Home/Daniel Larison/Romney and Walid Phares

Romney and Walid Phares

Conservative magazines and blogs had largely ignored the numerous unflattering profiles of one of Mitt Romney’s foreign policy adviser co-chairs, Walid Phares. That changed this week. Reacting to the most recent profile in Mother Jones, The Weekly Standard blog’s “Scrapbook” offered an extremely lame defense:

Unlike Pillar, The Scrapbook has a very clear memory of someone who had “held a comparable formal-position with a foreign organization” and yet wound up quite close to a presidential candidate?—i?ndeed, the one who came out on top in the 2008 election.

Barack Obama and Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi both taught at the University of Chicago in the ’90s, and at a farewell dinner for Khalidi in 2003, Obama warmly praised Khalidi’s advice, which took the form of “consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases.”

I had thought that the manufactured outrage over Obama’s rather tenuous connection to Rashid Khalidi was just election-year opportunism back in 2008, but perhaps there are people so confused about Obama’s position on Israel that they could believe that Obama has followed policy advice from Khalidi. In any case, the differences between the two examples couldn’t be more obvious. Romney made Phares a Middle East co-chair, and it is more than likely that Phares can expect to receive an appointment in a Romney administration. Khalidi never held any advisory position with Obama’s campaign, and there was not the slightest chance that Khalidi would have ever been in a position to influence U.S. policy. The two men aren’t really comparable, either, but that’s a separate issue. Anyway, it’s not surprising that Paul Pillar couldn’t “think of any earlier instance of an adviser having held a comparable formal position with a foreign organization,” because there aren’t earlier instances of this.

Mario Loyola also rallied to Phares’ defense, but Adam Serwer easily answers Loyola’s objections to the profile. Among other things, Serwer discusses Phares’ bizarre views of pre-9/11 U.S. foreign policy to demonstrate how much Phares’ anti-jihadist ideology distorts his thinking:

Also in Phares’ book Future Jihad, which Loyola describes as an “indispensable contribution,” Phares argues that prior to 9/11, American foreign policy was essentially under the control of Islamic fundamentalists. “[T]he Wahabi influence was so profound and subtle that it made its arms within the State Department, CIA, and information agencies think that they, not the Wahabis, were in control of policy.” It’s hard to find a foreign policy decision Phares disapproves of that isn’t the result of covert Islamist infiltration, from US policy during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to Bill Clinton’s intervention in the Balkans to support for ending Lebanon’s civil war along terms favorable to Syria. Here’s Phares’ creative historical interpretation of the 1999 NATO intervention in Kosovo: “[A]n all-out campaign by al-Qaeda destroyed the Serbian Army in Kosovo and led to regime change in Serbia.”

The last quote from Phares seemed so far-out and lunatic that I had to double-check to make sure that Phares wrote it. He did. Reading the line in context doesn’t help at all, because what he describes never took place. If someone were trying to parody the ideas of popular anti-jihadist agitators, it would be difficult to come up with something as outlandish as what Phares has actually written in that book. If we wanted to be generous, we would have to assume that Phares wrote “al-Qaeda” when he meant to write “NATO,” but that’s such an amazing mix-up that it’s hard to believe that it was accidental.

Spencer Ackerman comments on the possible consequences of having Phares in a high-level position in government:

The idea that the Arab world’s democratic forces would embrace a man tied to sectarian massacres of Muslims, and who argued that Christian Arabs are a different ethnic group than Muslim Arabs, doesn’t survive a second’s worth of scrutiny. It would be a millstone around the Romney administration, the fodder for a million conspiracy theories, and a slam dunk for the Assads and Ahmadinejads of the region.

This is why the selection of Phares as one of Romney’s advisers matters. It is another hint of the alarmist foreign policy Romney favors, and it tells us that Romney’s judgment in selecting advisers may not be all that good. Given Romney’s tendency to invoke expertise and his willingness to defer to those he considers experts in a field, it matters a great deal that Romney considers Phares a reliable guide to Middle Eastern affairs.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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