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interview: prime minister tony blair

Mr. Prime Minister, we start on Sept. 11. How did you first hear of these horrendous events?

I remember sitting in my hotel room in Brighton. I was putting the finishing touches to the speech I was going to make to the Trades Union Congress. Then it just came on the television that this terrible event had happened. Over the unfolding minutes, it became clearer and clearer that this was unlikely to be an accident. Then, of course, the second plane went into the towers.

I remember just sitting there, feeling that suddenly everything that you were about to say to the Trades Union Congress and all the important issues you wanted to discuss became irrelevant. I remember just sitting there, thinking of all the people, what they must have experienced at that moment and how many families were going to be left bereaved. From the very outset, there was a sense of outrage mixed with determination so far as I was concerned.

This was something that was going to occupy many world leaders for a long time. Did that pass through your mind at all?

Sometimes things happen in politics, an event that is so cataclysmic that, in a curious way, all the doubt is removed. You are very certain as to what has to be said and done. From the outset, I really felt a great sense of that certainty.

I felt it was such a terrible event, it was vital that America did not consider itself standing alone at that time. It was vital that the world, as a world community, came together and did the right thing. And the right thing was to pursue those responsible and to eradicate the evil that they stood for. As I say, in a funny way, it was certainty that I felt, rather than doubt about what to do.

Blair is the prime minister of Great Britain. In this interview, he describes his diplomatic efforts in support of the coalition against terrorism, including his conversations with President Bush, as well as the leaders of France, Germany, Pakistan, and Iran. He also discusses his belief that the U.S. and its allies needed to present concrete evidence of Al Qaeda's terrorist acts in order to show that this was not a battle against Islam. This interview was conducted on May 8, 2002.

You took a train back to London and in fairly short order called a meeting of the Cobra [the Cabinet's emergency committee] to discuss the immediate problems. At what stage did you actually formulate an attitude to this -- what this would mean, what this was about? I believe one of your prime concerns was that this was not a war against Islam, in general, when it came to be a war. ...

Obviously, when we had the Cobra meeting, all of the main ministries were focused to a significant extent on our own security, because people thought, "What else was going to happen?" So we obviously had to make sure that London was going to be properly protected, that British defenses were in proper order.

It was vital that America did not consider itself standing alone at that time. It was vital that the world, as a world community, came together and did the right thing

But also I could see right at the outset -- I remember having a conversation actually on the way back from Brighton on the train, where I could see that what the terrorists would want was not merely to cause carnage by the original terrorist act, but to then set in train a series of events, including setting parts of the Muslim world against America.

It was very important right from the outset to make sure that we took that argument on and destroyed the myth that this had anything to do with the true voice of Islam.

In the evening, you spoke in either order to President Chirac and then Chancellor Schroeder. Can you recall for us [those] conversations?

The conversations I had with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder were just very simple and plain. This is a terrible event; we have to stand with America; there should be no gaps in the world coalition at this point. They were in total agreement.

These were short conversations?

Yes, people were in no doubt at all. Jacques Chirac said without any hesitation at all [that] we have to be 100 percent supportive of America in this situation. This is an outrage, a terrible act against humanity, not just against America. Gerhard Schroeder was exactly of the same view. Both were totally on board, on side, right from the very outset. ...

It wasn't until the next day ... that you spoke to the President Bush. Can you remember the salient moments of that conversation?

President Bush was obviously shocked and outraged by what had happened. But I remember he was very calm in the conversation. He said immediately, "There is no point in some instant response that means nothing. We are not interested in simply pounding sand for the sake of demonstrating we are going to do something." He said, "We have got to think this thing through, and make sure that we go after these people in a way that is going to be effective and that is going to eradicate them." I obviously agreed with that, and we had the first initial discussions about how we were going to approach this from the point of view of strategy.

But from the beginning, he had a very clear view, in a sense, in part because of the enormity of what had happened. This was not something to be dealt with as an issue of perception that we were acting quickly, that things were happening. It was nothing to do with that; it was a reality that had to be confronted.

I remember saying -- again, from our perspective -- that I thought the international community would hold firm on this, and that we had to make sure that we dealt with this evil in all its aspects. ... The Al Qaeda terrorist network may be responsible for this act, but we had to make sure that it was eradicated -- not simply those people who had actually perpetrated this act, but those people who were financing the Al Qaeda, those people that were giving them help and succor and support.

