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Top Romney Adviser Tied to Militia That Massacred

How Walid Phares went from advising Lebanese warlords to counseling the GOP front-runner.

| Thu Oct. 27, 2011 6:01 AM EDT

The Lebanese civil war created an exodus of Christians who had served on the losing side. But for many of them, though the war had been lost, "the cause"—the fight for self-determination for Lebanese Christians—was not. Like other former militants and exiles, Walid Phares formed an advocacy group, the World Lebanese Organization, pushing for Western pressure on Syria on behalf of Lebanese Christians.

"It was an effort to project a particular sectarian political line and to do so with the aura of being representative of all the Lebanese," says James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, himself a Maronite Christian of Lebanese descent. "It has a particular agenda in Lebanese politics, and [Phares] has brought that agenda here where it nicely fits with a neoconservative agenda."

In 1993, Phares secured a position as a professor of Middle East studies and comparative politics at Florida Atlantic University. But as head of the WLO, one of his main projects was attempting to convince Israel to continue supporting the South Lebanon Army, a Christian-led militia fighting the Iranian-trained, Syrian-backed terrorist organization Hezbollah in a still-occupied area of southern Lebanon. Phares hoped to create a new Christian enclave in mostly Shiite southern Lebanon, where human rights groups were accusing the Israelis, the SLA, and Hezbollah alike of killing and displacing civilians.

"He's part of the same movement as Pamela Geller," says a former US counterterrorism official. "He's viewed as a mainstream scholar of jihadism, but he doesn't know a lot about the actual movement."

"The only entity which can revive a credible Christian resistance, allied with Israel, is a nationalist group, based in the security zone," Phares wrote in a 1997 article for the Ariel Center for Policy Research, a right-wing Israeli organization. "The Christians of Lebanon are the only potential ally against the advance of the northern Arabo-Islamic threat against Israel."

Phares, in trying to pressure Israel to keep backing the SLA, worked with former militia leader Etienne Sakr, also known as "Abu Arz" (or "Father of the Cedars"). They, along with other Lebanese expatriots, "were working towards getting Syria's occupation out of Lebanon and disarming [the] terror group Hezbollah," Sakr says. During the civil war, Sakr headed the Guardians of the Cedars militia, described as an "extremist Christian group" by a 1993 State Department Report.  In 1982, Sakr had held a press conference to defend the Sabra and Shatila massacres, calling the Palestinians a "cancer" on Lebanon. Forced into exile by the Syrian-dominated government at the end of the war, Sakr was convicted in absentia of spying for the Israelis.

The WLO's advocacy was ultimately unsuccessful, and Israel withdrew from South Lebanon in 2000. Says Nissi: "How do you turn a Shiite Muslim area into a Christian area? It was a stupid idea, and they spent a lot of money and efforts on nothing."

According to Phares' former associates, the group fell apart due to infighting.

 

After the 9/11 attacks, an entire anti-Islam industry rose up on the right, with some conservatives advocating the view that the West was locked in a global, civilizational conflict with Islam. Phares' years of advocacy had already won him friends on the American right, and he soon was in demand as a television analyst.

Appearing on Fox News two months after the attacks, Phares warned of the danger posed by Arabic-language news network Al Jazeera, telling Bill O'Reilly that "linguistically, the Arabic language is a very powerful one. It has a lot of codes. It could be used in a lethal way."

Phares obtained a fellowship at the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a teaching position at National Defense University. He became a trainer at the Center for Counterintelligence and Security Studies, a nongovernmental organization that claims to have "trained over 75,000 Intelligence Community, Military, Law Enforcement, Homeland Security, Government and Corporate employees over the past 14 years." Phares has testified before Congress and advised the Department of Homeland Security. Two of his books, 2005's Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies Against America and 2007's The War of Ideas: Jihadism Against Democracy, were included on the congressional GOP's 2007 summer "reading list."

