Tony Blair: 'I Warned Gaddafi'

The Middle East is erupting in flames -- and Tony Blair has to fix it. When the former British Prime Minister became the international community's Middle East envoy in 2007, that meant leading the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. It still does, but now his job includes democratic transformations and civil wars, too.

Blair, the charismatic modernizer of Britain's Labour Party, was elected Prime Minister in 1997. But leading Britain through 10 years of reforms was rather easy compared to Tony Blair's current task. As the Middle East envoy of the Quartet -- U.N., E.U., U.S., Russia -- Blair is the international community's point man in the volatile region.

Elisabeth Braw: When you were appointed Middle East envoy, the one hot issue was the Israel-Palestine conflicts. Now there are conflicts in Syria and Libya, Iraq is still not stable, and Yemen and Bahrain are on the brink of collapse. Which Middle Eastern country is your top priority right now?

Tony Blair: The Israel-Palestine peace process is still my main task, but I'll inevitably get involved in the situation in the Middle East as a whole. It's extraordinary, exhilarating, but of course it has also got real challenges.

EB: What's the main challenge?

TB: The big question in any revolution is not where it begins but where it ends. The question now is, will the forces of modernization use this push to democracy and take it to a place where it allows a functioning democracy to develop in their respective country, or will various elements, for example Islamists, take the situation in a reactionary direction? The single most important thing to get across to people is in the region is that democracy isn't just about the freedom to vote, and it's not just about majority rule. Democracy is about an attitude of mind. It's about human rights, freedom of expression, freedom of religion and open markets. The biggest risk in the current situation is that countries get destabilized through the revolution and don't take the right economic decisions to create jobs and prosperity for people. Then you end up with the revolution going in a reactionary direction.

EB: The Arab Spring is a result of citizens' frustrations with their dictators, but the dictators were friends with the West. Was it a mistake for the West to be friendly with Gaddafi, Mubarak, Saleh and Assad?

TB: Mubarak, for example, is very different from Gaddafi. But in the case of each leader, there's a reason we were dealing with them. In the case of Mubarak, he was a force for stability in the Middle East. Thanks to the West's engagement, Gaddafi gave up his country's nuclear weapons program and stopped sponsoring international terrorism. Does that justify internal repression? No, but it poses us -- the West -- with a problem, since we're dealing with the respective leader from the outside. The reality of politics is that you can't simply say, "The only countries we're going to deal with are the countries that emulate our political system." So, you're always in a situation where you're making difficult compromises.

EB: On the other hand, Gaddafi and Mubarak kept their countries stable, as have Hugo Chavez and the Castro brothers. Is stability sometimes better than democracy?

TB: The most important thing now is to recognize the fact that the countries that are dictatorial are often not going to remain stable. So, the lesson of the Arab Spring is that unless those countries evolve, they'll destabilize. One of the things we've learned from the Arab Spring is that even though an authoritarian country looks stable and sustainable, it's going to collapse. Generally speaking, you can engage and work with an authoritarian ruler while at the same time urging them to make changes. This was a constant refrain I had with the Gaddafi regime. I told him, "You've got to change. You've changed your external policy; change your internal policy, too." In the end, he didn't want to.

EB: What did he say?

TB: "We are changing our internal policies." Obviously, it wasn't enough. It was the same thing with Assad in Syria. Anyone who has met Assad during the last 10 years will have heard him say, "Yes, we're going to undergo change," and they didn't. Things are not black and white. You can't engage with such leaders while saying nothing about democracy, or not engage at all. If you have a reason for engaging, you do, but at the same time it's perfectly possible to say -- and we did say to these Arab governments -- "At some point you'll have to evolve your systems." Steady evolution is better than evolution.

EB: When Gazans vote Hamas into power, the West responded with sanctions. What should the West do if Islamists are voted into power in newly democratic elections in the Middle Eeast?

TB: The problem with Hamas is more that if they want Western governments to carry on funding the Palestinian Authority, it's more difficult to continue funding them if you think that they're promoting policies that are contrary to what you believe in. The issue for Egypt, Tunisia, Libya once Gaddafi goes, and Syria when Assad goes will be, how do you put in place a constitutional process that allows you to elect the government properly, and how do you make economic changes? These countries need fundamental economic reform, not just political reform. They often need social reform, too, and properly functioning education systems. The West needs to be engaged and support the democratic people who want to take power but have a lot of obstacles in their way.

EB: But what if the people of Egypt, for example, just happen to like the Muslim Brotherhood and vote them into power?

TB: Then we have a major problem, unless the Muslim Brotherhood reforms.

EB: Should the international community impose sanctions?

TB: In Gaza it wasn't really sanctions. The West decided it wasn't going to continue funding the Gazan authority. In the end, if you have a government in power in a country that's doing things we don't like, it's quite hard to ask the taxpayers to pay money for it. But I don't think this is about sanctions. If you get parties taking power in the region, and then want to take their country in a direction that's going to be harmful to the economy and to peace and stability, then it would be very dangerous. I think it's very sensible to engage with the Muslim Brotherhood; the group has many different elements. I'm not concluding that argument at all; I'm just saying that how this revolution turns out will be of dramatic importance.

