Full transcript of the interview with Tony Blair
Philip Stephens, UK editor, and Cathy Newman, chief political correspondent interviewed Tony Blair, British prime minister
Published: April 27 2003 23:01 

Financial Times: Prime Minister, how long are British forces likely to be in Iraq. How quick will the transition to Iraqi rule and Iraqi control be?

Tony Blair: The forces shouldn't be there any longer than is necessary to see the country stable, to see an Iraqi interim administration take over. There may be stages of transition though for that, so some parts of the forces may go fairly quickly, in any event the forces will be order to give those forces that have been out there some break. The Iraqi interim authority I hope will be there, set up within the next few weeks and months.

FT: When you say as quickly as possible, are we thinking of months or years, will there be British troops in Iraq in two years time say?

A: First of all, there shouldn't be any need for troops to be in Iraq in the size and quantity that they are there now. As for the future, I simply can't say, but obviously preferably not. Now there is, for example in Afghanistan and in other countries in which British troops have been engaged, there have been some small numbers of British troops that have remained to do various activities in conjunction with the civilian governments. I really can't speculate on that, I just don't know. But the troops in the size and quantity they are in now, we want to scale that down as soon as we possibly can. But that has got to be consistent with the security situation being stable and also with the wishes of the Iraqi government. But we wouldn't keep troops at all there unless it was in accordance with the wishes of the Iraqi people and the Iraqi government.

FT: There has been some suggestion in Washington in the last few days that a sort of stabilisation force might have some sort of Nato hat. Is that something that you think is an idea to be pursued?

A: We can discuss all these things. I could see an argument for it, but these are all issues that are under discussion, there are also countries in the region that I think would like to put forces in and obviously it would be better if there were forces from the region that were playing a part in this.

FT: Are you as convinced now, as you were before the war, that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction?

A: Yes I am and I don't find it in the least surprising that it is going to take some time before we assemble the evidence... First of all there is no doubt that Iraq has had these weapons of mass destruction, no doubt about that at all, that is why we have had 12 years of United Nations resolutions.

Secondly, I would point out that in relation both to the biological weapons programme, and the nuclear programme, when there was a policy of concealment by Iraq it took years for the truth about that programme to come out.

Thirdly, our priorities have been to win the conflict, to stabilise the security situation, to make sure the humanitarian care is there, and then there will be a deliberate effort to assemble the evidence, inspect the sites in respect of weapons of mass destruction. But I said in my House of Commons statement just before the break that there were 146 sites that we knew of and we had only started inspecting seven. In actual fact, because of the information that is being received the whole time, President Bush told me the other night that there are over 1,000 potential sites, of which we have started looking at 80, and there will be teams of people that will do this. So this is something that is not going to happen overnight, and neither should it, but look, they engaged in a six-month campaign of concealment before the inspectors went in there: it is not in the least surprising it is going to take time for us to unearth this, but I have no doubt that we will.

FT: How important is it to you that you will?

A: Of course it is an important part of the whole picture, but the fact is we know that they have had these weapons. And the case of those who are opposed to us is that though for years they were obstructing weapons inspectors and finally made their job impossible, they then having got rid of the weapons inspectors voluntarily decided to destroy them [the weapons]. I think that is rather unlikely. But what exactly has happened to those weapons in the last few months, that is something we don't know and we will find out.

FT: Would you still say that depriving Saddam Hussein of his weapons of mass destruction was the main motivation of the war?

A: Yes, because the United Nations resolution made it clear that these weapons were a threat and that he had to be disarmed of them. I think in terms of the moral justification for conflict, as I have always said, however, that is really about the nature of the regime. And I hope that most people can accept now just the full extent of how horrific a regime it was and why it was right that we got rid of it. And whatever the difficulties, the more that emerges about the tales of torture and imprisonment and the numbers of people killed, the more obvious it is that it was the right thing to do.

FT: You don't have to find weapons of mass destruction to morally justify the war?

A: As I say, I have always thought that getting rid of the regime was justified in its own terms morally, but the reason for our action was around the issue of weapons of mass destruction and the link with terrorism. And here again I think that that link is very clear, I think it is highly significant, for example, that those people that were the last fighters in Iraq were in the main not Iraqis. What we found in the end was that they were al-Qaeda people, they were people from various different Arab states, various extremists, we had Chechnyans even there.

Personally I have no doubt at all this is the security threat that we face, and I think as a result of the action we have taken we are going to find it easier to deal with those states that still have weapons of mass destruction and are promoting terrorism.

FT: Could we talk then about two of those states - Syria and North Korea. The American government has said that Syria has weapons of mass destruction and said on Sunday night that North Korea had admitted to having nuclear weapons. Are these states to be negotiated with or to be coerced?

A: We should negotiate and offer a way out of this, but people in the end have got to realise that we do consider these things a serious security threat. So I think it is possible to offer, and indeed this has been my own pitch to Syria, that Syria can have a new and different relationship with the west, with Britain and with the US, but it has got to be on very clear understandings, of which in relation to Syria one very important element is ceasing support for terrorist groups.

FT: If you focus on North Korea, it is not illegal if North Korea develops nuclear weapons, as India did, as Pakistan did. Are we moving to a situation where countries like Britain and America say we are the ones who will now decide whether this country is allowed nuclear weapons, whether this country is allowed nuclear weapons, and we will act to prevent some getting them, or doesn't there have to be an international framework for such coercion?

