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Interview with Jack Straw; Interview with Ali Tarhouni

Aired October 17, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST: Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour.

The U.S. presidential race is now too close to call, hence the super hype over the presidential debates. What could be mistaken for boxing matches as the president, Barack Obama, slugs it out with the contender, Governor Mitt Romney.

And believe it or not, it's their fierce clashes over foreign policy that have drawn the most blood so far. Last night Romney jabbed away at President Obama's entire record in the Middle East.


FORMER GOV. MITT ROMNEY, R-MASS., PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Look what's happening in Syria, in Egypt, now in Libya. Consider the distance between ourselves and Israel, where the president said that he was going to put daylight between us and Israel. We have Iran four years closer to a nuclear bomb.

Syria's not just the tragedy of 30,000 civilians being killed by a military, but also a strategic -- a strategically significant player for America. The president's policies throughout the Middle East began with an apology tour and pursue a strategy of leading from behind, and this strategy is unraveling before our very eyes.


AMANPOUR: But this time, Obama came out swinging.


BARACK OBAMA, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Not everybody agrees with some of the decisions I've made. But when it comes to our national security, I mean what I say. I said I'd end the war in Libya - in Iraq, and I did. I said that we'd go after Al Qaeda and bin Laden. We have.

I said we'd transition out of Afghanistan and start making sure that Afghans are responsible for their own security. That's what I'm doing.


AMANPOUR: And unlike in many democracies, foreign policy in the United States is becoming more and more driven by politics. What America does in the world over the next four years will then depend to a large extent on who wins just 20 days from now.

And who better to tell us what might lie ahead for America and the world than one who has been there, in the trenches, Britain's former foreign secretary, Jack Straw, with Britain a key U.S. ally through good times and difficult time, like the war in Iraq, and as Tony Blair's top diplomat, Jack Straw played a key role in setting the West's agenda in Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East and beyond.

My interview with him in a moment. But first, a look at what's coming up later in the program.


AMANPOUR (voice-over): Libya, armed militias everywhere, no army to speak of. Is it a success story or an unraveling disaster?

And a memorial to FDR and the Four Freedoms Roosevelt held so dear.


AMANPOUR: We'll get to that in a bit. But first Britain's former foreign secretary, Jack Straw. He served Prime Minister Tony Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, in top cabinet positions for 13 years, one of the very few who can make that claim. In fact, his new memoir is called "Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor."

We talked a short time ago, and I asked him about the foreign policy drama that's playing out now on the presidential stage.


AMANPOUR: Jack Straw, welcome to the program. Thanks for joining me.

In the debate last night, Governor Romney said of President Obama that Iran is four years closer to building a nuclear weapon, that there is daylight between Israel and the United States.

Let me start with Iran. You were the first British foreign secretary to go to Iran in the early 2000s in decades. Do you think Iran is four years closer to building a nuclear weapon? And if so, or if not, how do you think this should be resolved between Iran and the West?

JACK STRAW, FORMER BRITISH FOREIGN SECRETARY; FORMER BRITISH HOME SECRETARY: I don't think -- it's four years since President Obama got elected. It doesn't follow that they're four years closer to building a nuclear weapon. And I doubt that they are. They certainly improved their capacity to enrich uranium, but still not, from the best evidence, to weapons grade.

And the evidence from the International Atomic Energy authority was that Iran had actually stopped its active program for making full-scale nuclear weapons capability in 2003 as a result of the negotiations with which I was involved, together with the then French and German foreign ministers.

What I think has got to be understood here is that, first of all, the Iranians are a very difficult country to deal with for a whole host of historical and cultural reasons; but that, secondly, it was profound errors by President George W. Bush, which actually undermined the more moderate regime of President Khatami and begat the regime of President Ahmadinejad.

So Americans can influence what happens in Iran, not only for the good but also for bad, things like linking Iran -- very shortly after President Khatami of Iran had reached out to the West and said he wanted to be an ally of the West against Al Qaeda, then saying that Iran was part of the axis of evil, pulled the rug from underneath the moderates and then many other ways in which that happened.

And then you ended up with Ahmadinejad and all his works and the beginnings of a very authoritarian regime there.


