AP Interview: Blair says post-9/11 battle not over
LONDON (AP) — Tony Blair, the international statesman most closely tied to the response to the Sept. 11 attacks, believes the decade-long struggle to contain the threat from Islamic extremism is far from over, despite the killing of al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden.
The former British prime minister, who famously vowed to stand "shoulder to shoulder" with the United States and took a leading role in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the face of domestic unease, told The Associated Press that potent threats still persist — including in nations swept by the revolutions of the Arab Spring.
"It's completely wrong," to think the struggle to defeat extremist ideology is won, Blair said in an interview. "We shouldn't be under any doubt about this at all. Unfortunately, as I say, this ideology is far broader than the methods of al-Qaida."
"You look at Lebanon, for example and how Hezbollah have taken control there, you look at the activities of Hamas. Yemen I'm afraid, it's a long way off being resolved," Blair said. "Even in a country like Pakistan, with some strong institutions by the way, that it's still an issue, so the struggle is by no means over, but it's the right struggle to be engaged in."
Blair also expressed concern over the uprisings which have shaken the Middle East and North Africa, insisting that the West must act as "players and not spectators" to help democracy flourish from the Arab Spring.
"We've got a long way to go because some of the people getting rid of these regimes don't necessarily want the same thing as others getting rid of them," Blair said, questioning the possible role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's future.
"These people will need our help and support in transitioning to proper democracy," Blair said. "That isn't just about the freedom to vote in and out your government, it's about freedom of the media, freedom of expression, freedom of religion, about open markets — and there's a long way to go on that I fear."
Blair insisted that he had been right to join the U.S. in confronting the terrorism threat after 9/11, despite warnings from his own spy chief that combat overseas risked radicalizing a generation of Muslims at home.
"The fact that when we were prepared to stand up with America against this terrorism these people then want to target us more, that's not a reason for leaving the front-line and letting others do the fighting. That's not my view of life, I'm afraid," Blair told the AP in an interview.
Eliza Manningham-Buller, director of domestic intelligence agency MI5 between 2002 and 2007, has repeatedly claimed that Blair paid too little attention to warnings that the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq would fuel homegrown terrorism.
Four suicide bombers who killed 52 commuters in the July 2005 terrorist attacks on London's transit network — the worst al-Qaida directed attacks on the U.K. — cited the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan in their martyrdom videos.
"I'm afraid I don't take the view that if somebody is doing something wrong and you stand up to them, and they then decide to come after you, that that means you don't try to stop them doing it," Blair said in an interview last week.
The 58-year-old, now envoy to the Quartet of Middle East peacemakers, saw his decade-long leadership of Britain defined by his decision to side with U.S. President George W. Bush in the pursuit of Islamist extremists and rogue regimes.
He saw the wave of popularity that swept him to office in 1997 erode as Britain entered two divisive wars, curtailed civil liberties and battled with the courts — and public opinion — over how to handle terrorism suspects both in Britain, and overseas. Blair suffered ridicule from his critics, cast derisively as Bush's "poodle."
Though hundreds of thousands of British people marched against the decision to join the 2003 Iraq invasion, Blair later led his Labour Party to victory in a 2005 national election, winning with a reduced majority.
Allegations that Britain colluded in the mistreatment of terrorist suspects overseas in the frantic years after 9/11 are now being investigated by an independent inquiry. Foreign Secretary William Hague claims the study is necessary to "clear the stain from our reputation as a country."
Blair told the AP that mistakes were made in the years after the 2001 attacks, particularly in preparations for post-conflict security and reconstruction in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It would be an odd situation if you, with the benefit of hindsight, wouldn't have done things differently and better than they were done, and obviously there's a whole set of issues around planning and decisions that were taken in the immediate aftermath of both Afghanistan and Iraq," Blair said.
A two-year British inquiry into the Iraq war is scheduled to report within months on whether Blair's government overstated the case for invasion and failed to prepare for the task of nation building.
Blair acknowledged that immediately after 9/11, Britain and the U.S. had only a limited understanding of the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism, and said he had never anticipated that troops would remain in Afghanistan a decade after they first deployed on a mission to oust the Taliban — who had harbored al-Qaida leaders.
"I didn't think for a moment that we would still be engaged in an ongoing struggle 10 years later in Afghanistan," Blair said. "But I think that underscores the limitations of our knowledge at the time — that this is actually, I'm afraid, a far deeper and broader movement than we understood."
Foreign troops will end their combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, as leaders bet that local police and military forces can contain security threats and that political leaders can deliver a negotiated settlement with insurgents.
"Am I confident that it will be better after 2014? I think we're going have to carry on working at it," said Blair, who resigned as prime minister in June 2007.
As the 9/11 attacks took place, Blair was working alone in a hotel suite in Brighton, a southern England coastal resort, readying a speech to a rally of labor union leaders.
He never made those intended remarks, instead addressing the convention with a brief message of sympathy and a vow that there would be a robust response. The world's democracies would "eradicate this evil completely from our world," he told the hushed audience.
Blair described to the AP how he felt calm and determined in the hours after the attacks, quickly concluding that strikes were a blow aimed at Western values, not just the U.S. Already, he understood the impact the events would have on his own political career.
"We have just got to sometimes try and recapture the emotion and the feeling of that moment," Blair said, recalling how he recognized there would be a need to rally other nations to show support for the U.S.
"At the time, the feeling I had was one of almost a strange sort of calm, in a sense of I know what is behind this and the world has changed from this moment," Blair said. "I didn't anticipate this coming in my premiership — I had a huge and busy domestic agenda — but nonetheless, we have to understand that the world is a different place from now on."
David Stringer can be reached at http://twitter.com/david_stringer