EB: Speaking of engagement, Iran has been under international sanctions for several years, but the sanctions don't have much impact. Isn't it time to do away with the sanctions and engage with Iran?

TB: The sanctions do have an effect. And it's not that people haven't tried to engage with the Iranian leaders to get them to stop doing what they're doing. The objection to what Iran is doing is very simple: it's trying to develop nuclear weapons, which would be very dangerous and destabilize the whole region. And their support for terrorist groups around the region, for example Hezbollah and Hamas. There has been a huge engagement with Iran to try to get them to stop.

EB: What's the solution?

TB: To keep pushing, and that's why sanctions are important. If you withdraw sanctions, they'll think they can do whatever they want.

EB: But doesn't Iran have a point when it says it's being unfairly targeted for its nuclear program, which it says is civilian, while Israel is not being punished for developing nuclear weapons?

TB: Iran knows what the difference is. Look, Iran developing nuclear weapons would completely change the balance in the region. If Iran got nuclear weapons, its neighbors would try to do the same. It wouldn't be sensible to allow that. The fact is that Iranian President Ahmadinejad has said that he wants to wipe Israel off the face of the map, so it's not a great idea to give him a nuclear weapon.

EB: You had a successful tenure as Prime Minister, but many people remember you only for your decision to invade Iraq. Do you regret that decision?

TB: We've just been talking about dealing with dictators. The West engaged with Saddam in the 1980s, and they did so in order to use Iraq against Iran. The results were disastrous. We ended up with millions of casualties in the Iran-Iraq war, and we ended up with the war in Kuwait. I thought it was better to get rid of him, because he was a threat. It's odd that people say, "You shouldn't be dealing with such-and-such dictator," and then criticize you when you get rid of one who was far worse than any of the Arab dictators we talked about earlier.

People will come to a rational view about the pros and cons of the Iraq war at a later time. When I look at Iraq now, for all the challenges it has, I don't think you'd get a majority of Iraqis saying they want Saddam back.

EB: So leaders are criticized no matter how they treat dictators?

TB: I've said many times that Iraq was the most difficult decision of my life. The decision to remove him was difficult, but deciding to leave him would have been very difficult, too. So, in the end you have to decide. That's where politics is an ultimately difficult business.

EB: The Palestinians will declare statehood in August and ask for U.N. recognition in September. How should the international community respond?

TB: The best thing we can do is to get a resumption of negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Any unilateral declaration will never be as good as negotiation. The problem with unilateral declarations is, what happens the day after? What changes? You'll only get real change through negotiation. The Quartet [U.N., E.U., U.S., Russia] will have a meeting in a few weeks, and we've been working hard to get a set of principles of negotiation together so that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have confidence that the negotiation will be credible and serious. There's absolutely no alternative to assuming negotiations. It's urgent that we do it. The single worst thing you could do in this region right now is to leave a vacuum in the Israel-Palestine question. I don't agree with people who say that the Arab Spring means that people are focused on democracy rather than the Palestinian issue. Arabs are still very motivated by the Palestinian question.

EB: But when Palestinian statehood comes up at the U.N. General Assembly, will you advise countries to vote in favor of it or against?

TB: As the Quartet envoy, I represent the U.N., the E.U., the U.S. and Russia. There's no way those four are going to agree on this issue. I'm not going to advise countries how to vote, but what I tell everyone is that I think it's far better resume negotiations.

EB: Have you asked the Palestinians to hold off on independence?

TB: When [Palestinian] President Abbas was asked the other day what his preference was, he answered, "My first preference is negotiation, negotiation, negotiation." I think he's on the same line. I understand Palestinians' frustration, but it's always better to be in a negotiation.

EB: One major obstacle is Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory.

TB: The best way to deal with the settlements is to negotiate the borders. There's going to be dispute about settlement activity, but if you agree about the borders, then settlements cease to matter, because then you know which bit of territory goes to which state.

EB: What will you do if Israel refuses to recognize the new Palestinian state, as it has said it will?

TB: It will recognize a Palestinian state if it's one established by negotiation.

EB: But in September after the U.N. General Assembly?

TB: Israel will oppose it. I'll tell them what I always tell them: "Let's go back to negotiations."

EB: I understand that you read the Koran every day. How has it enhanced your understanding of Islam?

TB: I do. The Bible and the Koran. The Koran interests and fascinates me. It has given me clearer idea of what Islam is about. It's a fascination for me as a Christian to read what the Koran says about Christianity and Jesus and Mary. And once you read the Koran as a whole, you get an understanding for what its spirit is. The problem with the Koran, like the Bible, is that sometimes people take phrases or short passages and use them to justify what's clearly unjustifiable.

A version of this interview previously appeared in Metro.