Tony Blair On Obama, U.S. Foreign Relations
Tony Blair On Obama, U.S. Foreign Relations
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is working to restore peace in the Middle East as a representative of the Middle East Quartet. Blair discusses the meaning of President-elect Barack Obama's election and its potential impact on foreign affairs. Blair offers suggestions for President Bush's post-White House transition and weighs in on the 2010 World Cup Games.
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Coming up in our international briefing, trouble up north. A coalition of opposition parties is trying to oust Canada's Conservative government just seven weeks after it won reelection. We'll ask why in just a few minutes.
But first, we're continuing our series, A Global Memo to the President, where we're asking how the rest of the world is viewing the results of the U.S. presidential election. Today we're speaking with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. He's currently serving as the representative of the Middle East Quartet, an organization working to secure peace in that region. He's visiting the U.S., and we sat down with him late yesterday at the British embassy in Washington, D.C. I started by asking him whether the presidential election here was followed closely in Great Britain.
Mr. TONY BLAIR (Middle East Envoy, United Nations Quartet; Former British Prime Minister): Yes, it was very, very closely followed, and I guess I'm not telling any secrets since there is opinion-poll evidence. I mean, I think most people are pleased with the result and felt this was great possibility for America and for the world, and I know there are tremendous expectations and it's going to be tough for the president-elect to meet all those, but I'm sure he's going to try.
MARTIN: Actually, we've been visiting with a number of heads of government - former heads of government, ambassadors, and some were telling us that actually there was a rooting section for Senator Clinton in part because of familiarity with her and also the ongoing affection for her husband, the former president.
Mr. BLAIR: Yeah, I think that's true, as well. I mean, she's held in very high regard. People rated they think she's smart and tough and determined, and personally, for the work that I do in the Middle East, the combination of her and Tim Jones, who is going to be the national security adviser, is very good because they've both got a true understanding of the issues and the problems and the capacity to make it work.
MARTIN: I want to ask a bit more about that in a minute, but I did want to ask about Barack Obama. You said that you've felt that much of your country is pleased with the result. What is it exactly that you think people are responding to in him?
Mr. BLAIR: I think - I mean, it's difficult for me to say this because in a sense it's for you to - in America to say, but I think the fact that here's this guy who is a black guy becomes the president of the United States, it's kind of reawakened people's sense that America is a country where everything is possible again. You know, that feeling which is very integral to, I think, the best of what America represents to the world.
And I think people often look at their own political systems and think, well, I wonder if I could - actually, if I can - you know, when we go on about, you know, and people always want to criticize America because it's the big superpower and then people see something like this happen and they think, you know, there is something about that system that's interesting after all. And so, I think for reasons to do with that, and also because he's a brilliant orator who gave a great sense of hope and expectation to people.
MARTIN: I wanted to talk about his appointments. He's made a number of major appointments. He named his national security team this week. Some find it odd that he included former political rivals like New York Senator Hillary Clinton. Do you?
Mr. BLAIR: No, because I think the thing about Barack Obama is that he is someone who, A, is, I think, very confident in his own skin, in himself. And I think secondly, he's a genuine searcher after the answer and therefore he doesn't really much care, you know, is it a problem having a big person around? No. If they've got something to contribute, let's have them in. And actually, I think both in the foreign policy team but also in the economic team, he's shown himself to be ready and willing and able to surround himself with major people. And that, actually, for the rest of the world gives them a great deal of confidence.
MARTIN: What will it take for Hillary Clinton to succeed as secretary of state?
Mr. BLAIR: I think for her the most important thing is to start with the analysis. I mean, what are the real issues that confront American - that confront the wider world? And I think what is necessary is to construct an agenda that is capable of unifying people, and that agenda, incidentally, is not one way because America is going to want the rest of the world to participate in this. So the key thing will be for America to try and unify the world.
Now, what that will mean is, for example, America will say, we will take the lead on climate change and we will strive for a global deal, but I think - and here's the point - America will then say, we want you in on this deal. You know, it can't just be America sorting it out. I think America will say, we are going to really move forward, the Israel-Palestine question. We're going to do our level best to engage with the concerns of countries in defeating this extremism that dominates so much of the world, but here is what we need you to do back. We need you to be supporting us in that search for peace in Israel-Palestine.
I think America will be saying, right, we will take the lead in the global economic crisis, but if we are going to do it, what do you guys going to do? You know, so I think there is a way in which America can lead, listen and create a unified agenda, but I think the thing the rest of the world will have to come to terms with - and I think they'll find this out very, very quickly with the new president - is that he's going to be expecting them to step up to the plate, too.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the British embassy in Washington, D.C. Speaking of your work with the Quartet, what do you think you can accomplish as a former head of state that you could not as a sitting prime minister?
Mr. BLAIR: I think the biggest thing is you've just got the time to focus on it. So I'm - every month, you know, for significant periods of time I'm actually there on the ground in Israel and Palestine. I think also because, you know, I've been at the senior level in politics, I also understand the way that the politics works, and I'm able, perhaps, to have an engagement with the senior figures in Israel and Palestine and indeed in the broader world about this issue that maybe someone who hadn't been at that level couldn't. So I think there are all sorts of things that I can do in that regard, and actually I found it challenging but actually immensely exciting to be involved in that.