I don't think you mentioned it in that phone call, but on the 12th, you drew up a five-page memo. ... Can you talk about how this idea arose and how you suggested it to your people and how that then went to Washington?

I gather a summary of this has appeared in The Washington Post and there is no point in denying that I prepared the note but the notes are obviously confidential.

What I wanted to do, and President Bush was totally on side for this, was to make sure that we dealt with every dimension of this because we had to be aware that first of all there was an obvious issue: you have to work out who is responsible. You have to prove to the bar of public opinion who is responsible. But we also then had to recognize that in respect of Afghanistan, the Taliban either had to yield these people up or be complicit in the terrorism, and that it didn't stop at Afghanistan because Al Qaeda were effective and operating in many different parts of the world.

Then, in addition to that, in order to act against Al Qaeda and possibly against the Taliban, as well on the assumption that they didn't yield to the ultimatum that was given to them, we had to make sure that the surrounding countries were prepared to back action. And that meant Pakistan in particular, who had had links up to then with the Taliban. And also I was very conscious of the fact -- President Bush had said to me in our very first conversation -- that this is a mission for a presidency. This isn't going to be over in a few days or a few weeks. And we were both very conscious of the fact that it didn't stop at Al Qaeda either; other organizations that sponsored or supported this type of terrorism we had to act against. And so really the purpose of the note was simply to say well, look, here are all the different strategic considerations that we need to build into the plan of action that we now put forward.

You made a call to President Musharraf [of Pakistan] on Monday, [Sept.] 17, I believe. By then he had actually indicated to the president and to the secretary of state in America that he was on board. Had you had any previous conversations? What was your conversation with him?

President Musharraf had no difficulty at all, and said in his conversation with me, that there was no question of Pakistan doing anything other than totally condemning the act of terrorism that had taken place.

But he also said to me, "Look, there is a problem convincing Muslim opinion in general -- and in particular, parts of it here in Pakistan -- that the Al Qaeda terrorist network is responsible and that the Taliban is backing them up." So in principle, his support was there. But he was alerting us to the fact that there were real issues of political reality that he had to deal with. It was in the course of that conversation in particular that I became convinced of the need to be upfront, to try and present as much evidence as we possibly could of the guilt of Al Qaeda and the fact that the Taliban were complicit in it.

Were you able to say, "We are behind you?" Here is a man who was not far off [from] being a military dictator, after all, a day or two before.

Of course. I said that if Pakistan were prepared to support us properly in this, then we would obviously back Pakistan in the problems that it had, the series of different problems that it was confronting. Although we still support very strongly, and do support, the road map to democracy, nonetheless this was a brave act by President Musharraf. There is no doubt about that at all.

Do you recall the salient points of your conversation on Sept. 11 with President Putin?

I remember Vladimir Putin saying to me very clearly that he of course totally condemned what had happened and supported America. He also pointed out that Russia had felt itself victim of extremist religious fundamentalist attacks, terrorist attacks -- not just in Chechnya, but also in Moscow. So he had a very clear sympathy for America's position right from the very beginning, based on the Russian experience.

Did either of you see, or mention an opportunity for recasting geopolitics, international relations? Or was this too early?

It was too early, really. Vladimir Putin realized -- as others did as well, I think including myself -- that this was an event of such importance that suddenly everything was going to move around and take new shape.

In that first conversation, there was no equivocation. He wasn't speaking to me as maybe 10, 15 years ago Russian presidents would have spoken to a British prime minister or to an American president, in the sense that it would be read from a script of very carefully chosen words in a very deliberative way. It was straight from the heart. He was outraged by it. He supported America. He understood from the experience that they had had in Moscow, in Chechnya, exactly what we were dealing with. He had no doubt at all that we had to get out there together and stand with America, get after this menace and deal with it.

You go to Bonn and you meet Chancellor Schroeder on Sept. 19. You had more time to discuss the ins and outs, who would do what, what Chancellor Schroeder's own problems were with his Green Party Alliance and perhaps what some of your problems were. What do you remember from that evening?

I remember when we had dinner actually in the chancellery in Berlin, Gerhard Schroeder was totally committed in support of the United States. But he also impressed upon me that this was a very big decision for Germany to take if it was going to get involved in action itself. We discussed this. I said I totally understood because, for Britain, the idea of becoming involved in such military action was reasonably easy to contemplate, as a matter of principle, but for Germany, doing this was a very big step. But he told me that he had no doubt it was the right thing to do, and that he was going to do it.

