‘It might be worth listening to me’
Tony Blair’s legacy is hotly contested. He defends it to Robert Philpot and Adam Harrison
The expected publication next year of the much-delayed Chilcot inquiry will reopen, if it ever closed, the debate about Britain’s most controversial foreign policy action since Suez: the decision to join the United States in the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
But, as the man at the centre of that debate recognises, Iraq is not simply a matter of bitter controversy upon which historians will have to render a judgement. The fallout from the choice Tony Blair made nearly 12 years ago rests at the heart of current arguments about who is to blame for the rise of Islamic State and how Britain responds to it.
Blair says he agrees ‘completely’ with the assessment of former foreign secretary David Miliband that Iraq ‘engendered a deep suspicion of intervention’, the consequences of which are apparent in the government’s reluctance to join the US and its allies in pursuing the campaign against Islamic State into Syria, as well as its insistence that there will be no British ‘boots on the ground’.
But while the former prime minister accepts that ‘we bear responsibility in part for Iraq as it is because we removed the dictatorship back in 2003’, he refuses to accept that the war caused the rise of Islamic State there. ‘The thing I’m challenging is the notion that if you’d left someone like Saddam there that things would have been easy. First, they wouldn’t have been, and, second, let’s not forget the reason these people came back out of Syria was when we didn’t intervene in that crisis.’ Blair notes that, while jihadis were ‘drawn into the arena’ in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq, they had been ‘pretty much beaten’ by US and British forces by 2011.
He attacks ‘the myth at the heart of a lot of the thinking on the left’: that the Iraq war ‘created this problem’. Moreover, he says, ‘the ugly and unavoidable choice that we have is that you either deal with it by getting engaged with it, with all the difficulties that that implies, or you stay out. But … do not kid yourself that if you stay out the problem disappears.’ Blair cites the experiences of Iraq, Libya and Syria. In Iraq, he suggests, there was a demand that Saddam relinquish power, followed by military action and the deployment of troops afterwards. The result, he accepts, was ‘very difficult’. But, he continues, in Libya, ‘we called for Gaddafi to go, we used air power to make him go, we didn’t put troops in after. Libya today is a problem for the entirety of the Middle East and the northern part of Africa. In the case of Syria, we called for [Assad] to go, we didn’t use troops, and Syria is in a worse state than any of them.’
Blair reiterates his belief that Islamic State cannot be defeated by military action in Iraq alone. ‘You have to defeat them in Syria, too,’ he argues, and he wants to keep the possibility of Britain’s involvement in Syria ‘on the table’. ‘There may come a moment when it’s possible for us to do that; I hope that’s the case,’ he says. He also believes that Islamic State cannot be defeated without ground troops. ‘The question,’ Blair suggests, ‘is whose, and they don’t necessarily need to be ours.’ But, he adds, ‘I know these campaigns all change very fast … and we should keep our options open.’
Nonetheless, the former prime minister warns that the defeat of Islamic State will not mark the end of the battle against an extremism fought by what he terms ‘fanatics [who] are prepared to kill without mercy and die without regret’. Instead, he predicts a ‘generation-long struggle’ akin to the cold war, with which he sees ‘real similarities’. ‘In the sense that it requires a total commitment over a long period of time and it requires you both to have a security aspect [and] what I would call an ideological fightback, it’s very similar to the struggle against communism.’
Blair is frustrated that, for many Britons, Iraq effectively disqualifies him from contributing to this debate. He predicts, however, that this will change: ‘At some point … people will come to see that this is indeed a complicated and difficult argument and [that] this is something … I’ve spent not just my time in office but … the last seven years studying. I’m out in the Middle East twice a month, I’m seeing it first-hand. So when people say, “Oh, well don’t listen to him because of Iraq”, well, precisely because I’ve gone through these experiences it may just be that it’s worth at least listening to my reflections on them.’
Seven years as the representative of the Quartet – the informal diplomatic group established by the US, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations in 2002 to push the Middle East peace process and assist with Palestinian economic development and institution-building – do not appear to have sapped Blair’s optimism. Despite the war between Hamas and Israel during the summer, he detects ‘an opportunity of changing the situation in Gaza significantly and setting out a political horizon’ for Palestinian statehood. He criticises, however, the decision of Sweden’s new centre-left government to recognise a Palestinian state and Labour’s decision to whip its members of parliament to vote in favour of such a motion in last month’s debate in the House of Commons. ‘I understand people feel very frustrated about the situation [the] Palestinians find themselves in but the truth of the matter is that the only solution that will work is a negotiated settlement,’ he responds. ‘I think Israel would be very sensible to read the speeches in that debate and understand how strong the feeling is. But I know dealing with this issue day in, day out, there’s only one way you can resolve it and it’s not through resolutions in the UN or elsewhere, I’m afraid, it’s on the ground.’
Foreign policy is unlikely to be at the forefront of most voters’ minds when Britain goes to the polls next May. Nonetheless, another of Blair’s legacies – the decision to remove transitional controls and immediately allow migration into Britain from new EU member states such as Poland and Hungary in 2004 – is a major factor in the debate around immigration which has fuelled the rise of the United Kingdom Independence party. The former prime minister urges Labour not to give any ground to Nigel Farage. ‘Let’s be clear: We don’t think that Ukip’s right, not on immigration and not on Europe – so the first thing you’ve got to be really careful of doing is … saying things that suggest that they’re kind of justified in their policy because what you’re actually going to do is validate their argument when in fact you don’t believe in it,’ he says. He accepts the need to have rules around immigration – and says his support in office for identity cards stemmed from a belief that they were crucial for managing it – so that ‘the system doesn’t get abused and exploited, and you don’t end up with people feeling that they’ve lost control over their communities and their lives.’
But he is clear that stopping immigration would be ‘a disaster for this country’. Labour, he says, should not ‘end up chasing after the policies of a party like Ukip, who you don’t agree with, whose policies would take this country backwards economically, politically, in every conceivable way, and who, ultimately, at the heart of what they do, have a rather nasty core of prejudice that none of us believe in, which you’ve actually got to take on and fight. So the way to deal with this is to deal with it by what you believe.’
Blair also believes that David Cameron’s handling of the threat from Ukip is politically self-defeating. The Conservative party’s ‘Clause IV is Europe, and the fact that they haven’t dealt with it and have now allowed this thing to run away again with their party, it doesn’t do them any electoral favours at all.’ The former prime minister believes the Tories would attract more support ‘if they actually stood up against these people and said: “You don’t understand the way the world works today, your policies will take us backwards and we’re not going there”.’
Blair knows that his brand of third way politics is currently deeply unfashionable in some parts of the Labour party, even if it is undergoing something of a revival in an eclectic group of European centre-left parties. While it has been embraced by the prime ministers of France, Italy, Albania and Malta, Blair admits to being slightly startled when the Maltese prime minister recently told him he had worked as an intern on Labour’s 1997 campaign. Nonetheless, he is convinced that a third way emphasis on ‘strong values, but practical, non-ideological solutions’ is ‘definitely where people are’, even if, Blair says in a barely disguised reference to the party he led for 13 years, ‘it’s often not where political parties are because they want to appeal to their activists’. But, he argues, Labour should beware: ‘There’s a huge desire in a large part of the media in this country to return British politics to a traditional Tory party fighting a traditional Labour party.’ Such a contest, the only man who has led Labour to victory in the last 40 years concludes grimly, always results in ‘a traditional result’.
Photo: Paul Heartfield
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