Noting that it was his first-ever trip to Aspen, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke briefly before an Aspen Ideas Festival audience on Monday.
Blair, questioned by NBC News reporter Andrea Mitchell in the Benedict Music Tent, commented on the latest tragedy involving Israeli-Palestinian relations. On Monday, the bodies of three Israeli teenagers who were kidnapped earlier this month on their way home from religious school were found in the West Bank, according to Israeli officials.
They had been shot to death, according to news reports. Their disappearance more than two weeks ago sparked one of the biggest army crackdowns in the Palestinian territory in years. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the discovery by vowing to exact revenge on the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Blair called the incident a “heinous and wicked crime.”
“There can be no justification for it, there should be no compromise for those responsible, and there’s no place for it,” he said. “Until we take the poison out of the politics in the Middle East, there’s not going to be peace.”
Blair, a member of the British Labour Party, served as prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007. During much of that time, he focused on helping the United States in the war against terrorism, and he supported former U.S. President George W. Bush by ensuring that British troops participated in the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s best to take a broad view of problems in the Middle East when trying to understand the situation, Blair said. The conflicts in that region have been going on for centuries, he suggested, and will certainly last beyond the Obama administration.
He was asked about the recent fighting in Iraq and Syria, where an Islamic militant group is locked in territorial battles against government forces supported by Western countries.
“In my view, whether it’s in Iraq or Syria, or across the whole of the Middle East and beyond, we should understand three things. The first is that these problems are complex and will take a generation to sort out,” he said.
“Secondly, my view is that the essential problem in the region and beyond, is Muslim extremism. That is the reason why these groups are getting traction in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, across the whole of the Middle East,” Blair added.
“Thirdly, we’re not going to defeat them until we’ve built an alliance of people both in the region and outside, who believe in open-minded societies ... ,” he continued. “This is an essential fight, and I know people here and people back home wish it would go away and we would stay out of it. But I honestly believe it is the single biggest security threat we face and, like it or not, we are going to have to stand up and fight for what we believe in.”
Americans and citizens of Great Britain may be weary of war, but the extremists are not, Blair said.
When asked if it was a mistake to remove Saddam Hussein from power in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he commented, “I don’t believe so, and I will never believe that we would be better off with Saddam and his two sons (in power).
“Having said that, of course there were mistakes made and I’ve accepted full responsibility for those that were,” he said. “But I do think the challenge now is to recognize what the nature of this problem is and how we unite to defeat it. And we unite with those within the region who want to defeat it and outside.”
Blair said there is a tendency for Americans and U.K. citizens to look at the Middle Eastern countries and see them “as crazy people.” But the decent people of Middle Eastern countries troubled by fighting and extremist policies want help from the West, but are poorly organized — unlike the terrorists.