You are moving around pretty fast. The next morning, it is coffee and croissants with Jacques Chirac again, a week or more after the event, a week or so since your first conversation. What more had developed by this time? You are on the way to America, but Chirac had just come back from seeing Bush a day or two before.

Jacques Chirac was still totally supportive of what America was doing. I remember he literally came into the Elysee straight off the plane. So we sat down and had breakfast together. Obviously, we exchanged notes about the conversations that I had had and the conversations that he had with other leaders. We agreed that the important thing was for everyone to keep on the same tack -- that we had to show total solidarity with America, and we had to back this up with action. There, for the first time, we had at that point a conversation about what military help we could both give. We both agreed that whatever help was necessary, we should try and give. ...

You now take off for America, to New York initially. On the way, somebody has this brainwave, or perhaps it was planned before, of putting a call through to the president of Iran. How did that happen, and what was it like sitting in the plane?

I wanted to secure the largest possible coalition, not just internationally, but in the theater where it was likely we were going to be taking military action. Pakistan was one key element of that. There were the various strands as well that were extremely important. Then, of course, there was Iran itself.

Now, Iran had no love for the Taliban. But on the other hand, relations between the West and Iran were very poor. So I decided, "Well, we can't leave Iran out of this. We have got to consult them about it. They have got a legitimate interest in the area." Although I think there was a lot of hesitation in certain quarters about doing this, I decided we would put the call through to the president of Iran and I would speak to him.

So I actually spoke to him on the plane. It was a strange thing to have happen. The line was in fact extremely good, despite the fact that it was on the plane. He expressed his outrage at what had happened and his sense of solidarity in dealing with it. He gave no specific commitments of any sort -- as you wouldn't expect him to do -- but I guess it was a conversation that was more cordial and frank than anything that could have been contemplated a few months before. ...

I understand when you did meet President Bush, you told him that you had just spoken to [President] Khatami of Iran, and he was not a little surprised.

I remember saying over a drink before dinner that I had just spoken to the president of Iran. George was certainly a little surprised at that. But he was also extremely interested in what he had to say, because the American relationship obviously with Iran had been very, very poor, for perfectly obvious and understandable reasons. I just felt all the way through that, once we had set our objective, nothing should have got in the way of that objective, and that included even talking to people you wouldn't normally talk to.

You have a tête-à-tête with the president [before he gives his address to Congress]. To the extent that you can tell us, of course, can you recreate for us what was said?

This was obviously a very important meeting. It was also on a very important day, because the president was about to make the most important political speech of his life later that evening. We had some discussion over a drink before dinner, and then we had dinner, where we went through the main issues with our key staff. Then we went up and had a private talk upstairs in the White House flat.

The two things that really came out of it for me were, first of all, the total determination that we had that nothing should stand in the way of getting this thing done. We were going to get it done. We would proceed in a measured and calm and serious way, but we were going to get it done.

His sense of mission at that moment in time was palpable and very real. The second thing was that he was immensely calm. I remember when we were going up in the lift together, saying to him, "You must be really nervous before this big speech," and he said, "Well, actually I am not that nervous about it, because I know what I want to say, and I know what I am saying is right."

I think that is, in a sense, all the way through this period. The odd thing is, when you are actually involved in these decisions, if you are following what you really believe in -- your instinct and your conviction -- in fact the decisions may seem extremely hard. In a sense of being weighty and having massive implications with them -- they are. But at another level, in one sense, they are almost easy, because the answer seems obvious.

You two were so much on a wavelength together, was there a cigarette paper you could put between you? If so, what was it?

No. We had a very, very frank conversation: How are we going to do this? What are going to be the mechanics of it? What do we think the rest of opinion will be? How will it react? Which countries do we need to really work on to get on side? In particular, we were both very concerned about this issue that it must not be seen as some fight against Islam, because it was nothing to do with that. The people who died in the twin towers were of whatever religion. So all those things were very clear.

I know that, in a way, it sounds rather too diplomatic to be true to say it, but it happens to be true. There really wasn't any difference of approach or opinion.

Then you went to hear his speech before the joint houses of Congress. That must have been quite a moment.

It was a very moving occasion, because it was a brilliant speech actually, and it catches the spirit of America at that time -- the dominant feeling was really resolution. They had got over the shock and the outrage, but they were resolved. This was about their way of life -- and I believe about the free world's way of life, not just about a terrorist incident -- and he captured that.

