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Mother Jones Strikes Back on Romney Adviser Walid Phares


In his hit piece on Walid Phares, Mother Jones’s Adam Serwer made a number of loosely related allegations that I more or less brushed aside in my critique of his piece.  I didn’t want to lose sight of my central point, which was that the campaign against Phares is little more than an attack on Lebanese Christians who were prominent during Lebanon’s civil conflict — as a class. But Serwer is also wrong in the particulars. His response to my criticism gives me an opportunity to elaborate.

Phares’s affiliation with the Lebanese Forces: 
 Serwer takes me to task for not disputing that Phares was a “trainer” of Lebanese Forces cadres in the ideology of “civilizational conflict between Islam and the West.” But I did dispute that, and similar allegations about the Lebanese Forces connection, by explaining generally that Phares was a prominent writer and intellectual in Lebanon, invited to speak all over Lebanon to all sorts of groups.  Serwer may see no distinction between an invited lecturer and magazine editor on the one hand, and a “trainer” of cadres on the other, but most of us do — usually, a trainer is part of the organization and an invited speaker is not. That’s why it matters that Phares never had any affiliation with Lebanese Forces before he joined the Political Council in 1986. He was not a trainer, and when my friend Toni Nissi says otherwise, he is speaking figuratively at most.  

Serwer reiterates the charge that Phares was a “top adviser” to the Phalangist leader Samir Geagea. I didn’t think this was worth refuting, partly because people in Washington use the title “adviser” so loosely that one can often qualify for it after just two conversations with someone who works for someone important. But Phares was never a Geagea “adviser” as that term is commonly understood outside Washington. Geagea was the leader of the Phalangists, and if you were one of his “top advisers” that would have meant that you were a Phalangist. But Phares was left-of-center, and head of a left-of-center party, not a Phalangist at all, not even in sympathy. He was never a member of Geagea’s staff, and never considered by Geagea people to be a personal adviser. The most you could say is that when Phares joined the Political Council of Lebanese Forces in 1986, he advised the leadership — but there again, the crucial thing is that his affiliation with both Lebanese Forces and Geagea was limited to his brief tenure on the Council.

Serwer writes,

Loyola insists that Phares’ long history with the LF is of no concern because he was part of an organization “committed to resisting Syria’s and Hezbollah’s domination of Lebanon (fully in line with longstanding U.S. policy).” Shorter Loyola: It doesn’t matter if an organization committed atrocities, so long as it was on the right side.

Oy vey. I was referring to the organizations Phares has belonged to since moving to the U.S. in 1990 — anti-Syrian, anti-Hezbollah organizations such as the World Lebanese Organization and the World Council for the Cedars Revolution — which seek the censure of Syria and Hezbollah before U.N. organs, and have worked hard to see the killers of Rafik Hariri brought to justice. My point was that Phares’s membership in these organizations is no basis for thinking that he’ll be representing foreign views in his advice to American leaders, any more than membership in any other NGO. And I don’t know what to make of Serwer’s repated insistence that Phares has a “long history with the LF” when that history was only a few years long even in Serwer’s inflated account.

  Serwer has gone from mischaracterizing Phares’s positions to mischaracterizing  mine. For example, he has me “arguing that that former Christian militia leaders who ‘actually murdered innocent civilians’ should be recognized as legitimate.” Not only have I never said any such thing, but it’s impossible even to infer that from anything I’ve said. Serwer’s misapprehension arises from his failure to distinguish between three very different situations: (1) people who actually murdered civilians (e.g., the Phalangists who actually killed people at Sabra and Shatila); (2) organizations openly dedicated to the murder of innocent civilians (e.g., Hamas); and (3) organizations whose members have been linked to massacres of civilians but who reject such killings (e.g., Lebanese Forces). It’s safe to assume that Serwer and I agree on the first two categories: membership in either should disqualify you from serving as a campaign adviser in America. It’s as to the third category that we appear to disagree. Serwer thinks members of the third category should also be disqualified automatically, whereas I think that when you’ve pushed guilt-by-association far enough to encompass virtually all Christian Lebanese who were prominent during the war, you have gone too far.

South Lebanon Army:
  Serwer makes much of Phares’s “advocacy for continued Israeli support of the torturing, child-soldier conscripting, civilian-displacing South Lebanon Army.” One rather suspects that Serwer’s indictment of the SLA suffers from the same flaw as his indictment of the Lebanese Forces, namely the mistake of associating an entire organization with the crimes of some of its members. But even if he’s right about SLA, consider a few more facts.  #more#The SLA was a remnant of the old Lebanese Army, which had fallen apart on ethno-religious lines when the civil war started in the mid-1970s. By the 1990s the SLA was the only integrated militia in Lebanon; among its fighters there were Druze and Shiites as well as Christians; and it operated within the zone of Israeli occupation south of the Litani River near the Israeli border.  It was thus in the teeth of the terrorist resistance to Israeli occupation. While it might be possible to attribute atrocities to the organization as a whole, Phares never had any sort of affiliation with it. And what Phares advocated was, as usual, something quite different than what Serwer claims.  