A: Well I think it is best if there is and it is not just the US or Britain that regards a nuclear capability in the hands of North Korea as a threat, I think China and Russia and South Korea would say the same, the question is how do you deal with it? And again I think we have got to try and offer North Korea a way out of its present situation, which is why the discussions with the US and China and North Korea are important.

But let us again just be quite blunt about the nature of the North Korean regime: this is a regime whose people are repressed in the most brutal and appalling way, some of whose people are suffering from malnutrition at the same time as they are spending billions of dollars on a nuclear weapons programme they don't need. So it is a situation where I think we are right to engage. And the difficulty for us is that you get into this situation where people say well tell us what your strategy is for each of these countries. And I think what I would say is our strategy is to try and change the situation and in fact we tried to change the situation in Iraq by peaceful means, and Iraq was unique because it had used weapons of mass destruction, unique because of the long history of United Nations resolutions against it. But I think it is important that we do intervene, and let us say by diplomatic means, in order to try and engineer a change.

FT: Would it be legal for example to have military strikes on North Korea's nuclear facilities, something that President Clinton considered way back in 1993?

A: Well there are no plans to make a military strike on North Korea's nuclear capabilities, and the trouble in this situation is speculation can be a very dangerous thing.

FT: I am just thinking of international law, doesn't there have to be a legal framework?

A: Yes of course there does... I wouldn't want Britain ever to act contrary to international law. But I think there is a chance of entering into new relationships with these countries, but it has got to be on a very clear basis and understanding. And I suppose from my perspective, the reason - if you go back to the Chicago speech I made in 1998 - I have never had a problem with intervention, that is one of the reasons I couldn't understand a lot of the left protesting against the removal of Saddam, I can understand someone on the right who says well look, what do I care what happens in these other countries, protesting against it, but actually for us where there are people in terrible difficulties, I think we should be prepared to do what we can.

But what is interesting, and this is why I think these threats are coming together, is that those countries that are developing weapons of mass destruction do tend also to be highly repressive states who need those weapons either for the possibility of external aggression or internal repression.

FT: The kind of things you are saying about North Korea sound quite similar to the things you said about Iraq before military action there, so obviously that leaves open the possibility that the way you deal with the threat could be similar?

A: No it doesn't, and this is the danger of getting into these discussions, because actually I said that Iraq was unique because they used weapons of mass destruction, because they were breaching United Nations resolutions, and I specifically say to you, as far as I am aware, no-one has any plan to take military action against North Korea, but these are issues and we have to tackle them and deal with them. And that is why I said when I was asked about that in the House of Commons some months ago, you have to deal with the issue of North Korea, now let us hope we can deal with it through the talks that are starting.

But I think that all of this, you see I fit this within a broader framework which is what I call a global agenda, which deals with issues to do with security and terrorism, but also deals with issues of global poverty, of justice, of issues like the Middle East peace process. And I think you can construct an agenda where world opinion can form a consensus around such an agenda and intervention in those circumstances - I don't mean necessarily military intervention - but focus on an issue and trying to resolve it is an important part of making the world more secure, more safe and more just.

I would like to see a bigger focus by the international community on Zimbabwe, which is a scandal and a terrible situation that is developing there. Now there is a limit to what you can do, but I have never had a difficulty with the concept of intervention, it doesn't, as I say, necessarily mean that it is armed intervention, it can be diplomatic intervention, it can be pressure.

But the thing that we are learning about our modern world is that the more freedom, the more democracy, the more justice, the greater the security.

FT: Do you think the UN will have the vital role in Iraq that you said before the war it would?

A: Well I hope so, I think it is to everyone's benefit that the UN does have such a role, so I hope there can be agreement on that, on the humanitarian, on the reconstruction but also on the political side too. It is not in our interests - America and Britain - to have a government in Iraq that doesn't clearly have legitimacy.

FT: How soon do you think that sanctions could be lifted in Iraq?

A: Well I hope soon. We are in the early stages of stabilising the country, but soon, and that will be one huge benefit for the Iraqi people.

FT: You don't have a timescale in mind?

A: No, but I think that as with all these things, I sort of say as soon as possible. But the conflict stage of this ended, what, a week ago, so there are still a lot of thes e questions that are necessarily a little up in the air at the moment.

FT: Can we move you on? You said after the disagreement at the Security Council that there was a lot of hard talking that was going to have to be done within Europe about its attitudes to American power. Do you agree with those that say that one starting point is that France should be punished for the attitude it took in the United Nations?

A: I am really not interested in talk about punishing countries, but I think there is an issue that we have to resolve here between America and Europe and within Europe about Europe's attitude towards the transatlantic alliance. And I don't want to see a situation develop again in which either Europe or America sees a huge strategic interest at stake and we are not helping each other, and I think there is a difference of vision.

Some want a so-called multi-polar world where you have different centres of power, and I believe that that will very quickly develop into rival centres of power. And others believe, and this is my notion of this, that we need one polar power but which encompasses a strategic partnership between Europe and America and other countries too - Russia, China - where we are trying to ensure that we develop as I say a common global agenda. Because I think the danger of rival poles of power is that you end up reawakening some of the problems that we had in the old cold war with countries playing different centres of power off against each other, with countries who really should be together falling out over issues, and that destabilises the world.

FT: But isn't the danger that one pole is so dominated by the United States that the only thing that the other so-called partners in this pole can do is say yes?

