some politically incorrect answers, I think.

Well, Prime Minister Blair, thanks very much.

Thank you.

The transcript includes minor edits for clarity.