Israeli occupation of Lebanon may seem anathema to people nowadays, but given the number of Christians who had been killed in just a few years by Israel’s enemies in Lebanon, it is not hard to understand why so many Christians welcomed the Israeli occupation. Serwer accuses Phares of advocating for the SLA to establish “a Christian enclave,” and cites this as proof of Phares’s Christian-separatist tendencies. This is nonsense. The large Christian enclave in south Lebanon already existed. The question (in the 1990s) was not how to “establish it” but rather how to protect it from the Syrians who were by then occupying the rest of the country. Phares was among those who eventually called for Israel to withdraw, and for the SLA to be recast into an integrated set of military and political institutions that could protect the Christians in the south, expel the Syrians, and start to reunify the country. This is one example, and I suspect there are many, where if Serwer knew more about the subject and really understood what Phares was saying, he wouldn’t disagree.

Paranoid Islamophobia:
  The most essential reason for the campaign against Phares is the supposed “paranoia” of his views on the clash of civilizations. Phares (and experts across the political spectrum) have long warned that the Islamist networks seek to infiltrate Muslim schools, mosques, and civic organizations. The New York Police Department’s counterterrorism unit, one thousand strong, is organized against precisely this infiltration, as are a good measure of the national counter-terrorism capabilities of virtually all Western governments. The Islamists have been explicit that this is their strategy — and their success in recruiting terrorists and in radicalizing the faithful, particularly in Europe, is a testament to the power of their strategy. However long it takes, their aim is dominate the West and establish the single caliphate that they believe they have been commanded by God to establish. To my knowledge, nobody serious disputes any part of that. 

The problem is that where we say “Islamist extremists,” our critics hear “Muslims.” Hence the almost farcical claim that “Phares is telling people to suspect all Muslims [sic] Americans as something other than how they portray themselves.” When I challenge Serwer to find a quote by Phares actually saying something like that, he responds by pointing to statements Phares has made to the effect that many of the mosques, educational centers, and civic organizations have fallen into extremists hands. But that is a different point. Phares is talking about the extremists’ success in penetrating Muslim institutions, not about American Muslims in general. If Serwer wants to argue that this penetration hasn’t been as pervasive as Phares thinks it has been, that’s fine, and I’m prepared to agree with him. But will he admit that any significant penetration has occurred? That would be Islamophobic by his own criteria. Does he deny that any significant penetration has occurred? That would be foolish.

Phares may also overestimate the extent of Sunni-extremist influence over the U.S. government. But he’s not wrong that we have problem there, too. From Pakistan to North Africa, sympathy for extremist ideology runs deep among the governments we have to deal with on a daily basis. Where extremists have a strong hand, the moderates incline in their direction, and so does our policy. Witness, for example, U.S. policy on the Palestinian settlements and our withdrawal from Iraq. In both cases our range of options has been constrained by extremist influence over our supposedly moderate partners. This tendency is buttressed by the legacy of Arabist orientation that the State Department inherited from the British Foreign Office at the start of the Cold War.   

Some small part of this controversy stems from an editorial error in Phares’s book, Future Jihad. Serwer quotes from this passage, which appears on page 159 of the book: “Yet the following year, an all-out campaign by Al Qaeda destroyed the Serbian army in Kosovo and led to regime change in Serbia.” But when you read the passage, it’s clear that what Phares meant was that “NATO destroyed the Serbian army.” The point of the passage is that the U.S. hesitated to respond to al-Qaeda’s 1998 embassy attacks for fear of dire consequences, but the following year NATO attacked Serbia without dire consequences. Ergo, says Phares, we could and should have gone into Afghanistan in 1998.

I’ve taken the time to make these points in order to show that Mother Jones attack was not merely wrong in a few particulars, but wrong in general. The piece was, at the end of the day, simply an attack on leading Christian Lebanese as a class. There are many reasons why Christian Lebanese would come under such an attack, but the most essential is perhaps that their very history and orientation disrupts the Left’s Mideast narrative, in which Arab violence can always be explained as a product of right-wing American and Israeli policy. I’m not saying that it was Serwer’s intention to attack the Christian Lebanese community as a whole; that clearly wasn’t his intention. But it is a necessary corollary of his argument, and it goes too far. 


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