Tony Blair Defends the Iraq War

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair poses for a portrait after an April television interview. Toby Melville / Reuters-Corbis

Since finishing his 10-year stint as prime minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair has kept busy: he’s spent time in the Middle East as envoy of the Quartet, created a foundation devoted to ecumenical understanding, lectured widely, and worked as an adviser to JPMorgan Chase. In New York to promote his new memoir, A Journey, Blair spoke with NEWSWEEK’s David A. Graham to discuss the Iraq invasion, the Middle East peace talks, and what President Obama can learn from New Labour’s travails. Excerpts:

Do Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have the domestic political capital to make peace now?

We’ve just got to find a creative away through this issue of the settlement moratorium, and then push on. If each leader can provide their people with a clear way of addressing the true on-the-ground concerns—for the Israelis, security; for the Palestinians, their daily life in occupation—there is complete support amongst the Palestinian and Israeli people for peace.

Both New Labour and President Obama offered young, progressive governments after conservative reigns. What’s your advice for the Obama administration?

We had exactly the same problem: you come in with a vast wave of expectations. These expectations can never be met. In the end I had to be clear about what I wanted to achieve, go for it, and recognize that you were going to make a lot of enemies along the way.

What do you think of Prime Minister David Cameron’s government so far?

I mean, I’m Labour, he’s Conservative; I’m never going to be an objective observer. [But] it won’t be government that will lead us out of this; it will be private enterprise.

You say Labour can’t return to big-government policies. So how should it distinguish itself from the Tories?

I’m still a passionate advocate of Third Way politics. Parts of those things, the Conservatives might like. But progressive politicians have got to be on the cutting edge of policy if they want to win.

With the economic crisis, did former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government ever stand a chance?

Yeah, it did have a chance. At the beginning, Gordon took absolutely the right way through it with what he did in relation to the banks. But then he tended to buy the view that the market had failed the states. I think that isn’t correct, and it’s not the right policy.

You’ve defended the invasion of Iraq on humanitarian grounds, but did it achieve your other goal: stopping terrorists from getting nukes?

That’s a good question. It depends how it turns out, is the honest truth. The security challenge, I’m afraid, is very much still with us. The extremist problem has very deep roots, and it will take a generation to knock it out.

You write that you had to ignore public opinion and do what was right. How do you ensure you’re correct?

The answer is that you can’t. You’ve just go to do what you instinctively feel to be the right thing. Whether it is or not, the political decision would have been contrary to what I thought I had to do.

You lament the decline of the transatlantic relationship but don’t take any responsibility for the damage that the Iraq War did to public attitudes about it. Don’t you bear some of the blame?

I wonder about that, actually. No, the actual underlying problem is a feeling—in a world in which power is shifting east—that maybe the relationship doesn’t matter any more. My answer is that it matters even more. If America is going to be dealing with China, India, Brazil, Indonesia, these emerging—or emerged—powers that are going to change the way we look at politics, it’s even more important that the Europeans and the Americans stick together.

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