STRAW: So any American president's got to think really, really carefully about what it is, and also got to bear in mind that, along with the very strident voices in Israel -- I understand that -- there are much more sober voices, including, for example, the just-retired head of Mossad, their intelligence agency, who said words to the effect, it's plain stupid to contemplate a military strike in Iran. There isn't the evidence that you would need.

And the last point I'd just make on this is this: the economic sanctions, which I strongly support, are working. The currency in Iran, the real, has had to devalue by a very significant percentage. There is rampant inflation. There is -- there is trouble on the streets.

If -- I see a biweekly summary of the Iranian press, and even under that controlled press, there is now discontent.

AMANPOUR: You once famously said that military action would be, quote, "nuts," and that put a bit of distance between you and your then- boss, Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Do you think --

STRAW: Yes, it kind of -- what --

AMANPOUR: Yes, go ahead.

STRAW: Yes, the particular question was in relation to a newspaper article in Britain, which had talked about American suggestions that there should be a nuclear attack --


STRAW: -- on Iran. And that, for sure, was nuts.

But I -- there was a distance between myself and Tony Blair (sic) in the latter part of my time as British foreign secretary on the issue of handling Iran, because I said, eight years ago, that I thought that military action then against Iran, in the circumstances then, was quite inconceivable.

And I was extremely anxious to block that off -- and before the United States hawks and also people in the United Kingdom -- to understand that we were not going to get involved in another war, and that there was a peaceful way of seeking to resolve this nuclear dossier.

And with a bit more help, frankly, from the neocons in the Bush administration, we might have got there, but there you go.

AMANPOUR: Well, let's go to Israel now, because in your book you talk about -- you say, "I came to the job of foreign secretary with great goodwill towards the Israelis, which they then squandered, as they have done with so many in the West."

Explain that.

STRAW: Well, the particular reason was that, on my first trip to Iran, which was the West's response to President Khatami reaching out post- 9/11 and saying he wanted to now -- it was a golden opportunity for President Bush to seize, because it was a chance for the Americans to come to some kind of bargain with the Iranians.

On the way to the airport, I approved an article which talked about the state of Palestine. And I went to Israel, straight after the visit to Iran, and the Israelis went berserk about this and turned this into a great fandango, that I shouldn't have uttered the word "Palestine."

This was disgusting; what I should have said was Palestinians, used the adjective and not the noun. I mean because a year later, the Israelis are talking about a state of Palestine like anybody else. But there was time and time again the Israelis, I'm afraid, pushed their luck with me and, as they have done, with the House of Commons and with parties on both sides and undermined support for them.

We all support the state of Israel. We all do everything we can to maintain its territorial integrity. But Israel has got to recognize that Palestinians have rights.

And the systematic state-approved taking of land of the -- of the Palestinians by the continuing extension of the settlements and their disproportionate attacks on unarmed civilians and children -- which is what, for example, they did in the Gaza or in the Israeli-Lebanon conflict in 2006 -- is undermining support, not just mine, but more importantly, that of the British people and many people in the West.

Let me ask you, from your position, as a former foreign secretary, what you make of what's happening in Libya right now. Obviously, it's a very partisan issue in today's presidential election year.

But the fact remains that there is a scary security vacuum in that country.

What do you make of the -- of the terrorism, the attack on the U.S. consulate, the ability to get these militias under control?

STRAW: Well, the attack on the U.S. consulate was obviously terrible. But I've been in situations like that which have faced Secretary Clinton. And with the best will in the world, you cannot always guarantee the safety of your diplomats that you happen to put in harm's way.

So I'm unclear why Governor Romney, frankly, is trying to turn this into a partisan issue.

But the other truth we have to face is that where you have had a dictator battening down the civil population for decades, as Gadhafi did and Ben Ali next door in Tunisia and, to a lesser degree, but to some extent similar, in Egypt.

And the lid is taken off. You don't get a natural and orderly transition to a kind of Western-style democracy. You do end up with a certain amount of chaos. And that simply has to be lived through and managed as best you can.

And there is no question that there are jihadist organizations operating in Libya. They were there before Gadhafi. To some extent, they've found their head. That's the bad news.

The better news is that it was people who completely opposed jihadism and more extreme forms of Islamism who won the elections there. And I believe that, over time, they will get control of the country. But it's going to be a difficult and bumpy ride. And there are very few democracies in the world where there has not been a difficult and bumpy ride.

