|PRIME MINISTER TONY BLAIR|
April 23, 1999
Jim Lehrer talks with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about NATO air strikes in Yugoslavia, the possible use of ground troops and the evolving role of the Alliance.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Prime Minister, welcome. Is it correct to say that you now believe ground troops should be used in Kosovo?
TONY BLAIR, British Prime Minister: The position as I have set it out in the last few days is the same as the Secretary-General of NATO, Mr. Solana, which is that we should plan and assess all options but the air campaign continues and it's important that we make it effective.
|Has the air campaign been effective?|
| JIM LEHRER: The air campaign has essentially not worked
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: No, I don't believe that's right. I think it is possible to exaggerate both ways on this and I think the sensible position is to look at the damage that has been done by the air campaign. Half the top aircraft of Milosevic is down. His air defenses are down. His oil refineries and oil depots have been hugely hit. His lines of communication, his lines of supply have been badly affected. His whole command and control center, his military infrastructure has been targeted and badly hit. We are getting after people on the ground now. We're hitting tanks and artillery and people on the ground in Kosovo. If you're asking me, does it still have some way to go, the answer is yes. But it certainly wouldn't be correct to say it hasn't been effective.
JIM LEHRER: But it has not been effective in accomplishing what NATO wanted to accomplish has it, which was to end ethnic cleansing? Wasn't that the number one priority?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Yes it was, but remember this - I mean, it isn't over yet. Number one. But number two - irrespectively of the argument about ground troops -- it's terribly important people realize this, we would be in an air campaign at this stage in any event because of the time it takes to assemble such a force. So this is where we would be. This is where we have to be and the only way of reversing ethnic cleansing, which we must do, is to make sure that this policy is successful.
JIM LEHRER: Did you personally believe that it would go this far, that Milosevic would hang in there for four weeks after this bombing campaign?
TONY BLAIR: Oh, I think nobody who has watched the detail of the negotiation in the months leading up to this was in any doubt that it wasn't going to happen overnight. Indeed, I said in my very first statement to the House of Commons before the NATO action began, I said we've got to prepare for the long term. This isn't going to happen overnight. And, you know people, because there's such focus on this now. For the politicians involved, we've been focused on this for really six months or so before this action began because we threatened action back in October last year. He backed down. We then had a further whole process of negotiation where we were going the extra mile to try and get a diplomatic solution precisely because we knew this man is unpredictable, he's a dictator and he's done some very terrible things before. This is not strictly unforeseeable.
JIM LEHRER: Why was the ground forces option not on the table from the very beginning?
TONY BLAIR: It wasn't practical because you'd have to have the air campaign in any event and it is important that we make this air campaign effective, that we don't lose focus on that.
|The politics of ground troops.|
JIM LEHRER: But why was it not on the table? In other words, why were you and President Clinton and other NATO leaders saying 'No, no, no, we're not going to introduce ground forces'? Why was it not there as a threat behind the air campaign from the beginning?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Well, as we said right from the very beginning, we always anticipated using ground forces in order to go in and police a settlement. But, what again we've said for a significant period of time is that we plan and have all options under review. But the air campaign was our chosen, and in my view the right method, of getting this campaign underway and doing the damage that we needed to do to Milosevic. And significant damage has actually been done.
JIM LEHRER: But isn't there a practical -- wasn't there a practical political element here too that you all have been, at least publicly, unwilling to acknowledge that NATO - the 19 countries of NATO -- would not have supported that at the very beginning and you had to take it one step at a time. Is that correct?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Well, that is not the reason because the reason, as I gave you, is that we are going to do the air campaign. You are right, of course, we do have to take the NATO countries with us. We are an alliance. But I also think that just a few days into this campaign, the whole mood towards it changed in this sense. The question my public opinion asked - that people, people like yourself asked me in Britain -- during the first few days was 'Was this campaign justified.' After seeing what Milosevic did to the refugees, I don't think people asked that question anymore. The question they now ask is 'Is it effective' and we have to make sure that it is effective and that's the purpose of carrying through the missions we are doing and intensifying the campaign.
