Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair left office three years ago, but his decision to support the war in Iraq is still very much with him. In a new memoir, called "A Journey," Blair says he continues to study the war and even gather evidence about it. Just this year, he testified before a British panel investigating the war. He was asked if he regrets his decision to fight.
Blair writes that he could not answer yes or no - his opponents would attack him either way. He had to sidestep the issue, which led to another question when he visited our studios.
What is the word that would describe your feelings about this war?
Mr. TONY BLAIR (Former Prime Minister, Great Britain): I don't know that there is a word as such. I think that, probably, I would characterize it by saying you can't be sure yet, how people will look back on this. Hopefully, Iraq will stabilize. But truthfully, what was problematic is what's problematic in Afghanistan today. It's what's problematic in many parts of the world, which is this extremist ideology that is prepared to use terror in order to disrupt and destabilize, and that is an immensely difficult thing to deal with.
INSKEEP: Now, I want to talk about that a little more in a minute. But I'm curious; if regret is not a fair word to ask you to attach or deny, I'm just wondering what word is a fair word?
Mr. BLAIR: Well, regret, as I say in the book, you would be inhuman if you didn't feel, you know, devastated by the loss of life and by the people that have died - our soldiers, your soldiers, the civilians. But you can't say I regret a decision if you actually think it was the right decision. You know, I - in a sense, when people want you to sum up in a word, what they want you to do is sum up in a headline, something that in my judgment isn't really susceptible, either emotionally or politically, being summed up in a word or a headline.
INSKEEP: Would you describe for people a letter from an Iraqi woman that you say you have kept in your desk all these years?
Mr. BLAIR: Yes. This is someone who came to see me before the Iraqi conflict. And I remember sitting in Downing Street, up in the drawing room in Downing Street, and her explaining to me how her family had been tortured and killed by Saddam and how the country was crying out for release from Saddam. And then, after May 2003, when Saddam was toppled, she went back to Iraq, and then a few months later sectarians killed her.
And as I say in the book, you know, what would she say to me now? And that's, I think, the question that - that's why I say it's not very easy to make this judgment right now. What would she say? I don't know.
INSKEEP: What do you make of that? Because you could've received thousands of letters like that. There are thousands of stories like that.
Mr. BLAIR: There are thousands of stories like that, and the question is, as one Iraqi put it to me, but why do we have to have a choice between rule by Saddam or rule by terror? Why can't we have what you have? They actually would prefer governments that they elect and a rule of law they can rely on; and why shouldn't they?
But one of the things I say in the book, and I believe very passionately, is the West caught a - after everything that's happened - the financial crisis, the security issues we've faced - we should have confidence in our own way of life. It is actually the way of life that most people in the world aspire to if they have the chance.
INSKEEP: You also write about the battle of different narratives when it comes to the battle against terrorism. What do you mean by that?
Mr. BLAIR: Well, what I mean by that is we've got to get ourselves out of the positions in the West, of believing we are causing this terrorism. Or when these people drive car bombs into, whether it's Baghdad or Kabul, that somehow this is something we have caused.
INSKEEP: That's a narrative you're talking about and that you write about that a lot of people in the Islamic world will accept - that the West has oppressed Muslims, has backed up corrupt governments and that leads to terrorism and may even justify terrorism. That's the narrative you're talking about.
Mr. BLAIR: Yeah, and a narrative, unfortunately, stretches even into parts of our own way of thinking.
INSKEEP: What's wrong with it?
Mr. BLAIR: It's just wrong.
INSKEEP: Are parts of it true?
Mr. BLAIR: No. I don't think, frankly, any part of it's true. I can tell you back in the U.K., Muslims have the right of freedom of worship to a degree that in many Muslim countries they can't exercise. You know, people are free in our countries.
INSKEEP: A little bit earlier this year, a former head of MI-5, British intelligence service, gave testimony about the war in Iraq in which she said that that war, or perhaps we should say the narrative of that war, radicalized many Muslims inside Britain and outside Britain to turn against the West. Did the decision go to war in Iraq, the inevitable decision to have Westerners killing Muslims, with the inevitable propaganda that would be made of that, turn out to be counterproductive?
Mr. BLAIR: First of all, let's just be clear: the majority of people that have died in Iraq, have died, actually, Muslim on Muslim violence, right? In reality, the issue is this: there are two competing strains of thought within Islam. One is modernizing, sensible, that says, look, in the end, Islam's problems are for Islam to sort out and we will sort them out and we're going to embrace the 21st century.
The other is a narrative that is about a victimization by the West and leaders that are complicit with the West. There's a narrative that leads, in the end, to conflict.
INSKEEP: What would you do to get your narrative a little more strength?
Mr. BLAIR: Well, that's how the, sort of, good news rather than the bad news as it were - I think this extremism that we're facing, it's more like, to me, it's more like revolutionary communism. In other words, you know, it's a global ideological movement, but it will take a generation to confront and to knock out. But in the end, the only way of defeating it is with a better idea, and that better idea is one that many are articulating, actually, in the Arab countries that I see now, there's big processes of organization. Even a country like Saudi Arabia, I mean, its king is taking, you know, really brave decisions, pushing the country forward. And so there are these modernizing forces there and we've got to be there with them.
INSKEEP: You mention the analogy with the Cold War with fighting communism, which was a political system but basically an economic argument. This is a better fair economic system, and it was very easy for the West to counter that simply by pointing out we're richer than you are. Everybody is healthier than you are. We have more stuff. We have blue jeans. We have things that you would like. Is it harder to make a, in effect, a religious or moral argument because this is a religious movement you're fighting?
Mr. BLAIR: No. It's not harder, but it's worth remembering. Back in the 1950s, if you recall, it wasn't so obvious that the economics all went the West's way. It became obvious later. There were many people in your country and in my country who basically thought, look, we don't like the repression of the Soviet system, but nonetheless, economically, they can deliver greater benefits to people. So, it took quite a time, actually, for the economic argument to come through.
Today, this is why it's so important to counter at a religious - I know it sounds an odd thing to say but at an religious level, as well as at a political level, an ideology that says I have the true path to salvation. Anyone who doesn't agree with me is basically an infidel.
And we are engaged in what is, in some sense, is a similar notion of saying, no, there is actually a different way of looking at the world. Which is to say I'm a Christian, you're a Muslim or a Jew, but we don't have to triumph over you and you don't have to triumph over us in the religious sphere. We can co-exist together.
INSKEEP: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair is the author of a memoir, "A Journey: My Political Life." Thanks for coming by.
Mr. BLAIR: Thank you.
INSKEEP: Find a link to excerpts of Blair's book on Twitter. Go to NPRInskeep.
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