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This is a great era of possibility: Tony Blair

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wears many hats after he left 10, Downing Street. On the eve of his address to the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Saturday, Blair talked about his current concerns. Excerpts from an interview he gave HT's Foreign Editor Amit Baruah.

india Updated: Nov 21, 2008 18:51 IST
Hindustan Times

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wears many hats after he left 10, Downing Street. On the eve of his address to the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit on Saturday, Blair talked about his current concerns. Excerpts from an interview he gave HT's Foreign Editor Amit Baruah:

Amit Baruah: How's your new life after being Prime Minister? Are you enjoying it or do you miss the trappings of power?

Tony Blair: Ten years as Prime Minister is a long time. It's long enough. This is a new chapter of my life and I'm enjoying it immensely. I do work as the quartet representative for the Middle East peace process and I have my faith foundation. I do work on climate change…trying to find elements for a new global deal. I do various business things. It's a very busy life.

The great difference is this – I concentrate on the things that I want to. Whereas as prime minister, you concentrate on things that come to your desk.

AB: But you had a very busy life as prime minister…surely you must miss some of that…

TB: From time to time, especially when something major like the economic crisis is going on. But, on the other hand, there are ways you can have influence. I am very passionate about the religious, inter-faith issue. I was always preparing for the moment I would leave office. I always wanted to leave young enough – physically and mentally fit enough to do something else.

AB: As far as the Middle East is concerned, do you see any ray of hope? Despite political commitments, a Palestinian State has proved elusive.

TB: I understand totally why most of the world is pretty skeptical that anything has happened in the last year at all. But actually it has. The single most important thing is that we now have a far clearer way to settle this if we want to do it.

This issue has to be gripped from the very first day by the new American president. And it has to be focused upon relentlessly till we get it done. But it can be done.

AB: If we have a solution to the Palestinian problem, do you think that much of the cause for political terrorism would go off stage?

TB: I think if we can resolve this issue it is the single most important thing we can do to diminish the power of this wrong, reactionary, but I'm afraid, prevalent narrative about Islam and its relations with the West. That is not because the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has caused this extremism. It hasn't.

However, to resolve that dispute is such a powerful expression and symbol of peaceful co-existence…it would be an enormous act of empowerment, of the modern and sensible people in Islam, who are a majority, and a great blow to the extremists who want to use the dispute to say that the West and Islam are in fundamental conflict.

AB: Post-9/11 do you think we focused more on security and law and order issues rather than fighting terrorism politically?

TB: I've always had the same view. When extremism takes the form of terrorism, you have to be able to defeat it militarily. You know that in India and we know that in the UK and the rest of the world. However, its ultimate defeat won't come from weapons, but ideas. This is why I'm so concerned about education. Inter-faith understanding is also very important.

AB: In a recent lecture you gave to Yale University, you mentioned the rise of the East. Where do you place India in this rise?

TB: Absolutely at the centre of it. India and China in the years to come will be the biggest powers in the world. I think this economic crisis has hastened the shift of power to the East. I also think it has brought home to the West the fact that it's going to have to partner with the East.

It's amazing how quickly the G8 became the G20.

AB: Our prime minister mentioned this morning that leaders of developing countries were called basically for breakfast and lunch at G8 meetings. He thinks this has changed now…

TB: He's completely right. At my last G8 in 2005, I really tried to make this central. My view was that to have a G8 and not have an India or China was absurd.

I think that whether formally, certainly de facto, you will end up in a situation where I would say that the main decisions next year will be taken at an extended level.

AB: You think that would make decision making more inclusive and easier to implement?

TB: More inclusive, certainly; easier to implement question mark. The whole point about today's world is we are inter-dependent, inter-connected, inter-related. Politics has gone global.

AB: The sinking of a Somali pirate boat by an Indian Navy ship reflects a more robust strategic approach adopted by India. Would you go along with that?

TB: Absolutely correct and absolutely right to take the action. You can't mess around with this. If you end up having pirate ships disrupting shipping, you're going to end up with yet another problem that you don't need. Also, this piracy is also being used to fund terrorism.

AB: Earlier this year, India was able to engage in civil nuclear trade with Nuclear Supplier Group nations. How to do see India's nuclear status in that context?

TB: I think it's very important that India was able to do this deal with the United States. I supported it very strongly. For India to be fully powered in the nuclear picture is sensible and right.

AB: We've had a really momentous election in the United States. What do you think the world can expect from Barack Hussein Obama as President?

TB: This is a great era of possibility. I also think we've got to be realistic. What he can offer the world is a partnership. But, here's the thing about partnerships – he does something for us, but we've got to do something for him.

I think pretty soon people will understand that he will lead the world towards a climate change deal, but that means a climate change deal with the major developing economies of India and China in it too.

He will try hard for peace in the Middle East, but will also be expecting the Europeans and the allies to do more in Afghanistan. He will take the right measures for the economic downturn and expect others to be taking those measures too.

I think this is a chance for a new partnership between America and the world, but let's be clear: the expectations are huge, they are not always consistent and no one can meet all the expectations. I've been in this position myself.

It's not going to be a one-way street…he's got his own politics and we've got to help him with that.

AB: With the benefit of hindsight, would you say that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake?

TB: I mean, personally, I still hold the same view. I spend a lot of time in the Middle East now. I think the question is would the Middle East be safer and more stable if Saddam (Hussein) and his two sons were still running Iraq.

At least I feel capable of having that argument. Fortunately, in the last year, things have begun to turn around there (Iraq). There are people who say that Saddam would have been a break on Iran. It's possible. It's also possible he would have been a competitor…I think there will be judgement made…

AB: But do you think you could have done things differently?

TB: I don't think there's ever a situation when you look back and think that everything went all right and according to plan. It never does. But I do think the essential point is this: Saddam was removed in May 2003; really what has been happening since then is a fight against extremist elements since then…if you look at the Middle that's the battle going on everywhere… it's the battle going on in Afghanistan.

AB: But don't you think that Islamist forces worldwide were given a cause to mobilize in Iraq?

TB: Sure, I understand that point. My judgment is that they will always find a cause until we take their narrative head on.

AB: So, you think there is something in Islam, or the use of Islam?

TB: I think it is a perversion of Islam. What has grown around it is a narrative that says Islam is fundamentally in opposition to those who do not share Islam; Islam is under oppression from the West and its allies…it's an ideology, it's a movement that will only be defeated when we take it head on and say you have no grievance against the West. Muslims have far more freedom to worship in the West than they have in their own countries.

AB: Do you visualize a situation where you might return to active politics in Britain? There's no bar…

TB: No. You could go on forever and ever. But, the last politician who said she would do that was Mrs. Thatcher and she went shortly afterwards. (Laughs.)

AB: So you're not looking at it as an active possibility?

TB: No certainly not.

First Published: Nov 21, 2008 18:45 IST