The feeling in the hall was very dramatic, because the emotion was very clear. But it had this steely quality that I thought was both impressive and admirable. It obviously carried people with him -- it went down a storm. I remember saying to the president afterwards that I wish I could get as many standing ovations as that during the course of any speech that you would make. But it was a moving and unifying moment. There are very few speeches that you can call truly historic, but I think that was. ...

[You visited Islamabad on Oct. 5.] President Musharraf was about to ask for the resignation, shall we say, of General Mahmood, the head of the ISI [Pakistan's intelligence agency.] He also had a few other problems, India might jump at this opportunity for Pakistan being knocked off its course, etc. Can you recall for us key moments of that meeting?

The conversation with President Musharraf I think was very important. At the beginning of the conversation we had put everyone else out of the room and just talked, the two of us. And that was important because I wanted to say to him that I had spoken to President Bush, I was speaking for both of us in the conversation that I was having, and really I wanted to say two things: firstly, that if Pakistan really helped in this, as I thought it should because it really should have nothing to do with these types of extremists or the Taliban regime, if Pakistan helped then we would help Pakistan because we know this is a serious and difficult problem for President Musharraf. We know there are conflicting pressures within his own country, but this was a turning point for Pakistan if they were prepared to take the right turning and we would help in that.

And the second thing was to say that we understood the tremendous pressure that they felt under and we would certainly say to the Indian government, as indeed I did say to them, that it was important that this was not used by them in any way, and the Indian government, to be fair to them, made it absolutely clear that they did not intend to do anything other than be totally supportive of the effort in Afghanistan. ...

Let's talk about your Gulf trip to Oman. You went there. You didn't go to Saudi Arabia, although you did later. Do you want to talk about a reason why you didn't go to Saudi Arabia? Oman obviously was a key member in terms of what they were producing for the coalition.

Contrary to speculation at the time, the reason I didn't go to Saudi was I could only go for a very, very short space of time, and it just wasn't terribly convenient. But I was always going to go there at a later point.

What we had to do was to get across very strongly, so far as we were concerned -- America, Britain, other European countries -- that this was not about taking on Islam. On the contrary, every sane and sound voice within Islam would be on the side of those people rooting out the terrorists; and secondly, to make sure that the Arab nations and the Muslim world felt again some sense of ownership of this situation, because they had themselves been victims of terrorism.

So it was important that they felt that they were part of this effort and were supportive of it, and that we understood that this issue of terrorism was something that concerned them as well as us. That was very, very important for them to feel that this was not us simply launching a campaign and targeting a particular country, but this was part of a concerted effort to deal with all the problems of international terrorism, including the problems that they had to deal with.

I also wanted to discuss -- and I did with the Omanis, later with the Saudis -- about how we captured back some of the ground from the extremists that said they were talking on behalf of Islam, when no sensible Islamic scholar or cleric could possibly support such an interpretation of Islam permitting something such as the attack in New York. So what I wanted to do when I was having those meetings in the Arab world was, in a sense, not just to talk politics, but also to talk about religion -- about how we could help and understand in connection with the problems that they were facing within their own countries.

You went on the Concorde on a one-day trip to America on Nov. 7, partly to report to the president on this Middle East trip. What did you have to say to the president on that and how receptive was he?

When I went over on the 7th, again it was a very good full meeting. I was obviously reporting back on the discussions that I had had. We were talking about how we got the international coalition to remain strong. We were talking also a lot at that particular meeting about the military action itself, because at the time there were people having doubts about it, was it going to be successful or was it not, and I believed very strongly, and continue to believe, that we had to make sure that we were targeting the troops of Al Qaeda, rather than simply pummeling the infrastructure of Afghanistan. We had a conversation there again about the full range of the issues that we had to deal with and agreed that we would step up the attacks against the troops themselves because it was Al Qaeda troops that were causing the problem.

And indeed you were right because within two days Mazar fell; three or four more Kabul fell, and you got a call from a somewhat concerned President Musharraf?

All the way through, obviously what was important for Pakistan and the surrounding countries was that, having been brought into this coalition, that they were not suddenly left out of it at the point when the Taliban fell. President Musharraf called me and said, "Look, I totally support what is happening. We have been very bold in giving it support, but we need to make sure that whatever regime takes over in Kabul is broad-based." I assured him in that conversation that we were determined that the successor regime should indeed be broad-based, that it should include all the various ethnic groupings and that it should not be simply confined to one particular grouping. ...

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