The transcipt of this interview first appeared on NPR on 25th February 2016.
Steve Inskeep: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair says he wants to find better ways to fight Islamist extremism. Blair was the British leader through 9/11, the invasion of Iraq and attacks on London's transit system. Now he is joining a former U.S. Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, on a commission. They seek to fight an ideology, starting with better education in schools around the world.
Tony Blair: What the commission that myself and Leon Panetta is trying to do is analyze this in two respects. First of all, what's the right military response and security response? But then secondly, how do we deal with not just the acts of violence, but the extremist ideology that lies behind them? Because though the numbers of fanatics that go and join and kill for a group like ISIS are measured in tens of thousands, those that support the wider ideology, I'm afraid, you measure in tens of millions or more.
Steve Inskeep: You think the enemy here measures tens of millions of people or more. Did you say that?
Tony Blair: Yes. It's not that tens of millions of people all want to be violent. But they share the worldview that then, at its extreme, gives rise to the violence. And in my view, this is why this is such a global problem. There are millions of young children being educated to a very narrow-minded view of religion. And it's out of that education of large numbers of young people that you then get this extremism.
Steve Inskeep: And what do you say when you travel to the Middle East or perhaps elsewhere in the world and you hear people say the problem is not extremism, it's Western bombs, it's the invasion of Iraq - which you supported -it's bombs elsewhere, it's policies of the West that people are opposing?
Tony Blair: Well, I think it's very important that we take that argument head on. I mean, you can agree or disagree with Iraq or Afghanistan, but by the way, now the great campaigning cause out there is the absence of intervention in Syria.
And then in Libya, it's partial intervention. And that doesn't really explain why some countries that have literally nothing to do with the interventions in the Middle East end up getting targeted. It doesn't explain why across the northern part of sub-Saharan Africa now, the single biggest inhibitor in development is extremism from groups like Boko Haram or al-Shabab.
You've got problems in Central Asia. And you've got problems within our own communities back home. So if we end up saying, look, this has nothing to do with Islam or it's got no connection with that broader question, then we look, frankly, as if we're in denial about the problem. And the interesting thing in the Middle East is that they have absolutely no problem there in identifying that as Islamist extremism and calling it that.
Steve Inskeep: In giving a speech on this topic, you seemed to express concern not just about what's happening in the Middle East but what is happening in countries like the United States and in Britain - that the political systems aren't coming up with good approaches to foreign policy problems. What's wrong?
Tony Blair: Well, as I say, the problem is some of the populism on both the far left and the far right, it can make a Tweet but not make a policy. And, you know, when you are dealing with issues that are as important and serious as this, I understand why people search for simple solutions. But the fact is, there aren't any. There are solutions that are proper, but they require the painstaking and difficult work of building alliances and also being prepared to analyze the problem realistically. And exactly the same thing is going on my side of the Atlantic as is going on your side of the Atlantic. There's a great frustration with the system. There's a lot of anger out there. But in the end, you need answers and not just anger. But anyway, let me not trespass too much into your politics. I've got enough problems in my own politics.
Steve Inskeep: Well, you know, I'm tempted to make you trespass anyway. I mean, you talk about simple solutions. Donald Trump thinks he has solutions -going to torture more, going to be more brutal, going to be nasty to people out there who deserve to be dealt with harshly. Why not just go that way?
Tony Blair: Well, we definitely need a strong and clear and assertive America. That's for sure. But you've always got to build alliances. And so it's very important that we are able to build those alliances. And where we don't do what in a way to extremists want us to do, which is to make this into a battle between the West and Islam - it's not. This isn't a clash between civilizations. It's about whether the values of tolerance and respect for difference prevail.
Steve Inskeep: Prime Minister, I've got to ask one more question before I let you go. Of course, your country is preparing to vote on whether to leave the European Union. What's your political sense? Do you think Britain will go?
Tony Blair: I think we will vote to stay. It would be a huge risk if we didn't do that. And if Britain voted to leave Europe, I think there would be a very, very real risk that Scotland voted to leave Britain. So you - this is why this is an argument that's not just about Britain and Europe, it's about the future of Britain itself.
Steve Inskeep: Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, thanks very much.
Tony Blair: Thank you.