One of the first things Donald Trump’s Middle East adviser, Walid Phares, did after the US election was try and calm any anxieties in the region over the change in American leadership.
“A Donald Trump administration will surprise the region’s peoples with a positive message of peace, security and prosperity so much needed,” he told Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper.
Phares, a Maronite Christian who reportedly served as an ideologue of Lebanese militiamen during the civil war in the 1980s, is expected to land a major foreign-policy post, but he is already facing criticism over his past alleged role motivating fighters during the bloody Lebanese conflict and his perceived far-right views as an academic and analyst of the region.
His supporters argue that he presciently discerned the threat of jihadist ideology when other analysts were blind to it and that he is eminently qualified for a senior post. They also point to a strong pro-Israel track record and dismiss the questions about his past as a smear campaign.
Phares did not respond to questions sent to him by The Jerusalem Post
Being Trump’s right-hand man for the Middle East is a long way from the Beirut of the 1980s, when Phares trained Lebanese militants in ideological beliefs justifying the war against Lebanon’s Muslim and Druse factions, according to former colleagues who were quoted in an investigative piece published by Mother Jones
magazine in 2011 after Phares was named as an adviser by then Republican nominee Mitt Romney. These colleagues said Phares advocated that Lebanon’s Christians work toward creating a separate, independent Christian enclave. The article, to which Phares did not respond, also alleged that he was a close adviser of Samir Geagea, a Lebanese- Christian warlord.
Phares did not depart from his hard-line Christian nationalist views even after he moved from Lebanon to the US in 1990 and launched an academic career.
He became an American citizen.
Seven years later, he tried to lobby the Israeli government to carve out a state for Christians in the security zone Israel maintained in southern Lebanon, despite the fact that Israel had been burned badly when it allied with Lebanese Christians in 1982, that most of zone’s inhabitants were Shiite Muslims and that Israel already had its hands full dealing with an insurgency by Hezbollah.
The Christian state could be viable, Phares insisted, with its capital in Marjayoun and a port in Nakoura. It would be a non-Arab state and natural partner of the Jewish state, because the Lebanese Christians are not Arabs, he asserted.
“Jerusalem’s only rational and historical choice is to link up once more with the Christian community of Lebanon,” Phares wrote in a 1997 paper for the Ariel Center for Policy Research. “This may represent a choice which may not be appreciated among many Israelis, for various reasons, but it remains one which cannot be avoided.”
Phares appeared to flirt with the idea that Israel could use nuclear weapons to deal with its threat from the North, but then ruled this out as a possibility.
“The only military strategic option remaining to the Jewish state in the medium and long term, if it is to maintain its balance of power with the northern threat, is obviously the nuclear deterrent. But Lebanese and Israelis alike know all too well the consequences of a blast anywhere in Lebanon...
“Despite the 1982 episode, the Christians of Lebanon are the only potential ally against the advance of the northern Arabo-Islamic threat against Israel,” Phares concluded.
Former Mossad director Efraim Halevy told the Post
that “to think in 1997 of creating a Christian enclave in the South, an area of preponderant Shi’ite presence, is esoteric bordering on the ridiculous.”
Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies (now the Institute for National Security Studies) said of Phares: “Even in Israeli terms, he represents an attempt to subvert our good intentions and exploit us militarily so that we spill our blood for the Maronites. This ended very badly and he is a reminder of this.
“His association with the Lebanese Forces is very problematic,” Alpher added. “He was a prominent ideologue indoctrinating people who went out and murdered people and he has never accounted for that.”
Abed Ayoub, national legal and policy director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said: “If you look at his history, he was a warmonger and he shouldn’t be near the White House. He was part of a militia that committed war crimes and, if anything, he should be tried for war crimes.”
Tera Dahl, executive director of the US-based Council on Global Security, came to Phares’s defense after Ayoub’s organization attacked him in March when he was first appointed by Trump.
“Phares was never in any military organization, he led a small social democratic group and was a publisher and author,” she wrote on the far-right Breitbart.
“He represented his left-of-center party within a coalition of parties that oversaw the local government of the Christian community when it was surrounded by the Syrian army and the terrorist groups between 1986 and 1988. Phares is being attacked because he is on the right side of the issues and is fearless in speaking out the truth.”
The extent to which Phares’s views have changed over the years remains to be seen. But his current worldview appears to dovetail with that of Trump.
During a lecture in Washington on December 28, 2015, Phares alleged that an “Islamist network” had deeply penetrated American society and government.
“They’ve embedded themselves in the academic body and, in America, the academic body is very influential and communicates with the government body. From academia, you are going to have classrooms producing graduates influenced by the teaching. Phares has both supporters and detractors in Washington.
“Walid is in a caliber of his own,” said Sarah Stern, president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth. “He understood the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East. He understood very early on what ISIS is, that it’s a real threat. He understands that Islam is more than a religion, that it’s also an ideology and an ideology of conquest.”
“He is definitely a strong supporter of Israel,” Stern added.
“He sees the way Christians, Bahais, gays and dissidents are treated by the ruling Muslim forces in the Middle East and he understands exactly what a democracy is.”
Matthew Duss, director of the Foundation for Middle East Peace sees things differently, however.
“Phares is one of a number of close Trump advisers with extremely troubling foreign- policy views which basically mirror those of Islamic extremists: Islam and the West are at war. It’s difficult to overstate how counterproductive it would be for the US to adopt this vision,” he said.