Illustration by Shenuka Corea

Tony Blair Visit

Perhaps, as prospective global leaders, we should interact with controversial figures in the spirit of critical engagement, but we certainly cannot endorse, idealise and support them.

Feb 4, 2018

Frank I. Luntz is a Republican pollster and strategist, best known for drafting the leaked 2003 memo that called for the Republican Party to promulgate serious doubt about global warming. In the memo, Luntz advocated the need to “continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate’’ and asserted that ”a compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth,” suggesting how to frame environmental issues in the Republican narrative.
Luntz was also invited to teach a January term course this year called The Language of Business.
Why is this an issue? Why shouldn’t academic freedom, a value so central to the ethos of NYU Abu Dhabi, also apply to people like Luntz? The answer is that he is a scholar who has not only espoused controversial ideas, but also has had a real-world policy impact that reduced the global commitment to tackle global warming.
A Guardian article on the memo claims that after Luntz had authored it, President Bush’s use of the expression “global warming” reduced significantly despite having been frequently mentioned in his speeches previously. Many of the ideas expressed in Luntz’s memo were adapted to President Trump’s policies as well. The memo, for example, urges politicians to encourage the public belief that there is no scientific consensus on the dangers of greenhouse gases.
It is critical to note that Luntz was not invited to participate in a dialogue with students, but rather to teach a class. That endorses what he stands for, gives his dangerous ideas an authoritative voice and whitewashes his problematic legacy. None of this reflects kindly on NYUAD as an institution. In fact, this stands in stark contrast to the narrative built around the education and development of responsible global leaders that the university advocates for. It is dangerous for people like Luntz to find mainstream acceptance, especially from educational institutions that vow to be working for the global good.
But the problem with Luntz being at NYUAD doesn’t end there.
One of the things Luntz did during his brief time here at NYUAD was invite former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to campus. Yes, this is the Tony Blair — the one who misled the British Parliament and public into believing that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, thus leading to the catastrophic invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the one largely responsible for much of the turmoil, upheaval and bloodshed in Iraq and Syria to this very day. According to the Chilcot report, Blair deliberately blurred the line between speculation and absolute certainty to justify one of the most cataclysmic invasions in world history. In fact, in a recent YouGov survey in Britain, a total of 33 percent of respondents said Tony Blair should be tried as a war criminal for his role in the Iraq War.
So why is it problematic that NYUAD invited him to give a talk on campus? Shouldn’t we, as open-minded global thinkers, at least engage in constructive dialogue with people with whom we disagree? Especially since he has recently worked, however ironically, as a Middle East peace envoy, shouldn’t we take the opportunity to engage in an open academic dialogue with him? It would certainly broaden our scope and we would absolutely benefit from such an interaction.
But the issue is twofold. Firstly, it begs the question of where we should draw the line when it comes to inviting people with whom we disagree. After all, we would certainly not invite a brutal authoritarian leader, a gross human rights violator or an active threat to world peace, would we? So how is Tony Blair any different? Just because he had legitimacy as a former British Prime Minister and has managed to whitewash his actions using eloquent justifications, it doesn’t mean that his crimes become more forgivable.
Secondly, what is most appalling of all is that he was not invited to discuss and account for his actions, but to preach about global leadership. Blair spoke to Luntz’s class about worldwide interconnectedness, cooperation and open-mindedness. When NYUAD posted about the event on its website, the headline read, “Tony Blair Urges Students to be Global Leaders.” Moreover, in the atmosphere of merriment and mutual admiration, Luntz said to Blair on stage, “If we are to solve the world's challenges, it will start with Tony Blair and it will happen at NYU Abu Dhabi.” Sorry to break this sense of idealism, but far from being the solution, Blair is in fact one of the leading causes of some of today’s main global challenges, and we definitely should not aspire to become global leaders like him.
It is clearly problematic that NYUAD invited these two guests over J-term. Perhaps as prospective global leaders, we should interact with controversial figures like them in the spirit of critical engagement, but we certainly cannot endorse, idealise and support them this way. By inviting them to teach and preach to us, we are putting them on a pedestal, giving them an authoritative voice and whitewashing their actions and ideologies, thereby compromising our values as an institution.
Kaashif Hajee is News Deputy and Sobha Gadi is Features Deputy. Email them at
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