September 21st, 2014

Tony Blair on ISIS, Obama, & Russia

Today on CNN’s State of the Union with Candy Crowley, Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair talks exclusively to Candy Crowley about British involvement in the fight against ISIS, and what the latest videos tell us about the militant group’s intentions.


Blair on the strategy to combat ISIS: “It’s now very obvious – from Syria, from Libya, from everything that’s happening in the world – that this problem isn’t going away, and I think you’ll find that the policy undergoes a process of evolution, where people realize in different situations you’re having different strategies, and there may be situations in which we are prepared to use combat force”

Blair on fighting ISIS with troops on the ground: “You certainly need to fight groups like ISIS on the ground.  It is possible that those people who are there locally and who have the most immediate interest in fighting ISIS can carry on the ground offensive against them. But, look, the — this — this will evolve over time, I’m sure.  And I’m sure that the leadership, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, will make sure that whatever is necessary to defeat ISIS is done.”

A full transcript of the interview is available after the jump.


CANDY CROWLEY, HOST: We begin with the latest pleas for mercy directed at people who appear to have none. Still, the wife of British hostage Alan Henning is begging his ISIS captors to spare his life. And Muslim leaders in Britain have publicly declared that killing Henning is not permitted by Islamic law.

Law, order and even mercy may be on the agenda for world leaders gathering in New York this week.

Does any of this make a difference for terrorists?

With me now, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mr. Prime Minister, thanks for being with us.


CROWLEY: Let me start with the U.S.-led effort against ISIS and ask you what you think overall of the plan?

BLAIR: The president is absolutely right to — to take on ISIS and to build the broadest possible coalition. So he and Secretary Kerry have put together, I think, around about 50 countries now as part of this coalition. I — and we — we’ve got absolutely no choice but to do this, not just in order to — to contain and then destroy the onward march of ISIS, but also to send a very strong signal to the other terrorist groups operating in the region and beyond the region that we intend to take action and intend to see it through.

CROWLEY: So do you think this plan is going to do it?

Basically, both the U.S. and Britain have — the U.S. particularly — has committed to aerial assaults in Iraq, for sure, in Syria possibly later on. It seems your country is moving that way, both ruling out putting combat troops on the ground.

Is that enough to get rid of ISIS?

BLAIR: You certainly need to fight groups like ISIS on the ground. It is possible that those people who are there locally and who have the most immediate interest in fighting ISIS can carry on the ground offensive against them.

But, look, the — this — this will evolve over time, I’m sure. And I’m sure that the leadership, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, will make sure that whatever is necessary to defeat ISIS is done.

I think, by the way, no one is talking — and there’s no need to put in a kind of army of occupation. I mean you’re not rerunning Iraq or Afghanistan.

But I think there will undoubtedly be, over time, a need to hit ISIS not simply through an aerial campaign, but also on the ground.

And the question will be, can those people, if they’re supported locally, can they do that job or will we have to — to supplement that.

CROWLEY: So an open question.

Let me talk to you about the heartbreak we’re now hearing, another plea from yet another British family to ISIS, saying please don’t execute this man of peace.

And we’re — we’re also — the heartbreak, it seems to me, particularly in Britain at this point, must be worse because we’re pretty sure that the man who is murdering these people is also British.

Explain to me why so many British citizens seem to have joined up with ISIL, because Britain has one of the larger amounts of citizens that have gone over to join the fight in Syria with ISIS and others.

BLAIR: Well, first of all, the — the way these hostages are — are abused and — and subject to this grotesque form of public parade and then execution is just — it’s — it’s horrific. It’s — it’s evil and it’s totally contrary to the principles of — of any form of religious faith.

The question you ask about how many British born jihadists are going from Britain to fight in Syria, the estimates are that several hundred have gone there. This is not, unfortunately, though, a problem just for Britain.

Most European countries also have foreign fighters there. Just a few weeks ago, there was a terrorist plot foiled in Norway from returning jihadi fighters from Syria.

These are a — a small number of people — I mean the broad mass of the Muslim community in the U.K. will be absolutely horrified and appalled by this and condemn it completely.


CROWLEY: Sure, but my — my question really is — goes to the why rather than the numbers…

BLAIR: Right.

CROWLEY: — simply because if — if you’re sitting in Britain or you’re sitting in the United States or you’re sitting in Norway, life — life isn’t — from the outside, you think life is not that bad, why would you go join this war and behead people?

BLAIR: Right. That — this — this is an excellent question and one we’ve got to answer very clearly. I mean these people aren’t going because they’re — they’re mistreated back in the UK. They’re given the benefit of a free education, free health care. They’re given all the benefits of — of — the freedoms that come living in a country like Britain.