A: Well that is the argument, but I don't think that is true. You see this is where I take a different view. My view, I want a stronger Europe, more capable of speaking with a unified voice, but I don't want that Europe setting itself up in opposition to America, because I think that won't work, I think it will be dangerous and destabilising. And the truth is America needs to reach out, and I think is reaching out. And for example in what America is doing in relation to the Middle East peace process at the moment, so I think taking account of the fact that there are views out there that believe this is a major question for the rest of the world that we need to address. And Europe needs to recognise that America, particularly post-11 September, has a fixed determination to deal with its security threat, which I happen also to believe is a threat to the rest of the world too.

Sometimes I think people think I reduce this to too crude a choice, but I think the choice is actually quite crude. In my view what we should have done, what Europe should have done with one voice back last September, is to have gone to America and said: look we understand and we agree that this issue of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction is a threat, we agree that Iraq has to be dealt with, we will deal with it through the United Nations, and we ask you to go through the United Nations. And at the same time we ask you, America, to recognise that dealing with Iraq has to fit in to a broader vision for the Middle East that also encompasses a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Now I think if we had done that and we had followed through the logic of that position, we would be in a far stronger position as Europe. Now in the end, I suppose we have done this in the sense that that has been our own position in relation to this. But those people who fear "unilateralism" - so called and in inverted commas - in America should realise that the quickest way to get that is to set up a rival polar power to America and say we are in opposition to you.

FT: Do you consider yourself a bridge between Europe and America on these issues?

A: Yes I do. I think that our role is to try and bring people together round a common agenda. And it is very important to realise that when we talk about Europe, Europe is not simply the French-German position in the course of this dispute over Iraq. Spain and Italy, Holland, Denmark, Portugal, took the same position as Britain. All 10 accession countries took the same position as Britain.

FT: This difference that you have set out is a pretty fundamental one: it is not something that can be fixed over a dinner with Jacques Chirac or an evening with Gerhard Schrvder. Are you talking about a fairly fundamental divide here which will take some time to bridge?

A: The more I go on in politics the more I think that sometimes it is a better idea, rather than trying to gloss over a particular difference, to have it out in the open, and I think there is a difference of view. Now incidentally, having said that, France is a great country with a great tradition, a huge future role to play both in Europe and in the outside world, and I have always thought that Britain and France should be natural allies and partners together. But there is a difference about this, because I think that the best way to make progress is for Europe to be America's partner, not its rival. And although people will say well if there is a multi-polar world it doesn't mean to say they are rivals, that is the reality. In fact in the last few months you can see that is exactly what has happened, and there it is and we need to resolve this for Europe and for the relationship between Europe and America.

FT: And for the relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe, it is hard to see us being as you have often said we should be, right at the centre if we fundamentally disagree with such an important partner?

A: Well no I wouldn't say that, but I think if Europe as a whole went in the direction of an anti-American position, that would be a problem for Britain, but the fact is it won't because actually that would be a problem not just for Britain but in an enlarged European Union for the majority of European Union member states. And the reason why I say it is so important for Britain to be a full partner in Europe is precisely so that we don't say if there is a division of opinion in Europe, well we had better just take our bat home and go away, we say no I am sorry we are going to be out there fighting our corner.

FT: Do you get irritated at the way that Jacques Chirac tends to treat you as a sort of Blair of the third form?

A: Does he?

FT: There is an element of that.

A: I don't find that.

FT: The euro is obviously quite important in our relationship with Europe - you have said central, and that over time we couldn't exercise our full influence without being part of the euro. Is it possible that we will still join the euro in this Parliament?

A: I realised you were going to ask me a lot of questions about the euro, but there is no point in speculating about what we will decide, or getting me to say it could be this, it could be that, or it could be the other thing. Because there are only two people who know what the statement and assessment will say, one is Gordon and the other is me, and all newspaper comment at the moment on this, however informed they might think it is, is speculation and I am not going to add to that speculation.

FT: But in your last interview with us you said it was indeed an option for us to join in this Parliament, so I am not asking you what the results of the tests are, what I am saying is: is there an option for us to join in this parliament?

A: Yes, and what I am saying to you is wait for the statement, but I think you will find it is fully consistent with all the things I have said to you.

FT: How has the French and German attitude over Iraq, I know you are probably not going to answer this, but how has that affected Britain's "destiny", in your words, of joining the euro?

A: Look, here is again where I take a very particular position, because other people who have said to me in the past few weeks: look you have let down Britain's position in Europe by siding with the United States of America. And I say to them don't be ridiculous, part of Britain's position in Europe is to ensure that Europe and America are allies. And in exactly the same way, there are people on the other side of the argument who say well with all those difficulties with France and Germany, then that must mean that you are not going to become full players in Europe. The answer to that is no, that is precisely the reason why you should be confident of your case and in there arguing it.

Now the euro is to be decided on the basis that we have set out, but if we get into a dispute in Europe, the answer to the dispute is not to go and hide in a corner, the answer to a dispute is to go out and win the argument. And by and large when Britain exerts itself to win an argument, it often does, as we are doing now on many of the issues to do with [former French president Valiry Giscard d'Estaing's] Convention [on the future of Europe] frankly where people a few weeks ago were saying it was all going to be a federal super state, and I don't think there is any great enthusiasm for that at all.