JIM LEHRER: So, the politics, and I'm talking about public opinion politics, the other countries of NATO politics, they were not there for ground troops at the beginning but they are now as a result of the air campaign and the ethnic cleansing that has continued. Is that a correct statement of what happened?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Well, I wouldn't say so actually, no. Because what I think happened actually was that we had to conduct the air campaign in any event. And, all that people are saying is that we've got to keep all options under review and that is sensible to do. And we can see from the policy of ethnic cleansing now how huge, how massive the justification is for taking the action we have. And, all people like myself are saying, as I said a couple of days ago in the House of Commons, is Milosevic isn't going to have veto over NATO action.
JIM LEHRER: Are the people of Great Britain ready to send their young people to die on the ground in Kosovo?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Well, we take risks the moment we start any form of military campaign - even with our air crews and they are risking their lives every night. Look, nobody wants to be in this situation. Nobody wants to be in this conflict, but as I again said right at the very beginning, we have a simple choice. We either stand aside and let this man conduct a policy effectively of racial genocide in a part of Europe or we say 'I'm afraid we're not going to allow that. We are going to act.' And I think people understand that. And even when something terrible happens as you know, the bombing of the civilian convoy that happened, and it's a terrible thing because, of course, we do not mean to harm civilians at all. I think people understand that in a conflict, in a war such as this, people including innocent people die. But the choice is still the same. We either act or we don't and the person responsible for every single piece of misery and pain inflicted in this conflict is Milosevic.
JIM LEHRER: The bombing, the most recent target that has gotten the most publicity is the bombing of the television station in Belgrade. What was the point of that?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: We have to target his military machine and the whole apparatus of power, of dictatorship of Milosevic and the state-controlled media is one part of that. And I think it is a right and justified target for us. Remember, this is a -- this again is something I think people have to understand in the course of this conflict. And especially when, you know, you've been asking me about ground forces and are we putting ground troops in and we are expected as political leaders to discuss almost every aspect of strategy and tactics in an open way. I'm being interviewed by you here and other people in Britain and around the world. Milosevic isn't conducting that type of campaign. It is a dictatorship. His whole network of power is based on giving the top businesses to his friends. It's based on giving special privileged positions to his family. He has amassed a huge personal wealth on the backs of the people of Serbia and he has this dictatorship in place through things like the state run media and we've got to be prepared to tackle that whole apparatus of power and really bring it home to him. And also to say to the Serbian people 'Our quarrel is not with you, it's with the man who is conducting the most appalling campaign of killing and brutality in your name.'
JIM LEHRER: President Clinton has been criticized in this country - either rightly or wrongly - for being involved in selecting targets. As a practical matter did you clear the bombing of the television station in Belgrade? Is that the kind of things the political leaders of NATO are doing?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Now, I think it's very important people understand this. Of course, there is a process because it's an alliance that people go through, but I believe that the politicians, of course, set the parameters of any campaign though we've got to allow our military people to get on with the job and that's important to do.
JIM LEHRER: So you're not signing off on targets?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Well, there is a process that we go through, but if you're saying to me do I sit there and pour over every target, that's not my job, that's the guys that I have in the military to do that. My job is to get out there and make sure that the overall strategy of the campaign is right and that we are giving our military people every backup they need in order to make sure it's effective.