MARTIN: What is it that you would wish of the Obama administration to support this work? What do you think would be most useful? And is there something specifically different that he needs to do from the way the Bush administration engaged this problem, in your view?
Mr. BLAIR: I think the single biggest thing - and he has already made this absolutely clear - is to take it seriously from the first day of the presidency, and I think he's determined to do that. And the very fact that he has appointed a team of people who are heavyweight and who know the issue is a good indication of that. That's the first thing the world wants to see. The first thing people need to know, not just in Israel and Palestine but in the wider region, is he gets it and he takes it seriously. And he's done that, and I think will do it even more when he is president.
MARTIN: You worked closely with both former presidents, American Presidents Clinton and Bush. Is there something that he can learn from either of these men that you would encourage him to think about?
Mr. BLAIR: I'm going to tread very carefully on that one, but I do think a lot of the groundwork has been laid. So for example, what President Clinton did was create some fairly clear parameters about the agreement and how it could be done. It happened at the very end of his presidency, however, so there's - it's always tougher in those circumstances.
For President Bush, actually, in the last year, when there has been real American engagement since the Annapolis process was launched, actually, we have made some progress. You know, on the West Bank, for example, as a result of the work that we are doing, I mean, the economy of the West Bank is growing again now. If you take a place like Bethlehem, where I was the other evening, when I first got there hotel occupancy was 10 percent. The place was literally, you know, economically dead. Hotel occupancy is 80 percent. They've got a million tourists now. It's going to be full for Christmas.
You know, there are things happening, and there is a political process in which the real issues are being resolved. But again, it's at the end of President Bush's presidency. So the important thing is if we want to resolve this, to get this moving right at the very beginning.
MARTIN: I feel I'd be remiss if I did not ask about Iraq, one of the core issues in the presidential campaign. Of course, the economy became an important issue over the course of the thing, but Iraq was a significant issue, and one of President Obama - President-elect Obama's critical platform issues was promising an orderly but definitive pullout from Iraq. Is that realistic? Can he do that?
Mr. BLAIR: Yeah. I mean, I think that, you know, partly actually because in the last year, as a result of the surge and other things, that there has been real change and improvement and the Iraqi government has shown it's prepared to take responsibility. I mean, the object of everybody is to get that situation brought about where the Iraqis are in control of their own affairs. There's that, and obviously, there is going to be the continuing struggle in Afghanistan.
But I personally think that we are fighting basically one battle, and I think there is a direct link between what happened in Mumbai with what happens in Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Yemen, Algeria - you name it. There's a (unintelligible)battle going on, and it's about whether people can coexist peacefully in the modern world across cultures and religions or whether they're consigned to conflict.
And actually, you know, stabilizing Iraq is one part of getting there; stabilizing Afghanistan is one part of getting there. But it's all part of the same thing because in each case what is necessary is that politics of conflict are replaced by the politics of reconciliation and coexistence.
MARTIN: You've been hesitant on this advice business, but I'm going to ask one more time, do you have any advice for President Bush as he enters this next phase of his life?
Mr. BLAIR: Oh, that's kind of easier to do, you know, since he's going out of office and I've done that now myself. I think the most important thing is to focus on - the great thing about not being the prime minister or the president is that you decide your own entry to a far greater extent. I mean, the thing if you're a president or prime minister, I mean, I spent, you know, virtually six months of my premiership fighting an outbreak of what is called foot and mouth disease, you know, in my country, which is really serious. Now, did I come into politics to fight this outbreak of foot and mouth disease? No, but I had to do it. So I think the great thing, really, when you leave office is you can focus and therefore you should on the things that really matter to you, that really motivate you and inspire you and try to make a contribution.
MARTIN: Is there anything in particular that his temperament and skills would be particularly helpful in addressing at this stage?
Mr. BLAIR: Well, I think that's really for him to decide, to be honest. But I mean, I think, you know, one of the things that isn't always known about this presidency is, for example, America's relationship with China has become a lot stronger in recent years, and I think - in my view, a very, very important strategic relationship. So I think there's value that he can add in these types of situations, and obviously, he's very dedicated to the concept of freedom, and that's really his guiding belief, I think.
MARTIN: And finally, a very important question: World Cup coming up in 2010. Any predictions about how England is going to do?
Mr. BLAIR: I think I'd better - even though I'm now out of office, it would be very safe to predict that England will win triumphantly. Anyway, I think I'll keep my fingers and toes crossed on that one. But we're doing better now. I'm glad you guys are finally realizing that soccer is proper football. This might be a bit controversial...
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: I'm going to take the diplomatic course on that and...
Mr. BLAIR: Yeah, I don't think it's wise...
MARTIN: Not address that at all. Tony Blair is the former British prime minister. He's currently a representative of the Middle East Quartet. He was kind enough to give us some time at the British embassy in Washington, D.C. Mr. Blair, thank you so much for speaking with us.
Mr. BLAIR: Thank you.
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