In recent days, the liberal blogosphere has launched a concerted attack against Walid Phares, one of Mitt Romney’s senior Mideast advisers. The likes of Ali Gharib, McKay Coppins, and Adam Serwer think they smell blood because of Phares’s former association with the Lebanese Forces, the de facto army of the Lebanese Christians during the latter half of Lebanon’s civil war. “Top Romney Adviser Tied to Militia That Massacred,” intoned Mother Jones in its headline for Serwer’s piece. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has joined in, with a particularly pathetic letter to the Romney campaign requesting “that Phares be removed” from his advisory position.
The assault on Phares is interesting not just because of the basic ignorance behind its main contentions but also because of its true motives.
A bit of background first. In the years after the 1967 war, the Palestinian Liberation Organization was expelled from the Jordanian West Bank and harried by Jordanian and Syrian forces all the way into Lebanon, where it eventually plunged the whole country into civil war. Phares was a teenager when the conflict erupted in 1975. In 1979, when he was 22 years old, Phares published the first of his many books, Pluralism in Lebanon, which called for Swiss-style federated autonomy for the country’s various ethnic and confessional communities. Of course, among liberals, an idea like that is a cause célèbre — when it is advanced by people they like — and a “hard-line extremist” product of “hateful ideology” when it comes from someone they disagree with.
By the early 1980s in Lebanon, Phares was already a well-known writer and was routinely invited to give talks and lectures to all kinds of organizations, including the Lebanese Forces, an umbrella organization in which virtually every Lebanese Christian group was represented. Phares had no official position with the Lebanese Forces until 1986, when he joined its 22-member Political Council as representative for the small left-of-center party he and his brother had previously launched. During his short tenure on the Council, he variously handled foreign affairs and diaspora issues. This, however, was enough for the Mother Jones “investigation” to uncover that Phares was a “key player” in a “sectarian religious militia responsible for massacres during Lebanon’s brutal, 15-year civil war.”
The connection to one of the most infamous massacres of the conflict gives the Mother Jones story its hook. On their way to Beirut during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the Israelis surrounded two Palestinian refugee camps, at Sabra and Shatila, where PLO terrorists were ensconced. In August of that year, the hugely popular Christian leader Bashir Gemayel was elected president of Lebanon — and assassinated three weeks later. Enraged, Phalangist elements of the Lebanese Forces, under intelligence chief Eli Hobeika (later revealed to be in league with the Syrians), asked Israeli permission to enter the camps and hunt down the perpetrators. In the ensuing days, hundreds and possibly thousands of Palestinian refugees were murdered. It was generally understood that the perpetrators were connected to the Lebanese Forces, if only because if you were Christian and you were armed then you were almost certainly with the Lebanese Forces.
The question is whether the war crime of a small rogue group operating clearly outside normal chains of command can be attributed to the organization as a whole. Here the answer is demonstrably “no.” The Lebanese Forces had become the de facto army and political organization of the entire Christian community in Lebanon. It is one thing to link a specific person to a specific massacre, but to discredit someone linked to the Lebanese Forces because of its links to the Sabra and Shatila massacre is to discredit virtually all Christian Lebanese who were prominent during the conflict, even those who rose to the fore years after the massacres. The real target of such an attack is the Christian Lebanese community itself. And let’s note the Left’s rank double standard when it comes to this sort of thing. The Left habitually insists that the United States and Israel recognize the legitimacy of the Palestinians’ elected “representatives,” even if it means legitimizing people who have actually murdered innocent civilians. Mother Jonesdoesn’t even insinuate that Phares was connected to the massacres, or even that he ever picked up a gun. And Phares’s membership on the Political Council of the Lebanese Forces occurred years after the Sabra and Shatila massacres.
The Mother Jones piece posits several other reasons why Phares should be discredited: that he espoused a “hateful” Christian separatist ideology, that he would be representing the interests of foreigners instead of those of the United States, and that his message is anti-Muslim. The first of these is clearly false — Phares is a federalist — but even if it were true, there wouldn’t be anything hateful about it. All of Lebanon’s confessional communities zealously protect their autonomy and political rights — one of them, the Shia Hezbollah, even has its own army. And how are the separatist movements of East Timor and Palestine not equally “hateful?” The second of the contentions comes from Paul Pillar, 20-year veteran of the CIA: “It should raise eyebrows anytime someone in a position to exert behind-the-scenes influence on a U.S. leader has ties to a foreign entity that are strong enough for foreign interests, and not just U.S. interests, to determine the advice being given,” he told the magazine. The warning about representing foreign views is waved about in the Mother Jones article as a kind of dark insinuation without elaboration, and we are left to wonder just what Serwer thinks he’s talking about. But it’s irrelevant in any case. Phares has lived in the United States since 1990. Other than membership in organizations committed to resisting Syria’s and Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon (fully in line with longstanding U.S. policy) Phares’s career remains what it has always been — that of a major writer and intellectual on Mideast affairs.