Look, the key point about the modern world is its interdependence, that is a cliche but it is true. Flowing from that is also this other truism, which is that the economic prosperity of individual countries is more than ever before affected by what is happening not just in the world economic situation but in world politics as well. That is what we have seen in the last few months. It is why people talked about a bounce out of the Iraq war.

Now what does that mean? That means for a country like Britain, which is a highly dynamic and successful country, but is not going to be in terms of population or land size large enough to be the power it was at the end of the 19th century, what it means is you make use of every single alliance that you have, you make use of your alliance with America. To absent yourself from the main strategic alliance on your doorstep - which is Europe - would just be an act of self-mutilation as a country. It would just be stupid, so we shouldn't do that. And therefore if we get into a row with France and Germany or anyone else in Europe, when we do that we should have the confidence to behave as any other country in Europe does. If France has a difficulty with us, it doesn't say: well we are going to clear out of Europe. That is ridiculous.

FT: This is not a question about the assessment or the tests. But you turned round this massive tide of public opinion against war in Iraq, you did that, polls show now that you have been vindicated on that, can you do the same on the euro? I am not talking about when, I am just saying can you?

A: I have no doubt at all that if you can show to people that it is in the country's interest, including its economic interest, then yes you can.

FT: And do you think it is a similar sort of scale?

A: I don't think you can tell, and I also think that people will make up their minds on this issue when it becomes a real and live issue for them and when they really focus on it and concentrate upon it.

FT: You mentioned the convention and said it was changing. When you look at the proposals put forward this week by Giscard d'Estaing, is there anything threatening for Britain in those proposals for the European Parliament, for majority voting, for immigration, for justice and home affairs?

A: Well there are certain red lines obviously for us to do with common and foreign security policy, where that has got to remain intergovernmental in my view, to do with the setting of tax rates and so on, which again I think has got to be for national governments, to do with making sure our own national borders are protected. But I prefer to look at this positively in terms of the agenda we can get out of this.

There are things, as with other countries, that we won't concede, but there are other issues on which we can get gains, I think in relation to the way the Council is structured. That is important because it will make Europe more effective, I think.

In relation to qualified majority voting, I don't think we should look upon this as some great ideological matter. You are bound with 25, then 27, then possibly 30 European Union members, you are going to have more qualified majority voting, you should have that. Heaven knows where we would be on some of the key issues where Britain has actually gained something if we didn't have qualified majority voting.

FT: It's said, I am sure scurrilously, that the only reason that you put forward this role for a new President of the Council is that you were looking forward to your next job. Can you say that it is a job that you wouldn't really want to do?

A: I can certainly, yes. It is not a job I would want to do, no.

FT: So [Spanish premier Josi Marma] Aznar is...

A: I am not laying it on anybody else. The reason I have put this forward is nothing whatever to do, I am very happy, thank you, with being Prime Minister.

FT: But you can't foresee the circumstances?

A: No, and I am not using anybody else's words, or that it is an unassailable position or whatever else. But the reason I put it forward is perfectly simple. How on earth can you have, with 25 European Union countries, a six-month rotating Presidency: it just doesn't make sense, and I think people realise that. We have got to make sure, however, that this is not an argument about big versus small. And that is why I think that combining it with some of the ideas of the team Presidencies is a good idea. I want a Europe that is more effective, I want a Europe that is stronger. I think most people when they analyse this and look at it, for the reasons that Giscard gave, who I think incidentally has done a remarkable job in very difficult circumstances, you know you have got to change the situation.

FT: You have been quite open about the personal risks you took over Iraq. What is the next issue you would say on which you are prepared to risk massive unpopularity?

A: Well I think the next challenge for the government is on the whole public service reform agenda, crime and asylum. These are the key issues and we have got to opt for the radical, not the quiet life, there is no doubt about that in my mind at all. In fact there is a lot happening on the public service reform agenda: I don't accept it when people say that the National Health Service isn't getting better, I think it is getting better. I think that there is now a huge discrepancy between people's actual experience of the National Health Service and some of the polling on it, which is affected understandably by the coverage on anything that is bad. But there is a process of change going on in the Health Service which is opening it up, making it more flexible, changing the conditions under which people work.

It is not just the issue of foundation hospitals; it is the new diagnostic and treatment centres where we are throwing it open to all sorts of different providers in the Health Service, the agenda for change and the changes in the contracts of all the main professions within the Health Service; it is the choice that is now coming in for patients to be able, if they are waiting too long, to go to any other part of the country and get their healthcare treatment. There is a huge amount: the payment by results is coming in this month, which will mean that if hospitals do more operations they get paid more money. It may seem odd that that didn't happen before, but it didn't. And there are a whole series of changes there and in schools also.

What we have got to do is fundamentally to redraw the way the 1945 welfare state settlement is implemented, and we have got to do it for health, for education, for the employment and labour markets, and actually in the longer term for pensions too.

FT: If you see those improvements coming through, where would you say now is the main sticking point that you have really got to focus on?

A: Really what I think we have to do is to bring it together and to just continue opening it up further. That is why foundation hospitals are important. I met some of the Chief Executives who are amongst the most progressive and dynamic Chief Executives of the Health Service running successful hospitals, for them this is all about keeping the ethos of the public service but injecting into it the spirit of enterprise, and initiative, and innovation, and I think we have got to be doing that throughout th e piece.

