Robert Kagan. Eliot Cohen. Michael Hayden. Dov Zakheim. Michael Chertoff. Skim through the names of Mitt Romney’s recently foreign policy team, and you will be struck by the high level of experience, erudition, and pragmatism across the list. Indeed, since Romney announced his advisors on October 6, he has won praise for a foreign policy group that is unusually large and uncommonly strong. But one name sticks out: Walid Phares, a Lebanese Christian academic who has come under fire from Muslim advocacy groups and academics alike since his inclusion on Romney’s team. Muslim groups are decrying Phares’s close involvement with right-wing Christian militia groups during the Lebanese civil war. Academics note his relatively sparse credentials. But both complaints beg an obvious question: Just who is Walid Phares, and why would the risk-averse Romney add an obscure and controversial pundit to his star-studded foreign policy team?
A fog of conflicting rumors surrounds Phares’s role in the brutally violent Lebanese civil war that took place nearly three decades ago. Phares denies any involvement. Indeed, his spokesman recently told Politico that his client was a victim of confusion with “another man of the same name.” But Elias Muhanna—a visiting fellow at the Stanford University Center for Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law and author of a highly esteemed blog about Lebanese politics, Qifa Nabki—assured me it is an established fact that “during the civil war [Romney advisor] Phares was involved with the Lebanese Forces. He held a high ranking position in their executive council.”
Today the Lebanese Forces is a mainstream political party that holds eight seats in the country’s parliament; three decades ago, however, it was a radical right-wing Maronite Christian militia and a major participant in the Lebanese civil war. The militia, like some other parties to the vicious war, fought for ethnic domination and occasionally targeted civilians for massacre. Phares himself is not accused of war crimes, but as part of the group’s senior leadership, he did help set the Lebanese Forces’s aims and strategy.
After the war, Phares emigrated to the U.S. and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Miami. In 2006, he was made a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Today, he holds a teaching post at the National Defense University. He also provides frequent comment on the Middle East for Fox News and Secure Freedom Radio, anti-Sharia activist Frank Gaffney’s popular right-wing radio show. Then, on October 6, Phares was named co-chair of Romney’s Middle East working group, as well as a Special Advisor.
According to his resume, Phares is now a conservative scholar of terrorism. But Stanford terrorism expert Martha Crenshaw told me that the name did not ring a bell. “He’s not in the mainstream as an academic,” she said. “I’m not familiar with his work on terrorism.” Nor is Phares widely respected in the conservative foreign policy establishment. “It’s interesting that while Romney’s other foreign policy advisors are highly esteemed, Phares is not a well-known commentator on Middle Eastern affairs,” Muhanna noted. “I’m more confused than anything else, given what I know about the types of initiatives Phares has been involved in,” Andrew Exum of the Center for a New American Security told me. “When you have a lot of credible scholars and practitioners within the Republican Party, why would you select as co-chair of your policy committee someone who is widely viewed as an extremist?”
Many foreign policy experts with whom I spoke, but who refused to comment on the record, told me they thought Phares’s selection was simply a vetting error by the Romney campaign. But Matt Duss at the liberal Center for American Progress had an alternative explanation. In his view, the Phares selection may be a dog-whistle to a particular group of conservatives that Romney has, until now, hardly attempted to court: anti-Sharia zealots, who happen to enjoy a strong base of support in Iowa. While the anti-Sharia crowd cares little for impeccable credentials or decades-old foreign conflicts, it cares a great deal about the threat of Sharia law. By tapping Phares, Romney could get in the good graces of this group and inoculate himself against the possibility of being labeled “soft on Sharia.”
This theory dovetails well with Phares’ research interests, as well as the intellectual company he keeps; his signature issue is warning against secret Muslim groups aiming to establish Sharia in the United States. “It is absolutely constitutional and moral that citizens reject Sharia as a legal system that takes away their rights,” he told Fred Grandy of WMAL Washington, D.C. last year—a message he has repeated many times. And this February, when Iowa Republican Representative Steve King held congressional hearings on the dangers of Sharia law, Phares was named as an expert witness. He never testified, however, as King withdrew the invitation following complaints from Muslim groups.
In hiring Phares, a senior presidential campaign staffer explained to me, Romney may very well be learning from the mistakes of Tim Pawlenty, who was widely reported to have a “Sharia Problem” with hard-core conservative activists in Iowa. “Tim Pawlenty caught a great deal of grief for a period of time from the right, thanks to Dick Morris’s book, which raised the Sharia mortgage debacle,” the staffer told me. “The worry was that Morris’ assertions, even though false, might have an effect on future conservative Iowa caucus-goers.” The staffer was referring to Morris’ 2008 book, Catastrophe,which attacked Pawlenty for “sponsoring a Sharia-compliant program to help Muslims buy homes without violating their religious prohibition against paying interest.” Pawlenty issued multiple denials, insisting he had no knowledge of the Minnesota program, and even called Morris “absolutely crazy” and “offensive.” But the damage had been done.
Pawlenty’s stumble, however, may be Romney’s gain. By enlisting Walid Phares, a card-carrying Sharia-phobe and close associate of Gaffney, Romney might be signaling that he has learned from the Iowa troubles of his one time rival and current endorser. If Romney earns a surprising victory or second-place finish in the state, he might have the Republican presidential nomination sewn up by the end of January. Whether electing to receive counsel from an ex-official of a radical, right-wing militia and current ally of the hard-core, anti-Sharia community plays well with independent voters next November—well, that’s another story.