These people are — have been subject to an ideology that’s come in from abroad, that unfortunately is not just limited to Britain, but is right around the world today. It’s an ideology based on a completely perversion of the proper faith of Islam. But it is powerful. It is proselytized and preached by people in mosques, in madrassas, not just in countries like Pakistan and — and parts of the Middle East and parts of Africa, but even back in parts of — of Britain.

And one of the things that — that we’ve got to look at as a country is how do you root this — this kind of teaching out and make it absolutely clear that it is completely unacceptable to teach these forms of extremism, whether in a formal school setting or an informal school setting.

CROWLEY: I want to ask you about the — one of the beheadings we saw of David Haines, a British citizen. He gave a — a final statement. It was very much anti-West. We understand it was completely under duress, to put it mildly.

Nonetheless, he mentioned the name of Prime Minister Cameron. He also mentioned your name, saying this is your fault.

And, again, we’re — we’re hearing the terrorists’ thoughts through David Haines, who is very much under duress.

I want to know personally, when you hear your name and saying, you know, you brought this on. This is why — you know, you came to Iraq, you’re bombing Muslims, personally, how does that affect you?

BLAIR: It makes me even more determined to take these people on and beat them. I mean the — the — the hideous nature of parading someone you’re about to execute and they have to make these statements condemning, you know, condemning the West and saying it’s all the fault of the West, you know, we’ve — we’ve just got to — to realize, that is simply an expression of how completely divorced from any type of proper human compassion these people are and why it is absolutely necessary to take them on and to beat them.

And the point is that — that the beheadings of these people are — these are a shocking and appalling act and quite rightly they — they — they have aroused people’s anger and — and aroused their conscience about action.

But we have to understand at the same time as these things, which are most visible to us are going on, you have a situation in Syria today where the death toll is now 200,000 and people are dying every day there. You have chaos in Libya. You have a situation in Yemen where people are also dying. You have the ghastly advance of Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria, which is being, in part, funded and fueled by weapons and personnel coming down through Libya.

You’ve got a situation in the Central African Republic, in Somalia, it — this is — this is a — a global problem today. You’ve even had attacks in Uganda, in Kenya. You’ve had, in Thailand just recently, you’ve had the arrests in Australia.

I — my very strong passionate belief about this is that this is a global problem. It arises from an ideology around a perversion of religious faith that has been exported around the world and you have to deal with it at every level, at the combat level, where these terrorist groups are operating, but also going right back into the education systems of countries where kids are being taught this — this type of ideology, millions of them, by the way, day in and day out.

Because that, in the end, is incubating the latest stages — in the later stages, the extremism we see today.

But we should not — we should not countenance any form of compromise with these people. We should be out and after them.

CROWLEY: So plain and simple, you have described the threat in much the same way that a lot of global leaders, particularly in the West, have described it publicly. Over here, we’ve certainly heard the Defense secretary say this is the worst, you know, enemy that we face, this is just a very high risk.

And yet the — the reaction is we are going to do aerial (INAUDIBLE), but, you know, despite this global threat, despite the fact that everybody is seeing it everywhere, we can’t — we can’t put troops on the ground.

Was it a mistake for your country and our country to say, but, you know, it’s — it’s — we’re not going to put U.S. troops on the ground?

BLAIR: I mean I think policy is in a state of evolution and it — and — and, by the way, it’s perfectly natural, Candy, that that happens. We’ve been through very difficult campaigns, as I know, in Iraq and Afghanistan, where we had, you know, major forces on the ground…


BLAIR: — actually occupying parts of countries.

The public, both your way and — and my way, has — has a fatigue with that type of campaign. Perfectly understandably and actually.

However, it’s not very obvious from Syria, from Libya, from everything that’s happening in the world that this problem isn’t going away. And I think you’ll find the policy undergoes a process of evolution where people realize in different situations, you’re having different strategies. And there may be situations of which we are prepared to use combat force. There may be other situations in which we can support others to do that.

In any event, there are a whole series of things around intelligence sharing, around air power, where we can have a huge impact.

The most important thing — and this is — this is, I think, one of the advantages and opportunities of the situation President Obama is in now — there is today, I think, for the first time — and this is still a work in progress, but there is today a huge understanding, as well, within the Arab world and within majority Muslim countries that this is their fight, as much, if not more, than ours, and that they’re prepared to work with us in order to defeat this extremism.

CROWLEY: Mr. Prime Minister, I want you to stick with me.

I have to squeeze in a quick break.

But when we come back, I want to ask you exactly who those countries are in the Middle East and what you think they are willing to provide in this fight against ISIS.

We’ll be right back.


CROWLEY: We are back with former British prime minister, Tony Blair.

Mr. Prime Minister, let me — let me start where we left off, and that is countries in the region that are going to be helpful. And you said in print and here that there are many people and we need to help them.

Where’s Turkey?

Where’s the UAE?

Where’s Saudi Arabia?