Phares' message, though more polished, isn't all that different from the paranoid worldview of anti-Muslim figures in the United States. In Future Jihad, Phares writes that "jihadists within the West pose as civil rights advocates" working to ensure that "[a]lmost all mosques, educational centers, and socioeconomic institutions fall into their hands." Phares contends these stealth jihadists are merely waiting for a "holy moment" to strike.

"[Phares] is telling people to suspect all Muslims Americans as something other than how they portray to themselves," says Thomas Cincotta, one of the authors of a report titled "Manufacturing the Muslim Menace," published by the liberal group Political Research Associates. But it's not just anyone Phares is preaching his ideas to. "He's addressing the intelligence community, he's addressing policymakers, military personnel," Cincotta notes.

Phares eventually came into Mitt Romney's orbit. Shortly after President Barack Obama won the election in 2008, Toni Nissi says Phares told Nissi over dinner at Washington's Madison Hotel that Romney had promised Phares a high-ranking White House job helping craft US policy in the Middle East should the ex-governor win in 2012.

"To have someone who has these old ideas about the dangers of Islam and especially the dangers of political Islam—I don't think it's going to be very helpful to Romney's understanding of the Middle East," says the Council on Foreign Relations' Mohamad Bazzi.

Mother Jones contacted Phares several times seeking comment. Eventually Jed Ipsen, a spokesman for Phares, offered to answer written questions on Phares' behalf. Mother Jones provided him with a detailed list of queries, but Phares never responded. Romney's camp also declined to respond to repeated requests for comment.

One former US counterterrorism official says he was shocked to learn that Phares was advising Romney. "He's part of the same movement as Pamela Geller," the official says, referring to the anti-Muslim conservative activist behind the Ground Zero mosque controversy. "He's viewed as a mainstream scholar of jihadism, but he doesn't know a lot about the actual movement."

Phares may be viewed as mainstream, but he doesn't avoid the more vocally anti-Muslim segments of the right. He has been a columnist for David Horowitz's arch-conservative Frontpage magazine, and he endorsed two books by Robert Spencer, whose writings frequently posit that American Muslims are part of a conspiracy to establish Taliban-style Islamic law in the United States. Phares also serves on the advisory board of the Clarion Fund, which has released a series of films warning of an Islamist fifth column in the United States. In a YouTube video released by anti-Islam activist Brigitte Gabriel, herself a Maronite Christian whose views of Islam were shaped by harrowing experiences in Lebanon's civil war, Phares tells Gabriel that "there is a cold war infiltration acquiring influence and the lands of what they call the infidels." When Gabriel's cohost asks Phares for examples of this vast conspiracy, Phares quietly assures him, "We can't give names, because it's operational, it's happening now."

"His experience in the region is colored by his experience in Lebanon during the civil war," says Mohamad Bazzi*, an Adjunct Senior Fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations who emigrated to the United States from Lebanon in 1985. "He has this alarmist tendency, especially about Islam, to demonize all forms of political Islam, even ones that are not violent." He adds, "To have someone who has these old ideas about the dangers of Islam and especially the dangers of political Islam—I don't think it's going to be very helpful to Romney's understanding of the Middle East."

Should Phares' militant past keep him from advising a presidential candidate, or perhaps a president? "I wouldn't want to be held responsible for everything I did when I was 22. I don't think that's fair to him," says Graeme Bannerman, a Lebanon expert at the Middle East Institute and a former Republican staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "The question is what are his views now, and those fall well within the mainstream of the Republican Party."

Phares is in many ways the ideal Republican foreign policy adviser, synthesizing all of the GOP's foreign policy impulses in one place. He is supportive of American military intervention and combines anti-Muslim sentiments with a veneer of counterterrorism expertise drawn from his experience in Lebanon's civil war.

But James Zogby asks: "Is he serving Mitt Romney, or is he serving the politics of a group in Lebanon that was fighting for their sectarian hegemony in a civil war that took over 100,000 lives?"

 

*an earlier version of this piece misspelled Mohamad Bazzi's name as Mohamad Baazi.

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