JIM LEHRER: But the strategy that you outlined a moment ago about getting to the dictatorship through public opinion and through his television station, this is in keeping with the policy that you political leaders set? Correct?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Oh, absolutely, it is important that we get through to his whole apparatus of power.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, you were not surprised and said 'oh my goodness we bombed the Belgrade television station.' You knew that was going to happen?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: No, we certainly knew that these things were legitimate targets. Absolutely, and they are legitimate targets.
|A generation that was anti-war.|
JIM LEHRER: Much as has been said about you and other NATO leaders, including President Clinton, of being of a generation that was anti-war when you were younger, now actually running this war. Are you comfortable with that?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Well, I've never been anti-war if the war is justified. And my father fought in the Second World War and I hope very much if I had been his age at the time I would have been doing the same, so I don't have any difficulty in saying you need sometimes to use force and when you are against a bloody dictator who is engaged in a policy of racial genocide then I believe force is necessary. I think what people, in a sense, mean is that you know this is a different generation that hasn't had to face a situation like this before. Well, no we haven't and my goodness we tried to avoid it as responsibly we should and anybody who thinks….I mean sometimes I read things of people saying, 'oh well, they you know watch every opinion poll and decide what they can do and what they can't do and, you know, or that we sit there bedazzled by the technology of modern warfare.' Look, when I put young men's lives at risk, as I am doing, I do it with a very, very heavy heart and a great sense of responsibility and I have no doubt at all that your president does the same and every prime minister or president involved in this conflict. But we do have a choice. I mean, there aren't any easy options. The options in the end are - you let him do it or you try and stop him. And my view is we have to stop him.
JIM LEHRER: And this, of course, is a new thing for NATO. NATO is a defensive organization set up to protect the West from the Soviet Union. This is an offensive move by NATO. You are at ease with that?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Yes, I am. But you are quite right in pointing out it is . . . it is an extension of NATO's role. It is a development of NATO. I said in the speech I gave in Chicago last night that at a later stage it is important that we reflect on the lessons of all this, but I think that NATO has changed since the end of the Cold War and a lot of the humanitarian missions that we have undertaken and the work that we've done is of a different nature from what people envisaged when after the war, people from Britain and the United States and elsewhere established NATO. That is how institutions evolve.
JIM LEHRER: I read your speech yesterday in Chicago as well. Are you essentially, is it correct to say what you're saying is that in this new world, this new generation that we are in, post Cold War that you and the other leaders of NATO or of the civilized world -- however you want to describe it -- are going to say 'that's not acceptable, Mr. Milosevic, that's not acceptable Mr. whoever or whatever,' and you will … you have the right to intervene in internal affairs of countries or whatever affairs of countries if you decide what they are doing doesn't meet your high standards?
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: I'm saying that we shouldn't interfere in every conflict and the principal of non-interference in the affairs of another state is a very sound principal. But I'm saying there are circumstances - racial genocide, where our strategic interests are dramatically engaged, circumstances where we've exhausted every diplomatic solution, circumstances where we have the capability to act - that we do have to think of what I call a doctrine of international community where we are prepared to act, where we are prepared to take a lead and, I think I'm trying to say something more than that. I'm also saying that it is important both with the globalization of economics, of the environment, of issues like third world debt and of security and disarmament issues that we don't focus whenever there is a crisis, but lose focus when there isn't. And that we realize that there are certain issues that we have to remain focused and engaged with the whole time because this is world in which we live and our national interests are more dependent on international cooperation today than every before, certainly even at the time when NATO was established.
JIM LEHRER: So that would mean then, success in Kosovo is absolutely paramount, is it not, if this is going to be an example of the future, it has to work.
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: It does have to work. I have no doubt about that at all, because it is the same with the action that we took against Saddam. Many people criticized it. I believe if Saddam had been allowed to develop chemical, nuclear, biological weapons and we had stood aside and said well, you can carry on doing that, then at some point we would have had to have dealt with a resurgent Iraq under a leader who was a dictator, utterly ruthless, prepared to wage war on his neighbors. Now, we took action then. And as a result, he is back constrained again. So I think it is important that we are prepared to act and you are quite right, Kosovo has to be successful for us. But we're doing it because it is the right thing to do.
JIM LEHRER: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much.
PRIME MINISTER BLAIR: Thank you.