The difference is that, these days, we see that ride in national and international television. In the old days, we didn't.

AMANPOUR: The West can probably claim to have some kind of friendly reaction from countries such as the ones you've mentioned; the U.K., France and the United States led the NATO liberation of Libya. The same is not true in Syria.

As you know, Governor Romney has separated his policy if he was president from what President Obama has right now. President Obama is about not sending any lethal weapons, lethal aid to the Syrian uprising.

Romney has said that he would work with partners to ensure that the rebels had the heavy weapons -- antitank missiles, those kind of weapons that could bring down Assad's attack planes and helicopters.

Do you agree? Is that a good thing?

STRAW: I think I'm more on the side of President Obama than I am on the side of Governor Romney. You've got to think very long and hard before you give the militias -- and, frankly, I mean, unorganized groups of people who happen to have weapons, who are fighting the Assad regime -- heavy weapons like antitank guns. And still more you have to think about any surface-to-air weapons.

You've also -- and this is -- I think, Governor Romney is missing this -- you've got to work out where this is going to lead.

Let's say I think we certainly should be -- we're giving quite a lot of aid at the moment; there may be a case for giving more aid in terms of some heavier weapons. There could certainly be a case for a no-fly zone, which I think -- although Syrian air defenses are strong, they're not strong enough to overcome those of the United States and NATO. That should be considered.

But giving this kind of heavier weaponry to the Free Syrian Army and those around them without very strong guarantees about how they're going to use them, what the rules of engagement are and how we get them back when they've finished their use is, I think, a big question.

AMANPOUR: Jack Straw, thank you very much indeed for joining me.

STRAW: Thank you very much.


AMANPOUR: And about Libya, while the political bickering continues, the situation on the ground there grows more troubling. In a moment, we'll go to Libya for a voice of reason and hope on the ground. We'll be right back.




AMANPOUR: Welcome back to the program. As we've been discussing, Libya looms larger than life in the U.S. presidential election campaign. The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi last month has turned the deaths of the American ambassador, Chris Stevens, and the three other U.S. officials into a political football.

My next guest, Ali Tarhouni, was the interim Libyan prime minister, having played a key role in marshaling international support and funding for the revolution that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi last year.

But he says he refused to run for prime minister in the recent election because he doubted the new leaders wanted to swallow the tough security medicine that he was prescribing in order to confront and rein in the militants.

Chris Stevens was Tarhouni's good friend and I asked him whether he thinks the government will now tackle this issue head-on.


AMANPOUR: Ali Tarhouni, thank you so much for joining me from Tripoli.

As you can no doubt see, Libya and what happened in Benghazi has suddenly become a major campaign issue in the U.S. presidential race. How do you feel about that?

ALI TARHOUNI, FORMER LIBYAN FINANCE AND OIL MINISTER: Well, actually, I wish it didn't because I think that's part of a loss of Chris and his three comrades. He was a good friend of mine and he was a good friend of Libya. And I hope that he would have been alive, watching that debate.

AMANPOUR: You saw him not long before he was killed. Did he ever express concerns for his security?

TARHOUNI: No, actually, Chris never did. We met during the war. And those were the tough times. And we were in the liberated land, in Benghazi in particular. That's the first time I met him. And he would be strolling in, you know, into my office or I would see him in the coffee shops or I would get a phone call that he is meeting and having dinner with the tribes.

He never really -- and after the -- we moved to Tripoli, I saw him quite often. As I said, I saw him three days before he left Benghazi. He never, ever expressed any concern about his security.

AMANPOUR: Now I know you're not in the government now, and I know you're not in charge of any kind of investigation. But obviously, they're continuing reports about who's being identified, some are now talking about the founder of Ansar al-Sharia. What do you know about these groups? Is it likely that that group could have committed this attack, this organized attack?

TARHOUNI: I honestly don't know. The one thing, for example, I was the acting prime minister last -- until last December. And when I handed the government over to Dr. Keib, I could tell you for sure that we didn't have any organized form of Al Qaeda.

We have individuals who are radical, if you like. But what exactly happened and who murdered Chris, was it spontaneous or was it an organized group, I honestly don't know. And I wish that the Libyan government and the conference (ph) would do more in investigating this, because I feel and as the city that he loved, Benghazi, feels, that we are responsible no matter what happened.