FT: I suppose your relationship with your party is quite important here. You saw a very big revolt over Iraq, do you think this is going to feed through? There are already threatened revolts against foundation hospitals and tuition fees, which a lot of people see as central planks of the reform agenda as it were. Are you going to face down those revolts?

A: I hope and believe we will persuade people, a majority of people, to back it. Some will oppose it, but there it is, people have opposed most of the things I have done in the Labour Party since I became leader, but in fact we have always carried the party with us. We carried the party through the war in the end. All this stuff in the papers about how we lost masses of members: we didn't. I was in the Rhondda yesterday in south Wales and party members were basically supportive of the position. You will always get opposition to these things, but the question is: is it opposition that is majority opposition?

FT: But we have got early day motions with 100 signatures on, are you prepared to face down revolts of that kind?

A: I will do what is necessary to carry through the programme, yes.

FT: You are not going to be making concessions, trimming?

A: Certainly not on our public service reform programme. If the Labour Party were to back away from public service reform, we would deal a heavy blow to public services.

Public services can either be renewed, which is what we want, or dismantled, which is what parts of the right want, but they will not stay with public support unreformed. Now the fact is we are reforming the Health Service. If you talk to people actually in the Health Service they will tell you there is massive reform going on, but we need to bring that together and push it further.

In relation to the school system, again there is tremendous reform going on. We will get to a situation where I think in 2005 half of the schools are specialist schools, and we had huge opposition to that. People said it was going to reintroduce selective education: it hasn't, but what it has done is significantly improve the results of the schools.

FT: So if the rebellion is as big as threatened on foundation hospitals, that is not something that overly concerns you?

PM: Well you know all rebellions concern me and I have to deal with it, but I am not going to depart from the path of reform because that will be disastrous for the country, and incidentally also for the Labour Party. And as I say, I have spent the entirety of my almost nine years as Labour Party Leader being told that the party won't handle this, and it won't agree to that and it won't agree to the next thing, and in the end if the argument is strong enough we do it. And the only reason why I never use words like face down, or take on, is that actually what we did over Iraq was we mounted an argument, and that I think is the best way to deal with these things. I am confident of the strength of our own argument.

The truth is foundation hospitals are NHS hospitals: they are not against the NHS, they are simply allowing on the basis of earned autonomy successful hospitals to be free from command and control direction from the centre, and that is a good thing.

FT: When you say you have faced opposition throughout your time as Labour leader, in the past you have made concessions. Would you say that the experience over Iraq has made you more determined to carry through your beliefs?

A: I don't personally think I have ever made a concession on something I thought was fundamental. I can't think of one actually, can you think of one?

FT: I am waiting for the five tests [on euro entry]...There is a new mood of union militancy abroad, we have got threatened strikes all over the place, what is causing that and what is the government's response to that?

A: Again this is a problem that is not unique to us at all. It is interesting if you look round the rest of Europe, the same issues there. But in relation to the fir emen's disputefor example, we will stand firm. We will do things that we believe are in the country's interest but we will not give in in any shape or form to any resurgent trade union militancy. Trade unions have really got to understand that, that is absolutely fundamental for me.

FT: Does that apply to teachers as well who threaten to strike?

A: It does, it applies to anybody. The idea that we should get rid of all tests and targets, really, we are trying to educate our kids for the modern world. The idea that we don't have to test them and shouldn't set targets for raising standards in schools is completely absurd and they are just going to have to take a decision as to where they want the future of the trade union movement to be. But the relationship, you know this is a problem that is not unfamiliar for Labour governments.

I had someone at a meeting the other day, in one of the Labour Party question and answer sessions, who got up and said why aren't relations with the trade union movement better between this Labour government and the trade union movement, as they used to be in the past? And then as they were actually saying it realised that of course actually no in fact they weren't very good, we had the winter of discontent.

This has always been a problem because you can never do all the things that people want you to do, but there is a big difference today, because we reformed all the structures in the Labour Party. You tell me how much support the militant fire brigades union membership have got within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Now that is an unthinkable change from the Labour governments of the '60s and '70s. So in the end it is a choice as much for the trade union movement as it is for us.

FT: How far are you prepared to go to protect kids, for example, from striking teachers? What action are you prepared to take?

A: Well let's wait and see what actually materialises out of this, because I think the Easter conference season calls for strikes and militant action I think is pret ty much run of the mill.

FT: I am not just talking about teachers, the fire fighters for example and the rail workers who have threatened to strike as well. Charles Clarke [education secretary] floated the idea of taking out an injunction to prevent strikes, is that something you would consider if you had to?

A: I am not going to go in and start speculating about the measures that we will take, but the one thing I can assure you of: we will put the interests of the consumer of the services and the children in relation to our schools first. But again I wouldn't think that all teachers are wanting that type of NUT nonsense, because I don't think they are.

FT: But if you absolutely have to, you would be prepared to consider an injunction?

A: I think rather than getting sort of trapped into various headlines that may make a difficult situation worse...

FT: Your Education Secretary said...

A: I am sure, and that is fine, I would just simply say to you we will do whatever is necessary but I am not getting into whatever specifics there may be in that because we don't really know the situation we will deal with the NUT.

FT: Does whatever is necessary for public services include, if economic circumstances are such, raising taxes to reach the commitments that you have made for funding?

A: We are putting a huge amount of money into public services and it is funded by our tax commitments.

FT: But over the next couple of years, the Treasury has twice now had to readjust its forecast, it is always possible that it might have to do so again.

