|Republican US presidential candidate Mitt Romney has made his team of campaign advisers public [EPA]|
Obligatory statements about commitment to friends and aversion to foes not withstanding, foreign policy hasn’t figured much in the 2012 Republican primary. Questions about the threat posed by Iran have given candidates the occasion to grandstand, but the memory of Iraq is still too fresh and the economy too fragile for anyone to hard-sell a new foreign adventure. Proponents of radical transformation in the Middle East have been hitherto frustrated in their expectations.
But all of this might soon change.
Earlier this month, Republican front-runner Mitt Romney rekindled the neoconservatives’ hopes by nominating Walid Phares to chair the Middle East and North Africa working group of his Foreign Policy and National Security Advisory Team. Since the convergence of neoconservative militarism and Arab exile politics has already played a part in dragging the US into a disastrous war in Iraq, it is worth understanding why this appointment bodes ill for the future of American foreign policy.
Walid Phares may be many things – articulate, ingenious, resourceful, shrewd – but discreet he is not. As a “terrorism expert” for Fox News and Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, he hasn’t shied away from sharing his radical vision of total war. A global jihad is already underway, he contends, with “three generations of jihadists [having] penetrated the social and defence layers of Western Europe and the United States”. Left unchecked, he predicts, in a few years “jihadists “would deploy ten million suicide bombers and seize five regimes equipped with the final weapon” forcing the next president “to arm the doom day devices [sic] for the first time in this century”.
In 2008, when he first endorsed Romney, he stressed that it was no time for a Democrat – as under them “jihadophilia would prevail”. But it wasn’t a time for just any Republican either. John McCain was tough, but he lacked vision: “He will continue to fight ’till there are no more enemies to fight. To me that is a trenches battlefield”. The times called for something bolder, someone like Romney, for whom “the enemy is global jihadism, and it has more than the one battlefield of Iraq”. The US response should therefore “not be limited to ‘entrenchment’ but to counter attacks, preemptive moves and putting allies forces [sic] on the existing and new battlefields”.
Phares’ Manichean worldview is perhaps informed by his biography. He is a one-time member of the notorious Lebanese Forces – the sectarian Christian militia which played a leading role in the 1982 Sabra and Shatila massacre (though there is no evidence that he personally played a part). It is an experience he now wisely leaves out of his resume. Nor does he include his association with Etienne Saqr, the head of the Guardians of the Cedars, an outfit the Congressional Research Service described as “[a]n extremist Maronite militia and terrorist organisation”. Saqr played a prominent role in Phares’ World Lebanese Organisation long after he was exiled to Israeli-occupied south Lebanon for his crimes against the Lebanese and Palestinian people.
But it is not this association with the Lebanese Forces and Etienne Saqr that grants Phares his expert’s cache. He is an Arab with bona fide academic credentials who validates proponents of military intervention in the Middle East the same way that Ahmed Chalabi once did. Indeed, both once shared the same publicist, Benador Associates, a neoconservative favourite. Phares can make the aspirations of the Arabs and Iranians sound remarkably consonant with the interests of Tel Aviv. For someone who wrote papers for Israeli think tanks urging continued occupation of Southern Lebanon (“the only place in the world where Christian and Jewish blood is shed together for the defence of two Judeo-Christian nations”) this might not be too big an imaginative leap. But his capacity to divine the real yearnings of the Middle East’s Muslims is perhaps less certain.
Too early to judge
All the same, in Washington’s current political climate such oversight rarely goes unrewarded. By any measure, Phares’ career has been an unmitigated success: He has found rare exalted space in the Israel lobby’s firmament, which has helped elevate him into various government advisory positions. He is promoted as a featured expert by the David Project, the Israel on Campus Coalition, David Horowitz’s FrontPage Magazine, Robert Spencer’s Jihad Watch, and Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum. He is also an associate of Israel’s Ariel Center for Policy Research and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). He serves on the board of ACT! For America, a pressure group that Politico described as part of an “effort to transform anti-Islam crusading into a mainstream lobbying effort”. The group was established by Brigitte Gabriel, whom Deborah Solomon of the New York Times Magazine has described as a “radical Islamophobe”. Like Phares, Gabriel emerged from the sectarian milieu of the Lebanese civil war, whose prejudices both now seek to foist on the wider world.
Phares also serves on the advisory board of the Clarion Fund, a production company associated with the radical Israeli settler group Aish HaTorah, which Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic has described as “just about the most fundamentalist movement in Judaism today”. The Clarion Fund came to prominence with the anti-Islam film Obsession, 28 million copies of which were distributed during the 2008 presidential campaign in an attempt to inflame Middle America’s suspicion of the “Muslim Manchurian candidate” Barack Hussein Obama. Phares has appeared in at least two of Clarion’s films, The Third Jihad and Iranium, the latter an unabashed call for regime change in Iran, including the use of military action. In an extended appearance on Fox’s Hannity, Phares joined the film’s producer, Rabbi Raphael Shore of Aish HaTorah, to stress the implacability of the Iranian regime and the menace of radical Islam. Both denounced successive US administrations as appeasers. They also cast aspersions on the Arab Spring, declaring it a replay of the Iranian revolution, a prelude to an Islamist takeover.
So eccentric are Phares’ views that, earlier this year, even Republican Chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Representative Peter King had to drop him from his controversial “Muslim radicalisation” hearings. This prompted a spirited defence from Robert Spencer, who accused King of “shrinking-violet delicacy“. Spencer serves with Phares on the board of Gabriel’s ACT! and, like Phares, is fighting his own holy war. In The Post-American Presidency, a book co-authored with Pamela Geller (featuring a foreword by John Bolton), he exposes the Obama Administration’s “war on America” which includes inflicting universal healthcare and public education on its people and eroding its commitment to Israel. In a promotional video posted online, Spencer and Geller exhort viewers to stop “the anti-Semite in the White House, and his useful idiots in the Congress”, before they bring about “a second Holocaust”.
But the most significant of Phares’ affiliations are with FDD and the Center for Security Policy (CSP), two think-tanks that played a leading role in pushing the war against Iraq. In April 2002, in a seemingly coordinated campaign, the two think-tanks ran ads which lumped Yasir Arafat, Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein into a single unified threat menacing the US and Israel. It is the same dissolving of differences that Phares trades in today. Like Ahmed Chalabi, Phares has proved himself indispensable to the neoconservatives whose militarist momentum he fuels with his “native” credentials and apocalyptic fantasies. He seems bent on using US muscle to resolve confessional battles from years past, and on a global scale. But, unlike Chalabi, Phares appears to have gained unmediated access far earlier in the game. In a time of terror plots and great paranoia, it is voices like his that can magnify routine threats into global emergencies. The future as seen by Walid Phares is the Lebanese Civil War writ large, with the whole globe as the battlefield. Americans, however, will have to determine if they are comfortable assuming the role of the Phalange.
If the new millennium was inaugurated in the twin terrors of 9/11 and shock-and-awe, its second decade has yielded to the bracing winds of the Arab spring. From Cairo to Sanaa, the Arab masses are asserting their preferences, and their interests are not likely to always align with those of the US. This is a fact Washington has yet to acknowledge. The times demand nuance and humility, yet a contender for America’s top job appears determined to bait armageddon. He has turned to a radical with apocalyptic visions for advice on the world’s most volatile region – this at a time of unprecedented turmoil. As the Massachusetts governor surges forth with more than a long-shot at the presidency, it is vital that we paid attention.
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The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.