He was the ambassador of the United States. He was a friend of this country. He really believed in this revolution. And I believe that we owe it to him. We owe it to the United States to investigate and find who committed this murder.

AMANPOUR: So you're basically saying that the Libyan authorities now are not investigating?

TARHOUNI: No, no; I think they are, but I'm not sure that they are doing enough. And part of it, Christiane, is that we're still in a flux. This country is not as secure as you think it is. We don't really have a national army. The internal security apparatus still have hazards.

So we're still in a transition period. And the country's armed to the teeth. We don't have border guards. So in this setup, what you call a government is still a very weak structure. (Inaudible) to investigate things, tend to be quite slow.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Tarhouni, you know better than anybody that unless you get these disparate militias, even those with terrorist connections, unless these come under some kind of central control or are disarmed, it's going to threaten your whole democratic experiment.

Is the Libyan system at this point able to do that and what will it take?

TARHOUNI: I think what it takes from the new elected prime minister, Ali Zeidan -- and I talked to him and I told him that I will help him out - - it takes courage, actually. It takes some leadership, because I think the country's ready. And just to go back to what Chris did, Chris helped the major -- played a major role in swaying the public in the United States.

And this help that Chris did is basically -- I want that to be very clear, that, yes, we are in a transition period. But Gadhafi is dead. In a very short period of time, we formed something, a resemblance to political parties. We have an elected parliament.

So I wish that Chris is around to see at least that transition, that first transfer, a peaceful transfer of power. So there's a lot of good that has taken place. But I agree with you. That good cannot be cemented unless the security issue is tackled head-on.

AMANPOUR: Well, the question is, are the Libyan authorities -- is your country today able to tackle them head-on?

TARHOUNI: I think there's a lot of efforts, and I think everybody realize that the killing and the murder of Chris is basically changed the rules, if you like, changed the -- how the view, the world view, the Libyan revolution. And it's a great loss, not only personally but also to the Libyan revolution as well.

AMANPOUR: Why did you decide not to stand for prime minister? It had something to do with this shaky commitment to security.

TARHOUNI: I think this is -- I think this is part of it. I think that, you know, the one legacy from the war that the country came to know is that I take -- I take tough decisions and I take responsibilities. And when I outlined what I wanted to do, the NTC (ph) at the time said that that's too tough of a medicine.

And what I really wanted to do, I wanted to speed the process of not only building the national army and border control and the internal security, but also want to deal with the qataib (ph). And a lot of these revolutionaries, they are good. They are the one who actually liberated the country.

But part of the problem is that you have, well, groups now; we call them post-liberation revolutionaries. And these are small qataib (ph) that are running around and they are not under any control. They're -- part of it is involved in the smuggling. And these need to be confronted.

It's not a question of debate. It's not a question of -- but the true revolutionaries, they could be part of the solution. We achieved a lot and we could lose it if we're not really aware of these threats. These are -- these are serious threats on the stability of the country.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Tarhouni, thank you very much for joining me.

TARHOUNI: You're most welcome.


AMANPOUR: And after that interview, Mr. Tarhouni shared fond memories of his friend, the late Ambassador Chris Stevens. At, you can see more of our conversation. And when we return, a look at a new memorial to a unique gift an American president gave the world.



AMANPOUR: And finally, imagine all the world's problems being solved around the dinner table. Sound naive? Well, Franklin Delano Roosevelt didn't think it was. Today on Roosevelt Island in New York City's East River, a memorial to America's 32nd president was dedicated, to the man who steered his country through the Great Depression and through the Second World War.

The memorial, designed by the great American architect Lewis Kahn, was envisioned as one large room, representing Roosevelt's belief that even the greatest problems facing mankind could be solved by sitting around a table and talking, negotiating.

Standing in the shadow of the United Nations, the new memorial is called the Four Freedoms Park, invoking FDR's famous wartime speech. He said, "We look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of every person to worship God in his own way, freedom from want everywhere in the world and freedom from fear."

These freedoms are what are being exercised in the Middle East right now, in the Arab Spring, and they remain as relevant today as they did when they were spoken, as more and more countries struggle towards democracy.

That's it for tonight's program. Meantime, our inbox is always open, Thanks for watching and goodbye from New York.