A: Yes, it is possible to go into the what ifs, but it is not very sensible and we believe the plans we have are funded, and I don't think it is just a question of m oney. Remember at the end of what we have already planned for in the National Health Service, we will actually be a little bit above the European average in our spending, so there is no reason why we shouldn't be able to get a decent healthcare system for that amount of money.

FT: When you talked about health and education you didn't actually mention another key public service, which is transport. How well do you think you are doing on that?

A: I think there is a long, long way to go on transport.

FT: Why is there such a long way to go when you have had since 1997 to get to grips with it?

A: Because I think we are dealing with three very specific problems: one is a long legacy of under-investment - we are putting that right but it will take a signific ant time to do it; two is a specific problem on the railways which is to do with the state of the railways and the infrastructure which has turned out to be, post-Hatfield [train crash in October 2000], far worse than people thought, which has pushed up costs right across the board in the railways; and the third thing is we have approximately 20 per cent more rail use, 20 per cent more people on the roads, and actually I think the Tube is about 20 per cent up as well because of heightened economic activity. And all that means there is a very, very difficult situation that we have on transport.

FT: Those three reasons don't actually accept that there was anything since 1997 that you have done that you could have done better over transport. Do you accept any responsibility for it?

A: Of course I accept responsibility, in the end we are responsible. But I think most people realise that the transport problems of the country didn't begin in 1997.

FT: If you ask people in Whitehall to characterise the present stance of the transport Department, the word most frequently used is immobile, that it is a "do nothing" department: it has taken the view that there is no short term political capital in fixing things so the best thing is to do nothing. You are not doing anything in transport, Ken Livingstone [the London mayor] is the only person who has done something in transport.

A: I don't accept that we are not doing anything. We brought Network Rail out of administration, the Strategic Rail Authority I think is gripping the situation far better than before, despite all the problems that there are, and there are significant problems. There is a huge amount of money going into the road investment programme now. We have got the tube I think in the situation where at least we are going to get the capital investment in that it requires but that is going to take 10 to 15 years. So I don't agree that we are not doing anything and there would be many benefits of a short term political nature if you were able to get quick improvements because transport is a real problem for people.

FT: Do you applaud Ken?

A: Yes I think that it [congestion charging in London] was an experiment that a lot of people were dubious about frankly, including me, and I think he deserves credit for having carried that through. We have got to work out what its implications are more widely now.

FT: It is something that might spread, he has shown that road charging can work?

A: You have got to be wary of what it really means and how applicable it is to other situations, but people were predicting a disaster and it wasn't, so there is no point in being churlish about it.

FT: Will you bring him back into the fold?

A: I didn't say that, and he may not want to.

FT: Just one more domestic question: on pensions, do you think the government is doing enough? The Green Paper had a pretty disappointing response from employers, unions, consultants, fund managers. Would you be happy to have to work until you are 75 to have enough money to retire on and would you be happy for your children to?

A: The point about pensions is this, it is fascinating, when I was at the G7/G8 last year and we got on to talking about what were the long term problems facing all the main industrialised countries, and all of us agreed pensions.

So again when people say, well people are going to have to work longer and so on, some things governments can alter, some things governments can't alter. And what we can't alter and don't want to alter is the fact that people are living a lot longer and at the moment they are still retiring earlier. And in the end, it has got to be a balance between state provision and private provision.

FT: You could have raised the statutory retirement age.

A: Yes you could, but in the public service for example, that is what we are anticipating now and that is what was set out in the Green Paper. And people in the end, what they look for from the government, what we cannot do is either magic money from nothing because if we are putting more public money into pensions we are having to tax people who are working in order to put that money in. And what we can do is create a structure within which people can save more easily.

Now that is the whole purpose of trying to create stakeholder pensions, the changes that [Ron] Sandler and [Alan] Pickering have made [in their independent inquiries into savings and pensions], and now what is being looked at by Adair Turner [via the Pensions Commission] which is to try and put this within an overall framework for the future.

But let's be brutally honest about this: government in the end can set a structure, but it cannot, as I say, create more public finance unless it is taking that money from somewhere. And it cannot either eliminate the changing facts of life. So what we do need to do is to say well have we got the best structure in place, and that is where we certainly accept we have got more to do.

FT: And you have to appoint a Pensions Minister as well.

A: Before the reshuffle, yes.

FT: When is that going to be?

A: We don't comment on that, do we?

FT: John Denham [the Home Office minister who resigned over Iraq] for [international development sectetary] Clare Short's job?

A: Mmm.

FT: And what about you? You said nine years you have been in your job, how much longer do you go on?

A: I know it is towards the end of the interview, but I mean...

FT: What do you think is the natural time span for a Prime Minister?

A: How many different ways do you want me not to answer this question?

FT: OK, so what do you want your legacy to be?

A: That is a very sensible question. I want the legacy to be a Britain that is economically stronger, where we have stabilised the economy, provided greater opportunity for people and dealt with some of the long term issues to do with unemployment and poverty. Where we have modern public services built around the consumer, not around the old command and control one size fits all in public services.

The criminal justice system, which is a particular passion of mine, because I think crime is a huge issue for people, and I want to make sure that we have a 21st century criminal justice system, not one that sort of stumbled along on 19th century rules.

And I want to see Britain take its full place in Europe, and I want to have the world made more safe and more secure and more just. So there you are.

FT: But any Prime Minister would probably aspire to those aims as well, what would you hope would single you out?

