BEIRUT: With Mitt Romney’s bid to become the Republican candidate for the U.S. presidential election gaining ground with his win in the Iowa caucus, many around the world are wondering what his foreign policy would have in store should he reach the White House.
When it comes to the Middle East, alarms have been raised in some corners over his decision to appoint as his top adviser on the region Walid Phares, a leading figure in right-wing Christian militias during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil War and a former adviser to Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.
“Anyone comfortable with those associations should not be advising the president."
Critics have also focused on Phares' subsequent roles in the United States, where he has served as a “terrorism expert” for Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network. During these shows, he has warned that jihadists are the enemy, and that the U.S. must act preemptively to defeat them.
“An adviser on the Middle East should be more sensitive and neutral. Walid Phares is very extreme. He leans toward being an Islamo-phobe,” Warren David, president of the Arab-American civil rights group, the Anti-Discrimination Committee told The Daily Star. “I would think that most Lebanese Christians don’t agree with his viewpoints.”
David, who himself is a Lebanese-American Christian, adds, “Fortunately, he’s in the minority. But when you see it from one of your own it’s discouraging.”
Joseph Nehme, a spokesperson for the Lebanese Forces told The Daily Star that he remembers Phares from his days in Lebanon, describing him as “a nice person,” but declined to comment any further.
Phares has reportedly declared that Lebanese Christians were ethnically distinct from Arabs, and during the Civil War he “lectured militiamen, telling them they were part of a civilizational holy war,” according to an October investigative report by the U.S. magazine Mother Jones.
Since his arrival in the U.S. in 1990, he has reportedly been featured as a Middle East expert by the David Project, Israel’s college campus coalition; and the Israeli-linked groups Jihad Watch and Middle East Forum; he is also an associate with Israel’s Ariel Center for Policy Research and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an organization established after 9/11, which advocates U.S. military intervention in Muslim-majority countries.
“Anyone comfortable with those associations should not be advising the president,” says Corey Saylor, National Legislative Director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who has been researching Phares’ background for about a year, ever since his appointment last February as a witness at hearings by the House Committee on Homeland Security entitled "The Extent of Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community's Response."
In a letter last February to Peter King, the Republican U.S. House Representative who led the hearings, CAIR stated that “Mr. Phares’s prior position in, and association with, organizations and militia groups known for carrying out massacres and systematic torture raise reasonable concerns regarding his relevance to any sober and objective hearing.”
The U.S. Muslim civil rights group is referring to his position during the Lebanese Civil War in the Lebanese Forces, the Christian militia which was implicated by Israel’s official Kahan inquiry in the 1982 massacre of civilians at the Sabra and Shatila in Beirut.
And according to CAIR’s research, in 1999 the World Lebanese Organization, founded by Phares, included among its “leading members” both “Col. Sharbel Baraket, former deputy commander of the [South Lebanese Army], and Etienne Sakr, head of the radical Guardians of the Cedars group.”
The Guardians of the Cedars’ mission statement includes restoring Lebanon’s alphabet “to its Phoenician origins after liberating it from the defacement that was caused by the Arabic language” and “cutting down the number of foreigners in Lebanon...” The South Lebanese Army were allied with Israel during the 1975-1990 Civil War.
Saylor believes that Romney’s selection of Phares shows the Republican candidate’s growing conservative leaning, possibly in an attempt to court evangelical Christian voters. He noted that when he was running in the 2008 election Romney said that he would be open to appointing a Muslim to his cabinet if elected president, the New York Times reported in November 2007.
“Romney, overall, has been better [than the other candidates],” Saylor says. “This is a troubling direction.”
In fact, Romney’s main competitors’ inflammatory comments about the Middle East have caused even bigger stirs.
In early December, Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich called Palestinians “an invented people.”
"Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman Empire,” the former Georgia congressman said.
"I think that we've had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons we have sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it's tragic," he said.
Then, less than a month later, his competitor Rick Santorum went a step further by saying, “There are no Palestinians... All the people who live in the West Bank are Israelis. There are no Palestinians. This is Israeli land.”
The former Pennsylvania senator added that “The West Bank is part of Israel,” which won it as “part of an aggressive attack by Jordan and others” in 1967. Israel doesn’t have to give it back any more than the United States has to give New Mexico and Texas to Mexico, which were gained “through a war,” he said. This remark was criticized by media in Israel, where the current government has accepted the principle of a two-state solution.
Saylor believes that the relatively extreme views being put forth might be a case of politicians playing to their bases to win the primary before the general election, noting that in the past some candidates have said they would move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a promise never fulfilled when they reach power.
“Once the process plays out, then we’ll see the real rhetoric,” he says.
Still, the thought Phares having a key advisory position, even at this stage, doesn’t sit well with some.
Jim Abourezk, a former Democratic senator from South Dakota, whose family hails from south Lebanon, told The Daily Star that although he believes Romney is unlikely to reach the presidency, “A right-wing Lebanese would be a disaster for Romney and a disaster for the country.”