Will they be on the ground, because, really, in some ways, they are under a much more immediate and geographic threat than the U.S. or Britain.

BLAIR: I think the Arab countries — Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf States — I think they are prepared to take action now, whether that…

CROWLEY: What does that mean?

BLAIR: — should be — well…


BLAIR: — I’m — whether that actually means putting people on the ground in these situations, that’s an open question. But as I say, this is a policy and, indeed, a coalition that is — that is evolving. I mean you — you will find that a — there will be a lot of debate and argument.

I personally think that if these countries believe that we have now put together a — a comprehensive strategy as to how we deal with the problems of the region, which obviously has a huge implication then beyond the region, as well, I feel that they will take steps today that they would not have contemplated a few years back. And the other thing that’s really important to realize is that these — the so-called Arab Spring, these Arab revolutions that have — that have swept aside the governments from North Africa right into the heartland of — of the Arab world, what is actually happening as a result of that is that once the — the old regime goes, there’s then a competition, if you like, between what I would call the modern-minded elements, the people who want rule-based economies and religiously tolerant societies, and then the Islamists, the Salafists, those people who want, you know, basically a society run by Sharia law and religiously exclusive.

Now, I think in that context, the thing that is changing in the Middle East is that the leadership there is starting to understand there is no alternative but to get on the side of those who want, you know, those rule-based economies and open-minded societies and to take on those people, the Islamists and others. And that’s — that’s the opportunity we have in a way that really didn’t exist a few years ago.

CROWLEY: In our final moments, I want to ask you about two other countries and their position on terrorism and ISIS.

The first is Iran. I want to redo a lead out of Reuters today, which says, “Iran is ready to work with the United States and its allies to stop Islamic State militants, but would like to see more flexibility on Iran’s uranium enrichment program,” senior Iranian officials told Reuters.

So it’s — it’s now kind of a bargaining chip with Iran, which, by the way, is as threatened by ISIS as anybody, because they’re right next door.

So now they’re looking for some leniency from the U.S. in these talks about its uranium enrichment.

Is Iran going to be helpful or not in the fight against ISIS?

BLAIR: I don’t know. But I do know that there will be no question of trading off, you know, support against ISIS for a loosened attitude on Iran and nuclear weapons. Iran with a nuclear bomb would be a very bad idea in the region.

And the problem — look, I — I can’t tell whether Iran is undergoing a process of change. Maybe it is. And I’m completely in favor of exploring that.

I think President Obama is absolutely sensible to see what possibilities there — there are for cooperation there, as long as the lines are clear. And I think so far as he’s concerned, they are absolutely clear. I don’t believe there will be any compromise on the Iran nuclear program. And we’ve got to bear in mind that it’s through Iranian-backed terrorist groups, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and others, that some of the problems of the region are cautioned.

So I’m not, you know, I think there are some signs that things are changing in Iran. I think we should explore that. But we should do it very much with our eyes open.


Now, let me ask you about Russia, because I know that in your position, you certainly deal with the U.S. and Russia on matters concerning the Middle East, particularly Israel and the Palestinians.

So now there is this huge gulf between the United States and Russia because of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and its downright take over of Crimea.

Prior to this, the U.S. had said, well, we really hope that the Russians can be useful in Syria, since they are friends of Assad. We really hope they can be useful in Iran in pressuring Iran to give up its uranium enrichment program.

Is that all now gone away because — and can we not expect Russia to be helpful in the fight against terrorism?

BLAIR: Well, it’s a good question. I mean I — I think in respect of the Ukraine, the West has got to stick to the very tough position is has — it has outlined and — and, you know, again, there should be no question of trading policy here.

On the other hand, the truth is that Russia has an enormous interest in fighting Islamic extremism. Almost 20 percent of the Russian population today is Muslim.


BLAIR: They — they have real pockets of extremism. And, actually, other Eastern powers, if you like, China, India also face this problem.

So I think it is possible that on this issue, to do with Islamic extremism, it is possible to find common ground and to cooperate. But I don’t think it will or should impinge on the Western attitude toward what Russia is doing in Ukraine.

Now, whether it’s possible to — you know, to have those two positions alongside each other, I — obviously, that’s a — that — that’s the art of diplomacy.

But it’s — there’s no doubt at all this an East and West problem, this extremism. It’s not just a Western problem. And I think in some ways, it is very helpful for us to look at it as a global problem requiring a united global response rather than simply saying, look, this is really about the West or even the Western alliance with certain Arab states.

CROWLEY: Well, it would certainly be helpful for Russia to look at it that way, too, I imagine.

So, listen, Mr. Prime Minister, thank you so much for talking us — with us this morning.

We appreciate it.

BLAIR: Thanks very much, Candy.

CROWLEY: Up next, the NFL issues — blame the game or just a blame game?