A: Making significant progress on all of them would be a help, wouldn't it? I don't know, I don't suppose all Prime Ministers would say reform of the criminal justice system, or say they want to deal with unemployment and poverty, I don't know, would they?

FT: And joining the euro has to be part of your legacy?

A: Well I believe it is in the country's interests to join the single currency. So there we are.

FT: How does it feel only two weeks away from your 50th birthday?

A: I am not looking forward to being 50.

ZNet | Iraq

Was Iraq Really A Threat?

by Mark Engler; April 27, 2003

Since Baghdad fell, Defense Department hawks have devoted themselves to gloating about the never-questioned supremacy of the United States' armed forces. However, the rest of the world's attention has shifted to examine the largely forgotten rationale for Bush's invasion: the peril posed by Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction. The April 22 appearance of chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix before the Security Council has only strengthened calls for independent verification of U.S. accusations.

Anti-war activists did not dispute that Saddam was an abhorrent dictator. The tyrant may well have some chemical and biological agents stowed away for investigators to find, and he no doubt wished to make more in the future.

But key arguments against the war remain valid:

Contrary to President Bush's pronouncements and Colin Powell's satellite photos, the world had no reason to believe that the Ba'ath regime presented any real danger to its neighbors, far less to the United States. Saddam's military forces were decimated in the first Gulf War. Subsequent U.N. inspections made significant progress in eliminating what weapons remained, and any hidden stocks of chemical agents would have degraded substantially during a decade of crippling sanctions. In short, Iraq had been effectively contained as a threat.

Beyond that, the new wave of inspections was working. Saddam's on-going ambition to produce banned armaments merited international attention, but hardly a 20 billion-dollar blitzkrieg, a subsequent occupation by the Marines, and the loss of uncounted thousands of lives. Given the hostility with which the Bush Administration treated the idea of allowing Blix's team time to do its job, it was always hard to consider weapons of mass destruction a real concern, rather than a convenient pretext for war.

The media watchdogs at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting captured the irony of the situation perfectly by recalling a March 4 article in The New York Times: "More Missiles Destroyed; Washington Is Concerned Over Complications for Effort to Disarm Iraq." NBC Nightly News correspondent Andrea Mitchell added, "For the US, it's a nightmare situation. If Iraq destroys the missiles, it will be much harder to get support for military action."

Now that George Bush and Tony Blair are again under political pressure to produce incriminating evidence about banned weaponry, we can be sure that fresh charges will be forthcoming. Reports of an unnamed Iraqi scientist claiming to know of destroyed chemical agents qualifies as the military's best lead so far in a search that has heretofore come up empty-handed.

Yet the world still has reason to be skeptical of the military's claims. And Americans concerned with genuine global security have reason to support the global demand for independent investigation.

In the past, the U.S. government has shown itself all too willing to make up the evidence it needs to justify war. And, too often, the press has dutifully followed suit. Perhaps the most famous historical precedent is the 1898 sinking of the USS Maine off the coast of Cuba. Thanks to campaigning on the part of Hearst newspapers, President McKinley was able to blame Spain for the mysterious incident, and thus pursue imperial interests in the Spanish-American War.

The fraudulent 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which President Johnson announced an unprovoked attack by North Vietnamese PT boats on American destroyers, provided an excuse for the U.S. to commence air strikes on North Vietnam. The press corps ate it up. (By 1965, however, Johnson admitted, "For all I know, our Navy was shooting at whales out there.")

In advance of the 1991 Gulf War, the first Bush Administration perpetuated accounts of Iraqi soldiers yanking babies from incubators in Kuwait's hospitals. Why anyone would need to make up stories about a regime that already possessed a long history of cruel misdeeds is anybody's guess. Nevertheless, this turned out to be a fake, managed with the help of public relations firm Hill & Knowlton.
Washington's track record for honesty during the current conflict, too, has been poor. U.S. intelligence sources hyped up forged documents in an attempt to strengthen support for an invasion. In a recent interview, Hans Blix pointed to the accusations that Iraq attempted to purchase nuclear materials from the Central African nation of Niger. "This was a crude lie," Blix explained. "All false. The information was provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency by the U.S. intelligence services. As for the mobile laboratories, in attempting to verify the data that was passed on to U.S. by the Americans, we only found some trucks dedicated to the processing and control of seeds for agriculture."

Despite such troubling facts, outlets like Fox News always treated suspicions of illegal weapons as established truth. For them, news items like the April 16 headline in The New York Times reading, "U.S. Inspectors Find No Forbidden Weapons at Iraqi Arms Plant," are only evidence of that paper's egregious wimpiness and lingering Communist sympathies.

Yet, Fox's past headlines like "Iraq Arming Troops With Chemical Weapons" now appear overeager, at best, as justifications for war. They make Bush's "uniquely evil" adversary seem uniquely restrained in not deploying the banned armaments during the war, when he faced a force hell-bent on his elimination.

Government deception and suspect reporting has engendered skepticism even within the intelligence community. The news service Agence France Press recently published an interview with retired CIA intelligence analyst Ray McGovern, who says "Some of my colleagues are virtually certain that there will be some weapons of mass destruction found, even though they might have to be planted."

"I'm just as sure that some few will be found," he argued, "but not in any amount that by any stretch would justify the charge of a threat against the U.S. or anyone else."

