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8th April 2011
John Rentoul has the video below at his blog – The Man With The Plan
Blair on Libya: We Must Be Players, Not Spectators (7m 15s)
Interviewed by Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations
RH: Let me just start with the situation in the Middle East. This whole question of what we’ve learned about the need for political change and what we as outsiders, whether it’s the British government, the American government, can do to encourage political change before you bring about situations which lead to upheavals or worse.
TB: I think the basic lesson we’ve learnt is that if it seems, and on analysis is unsustainable it probably won’t be sustained. It will end. And the fact is across that region now I think there’s a simple choice, it’s revolution or evolution. Now, I think we can help bring about evolution and where there’s been revolutions and countries need a huge amount of work done on their economy, on their society we can help partner that, because the other thing I think is really important for people out in the Middle East to realise is that democracy is the first step. But it’s not just about the freedom to vote, it’s about freedom of expression, free markets, freedom of religion, the rule of law, a whole series of things that go to make up a genuine democracy. And in those areas we’ve got an expertise and we’ve got an ability to help, and we should.
RH: What do we do though when we run into governments, be they friend or foe, who essentially say – stay out, this is our business, we know best, we hear you but we prefer not to take your advice.
TB: Well, we can’t force them all to change and some of them won’t. But I think what we can do is to reiterate our messages with a little more credibility than we were able to before. In other words we’re able to say – look, it’s all very well for you to say to us – stay out, you don’t understand – but that’s what President Mubarak would have said, that’s what President Ben Ali would have said and look what happened.
RH: What about the problem of our own credibility? Here we are in the United States we’re going through shall we say serious governing challenges, who knows if our government will close, and even if we avoid this problem, we’ve got debt ceiling issues, the basic question of whether we can tackle our deficit. In your country going through what you might call a public political experiment dealing with its deficit. Have we lost to some extent our credibility as mature democracies to preach to those who are not yet democracies?
TB: No, I think … funnily enough we’ve still got more credibility in their eyes than we may have in our own right now. So, no, I think in terms of how they look at us they think our basic systems are to be desired rather than to be repudiated. However, I do think we’ve got a real problem both sides of the water in Europe and in America, and actually in places like Japan as well. Which is – the challenge of democracy today, for mature democracies, in my view is not transparency or accountability, it’s efficacy, it’s efficiency, it’s how do you get things done. In circumstances where we know our systems need reform cos we were talking about things that are unsustainable. In Europe for example our welfare, our public service systems, our levels of spending – they’re not sustainable. So, have we got the wherewithal within our politics and within the context of democracy that we love and want to keep, to make effective change? This is a big challenge.
RH: You’ve experience of this – how as a leader do you generate public support for things that the voters may not realise is in their own self-interest, and might actually cause pain, it might cut this or that health care entitlement, retirement entitlement, and you want to say I know that but in the long run it’s good for you, it’s good for your neighbour, it’s good for your children and grandchildren. How do you sell that whether it’s from Downing Street or from the White House?
TB: Well I think you’ve got to, I mean it sounds a bit odd to say this but in a sense you’ve got to have a little bit of faith in the people here. You see my view of today’s circumstances is that the challenges are so big and there is so much insecurity and worry, the one thing people want is leadership. I’m always saying this to people who are still in office as leaders. One thing the public wants is a man with a plan. Or a woman. But you know they want to know that the person who’s leading them has got a plan. Now they may, I think the truth is that they may disagree with elements of it or if you do an opinion poll they may say ‘ah, I don’t like that’. But the thing they like least is in times of insecurity and uncertainty, the guy who’s leading the show is kind of got the map out, sort of scratching his head, you know, going one way, going the oth… they don’t want that they want the guy who says – this is where we’re going.
RH: One last question, speaking of plans, the Libya intervention has been quite controversial. But we are where we are. Let’s put aside whether we were right to go in there, whether we did it in the best possible ways. Going forward – you just mentioned the need for a plan . What is it we really need to be prepared to do and how do “we” quote unquote “the world” get into a position where we could help Libya essentially put in place the fundamentals of a national society which quite honestly don’t exist, in part cos you’ve had a leader who’s done his best to make sure that there have not been national institutions?
TB: Well, we’ve got a great opportunity. Because, let’s assume one way or another we get Gaddafi out, we get a new government or a new process in place. You’re right, there are no institutions, no proper functioning civic society, organisations and so on. We’re going to have to help build those. Now, I think we can. And I think that people out there, the opposition people certainly the ones I’ve spoken to, I think would welcome that. But we need to be active. My whole point about the Middle East at the moment is very simple. We need to be players not spectators.
RH: In the United States though you’ve got a bit of intervention fatigue in part because of Iraq, Afghanistan, because of our economic situation. Europe has stepped up quite a bit in this current crisis. Do you think we’re entering a period where the Europeans might be both able and willing to take on a slightly larger share of dealing with the post-Gaddafi Libya, just to mention one challenge?
TB: It’s interesting, this. I think it’s interesting the degree to which it may be ad hominem, to do with Nicolas Sarkozy particularly prepared to be assertive on these things. But I also think it answers to a basic view that the Europeans have that they’re kind of feeling their way towards this but understanding that America’s not going to be in the situation where it either wants to or can do everything. And you know one of the things when I come to Washington as I just have, and you suddenly realise you guys are completely domestically and internally preoccupied. It’s the way it’s going to be for a time. So, for Europe, and especially with something like Libya happening on our doorstep, we should step up really.
Also reported here at the Council on Foreign Relations website.
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