The Bush Administration's rejection of independent investigations represents a further step down the road of dangerous unilateralism. Promoting international cooperation and goodwill is vital to any real pursuit of global security, yet these are precisely the things undermined by Washington's belligerence.

Even from a narrow view of America's foreign policy interests, the U.S. government should want independent verification to vindicate its accusations and to dispel lingering doubts.

That is, unless the old maxim applies, and truth has once again become a casualty of war.

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached at . Research assistance for this article provided by Katie Griffiths.

 Open Book

By Chris Floyd

04/28/03: (Moscow Times) Some cynics claim that George W. Bush and his closest advisors -- whom cynics cynically refer to as "bloodthirsty corporate pimps" -- are just a bunch of vicious, shifty liars. But this column takes enormous umbrage at the heaping of such unsupported calumny upon the good names of these great leaders. They have been maligned, slandered, falsely accused. For when it comes to their plans for world conquest, these so-called "pimps" are as honest as the day is long.

As we all know, the rape of Iraq (or as future historians will doubtless call it, "The Dawn of the Shiite Empire") was planned openly several years ago by a hard-right agitprop cell led by Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld. Now it turns out that the recent big-monkey chest-beating aimed at Syria -- threats of sanctions, "surgical" strikes, and "regime change" -- was also carefully planned, by many of the same people, long before the Bush Regime seized power.

As we've often reported here, in September 2000 the Cheney-Rumsfeld outfit, Project for the New American Century, proudly published their blueprint for the direct imposition of U.S. "forward bases" throughout Central Asia and the Middle East. They even foresaw the need for what they called a "Pearl Harbor-type event" to galvanize the American public into supporting their ambitious program. Their reasons for this program were also stated quite openly: to ensure U.S. political and economic domination of the world, while strangling any potential "rival" or any viable alternative to the rapacious crony capitalism favored by the PNAC extremists. This dominance would be enforced by the ever-present threat -- and frequent application -- of violence. (A tactic known elsewhere as "terrorism.")

PNAC was also very honest about the role of Iraq in this crusade for empire, stating plainly that the need for a U.S. military presence in the area "superseded" the "issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein." There was no sanctimonious posturing about "liberation," weapons of mass destruction or terrorist connections. To dominate the oil wealth centered in that region -- and hence the economic/political development of the world in the coming decades -- they needed a military presence in Iraq; it's as simple as that.

And now they've got it. Again, it's all quite open -- for anyone who cares to look. Last week, the Pentagon announced that it "expects" (i.e., "demands") to have "long-term access" to at least four major military bases in Iraq, The New York Times reports. (Rumsfeld -- or "Shifty" as cynics like to call him -- later issued a weasel-worded non-denial denial.) Although the hundreds of thousands of armed and angry Shiite Muslims currently clamoring for an Islamic state in Bush's new satrapy may yet cause a spot of bother for the sahibs, for now the generals and arms dealers installed as Iraq's new rulers believe they will still be sitting pretty in Fort Pretzel and Carlyle Air Base throughout the "new American century." This was, after all, the purpose of the recent slaughter -- as Cheney and Rumsfeld told us plainly years ago.

A few months before PNAC's prophetic 2000 report, an allied group with an overlapping membership published a similar document outlining steps to be taken against Syria: first "tightening the screws" with denunciations and economic sanctions, then escalating to military action, as Jim Lobe of Inter-Press Agency reports. The architects of this document included Elliot Abrams, the convicted perjurer now running Bush's Middle East policy; Douglas Feith, one of Shifty's top aides; Paula Dobriansky, undersecretary to Colin Powell, and influential Pentagon advisors such as David Wurmser, Michael Leeden and everyone's sweetheart, Richard "Influence-Peddler" Perle.

The report sprang largely from the loins of the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon, a curious grouping of right-wing American Christians, right-wing American Jews, and a sprinkling of Lebanese exiles. They object -- rightly -- to the fact that Syria has maintained "long-term access to major military bases" in Lebanon, using this minatory presence to exercise undue sway over Lebanon's political and economic life. Of course, some cynics would say this situation is remarkably akin to Israel's own 18-year occupation of, er, Lebanon, or the United States' decades-long -- and still-continuing -- military presence in Japan, Korea, Germany, Italy, Great Britain, Panama, etc. But you know what cynics are like.

The USCFL also provides highly insightful and very nearly literate analyses of vital regional issues, such as its seminal paper, "Even Arabs Don't Like Arabs." But the mindset of the group -- whose members now stalk the corridors of power in Imperial Washington -- is perhaps best displayed in its thoughtful 2001 treatise, "A Petition Demanding War Against Governments That Sponsor Terrorism" (Except, of course, for governments who enforce their will by the ever-present threat and use of violence -- i.e. terrorism -- but are run by nice white men educated at Yale and Oxford.)

Here, the proto-Bushist group demands that six "rogue nations" -- Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran, Libya and Sudan -- "turn over their governments to the United States" on pain of massive military response. The United States will then "occupy these territories until proper governments" -- ones that allow "long-term access" to major military bases, no doubt -- "can be established." And just how massive should that threatened U.S. military response be? The USCFL is, as always, admirably -- and brutally -- forthright: "America must set a clear example-identical to that of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If you tread on me, I will wipe you off the face of the earth."

Is this what the Bushists are really talking about in their fear-mongering diatribes about seeing "terrorism's smoking gun in a mushroom cloud"?