BEIRUT: With Mitt Romney’s bid to become the Republican candidate for the  U.S. presidential election gaining ground with his win in the Iowa caucus, many  around the world are wondering what his foreign policy would have in store  should he reach the White House.

When it comes to the Middle East, alarms have been raised in some corners  over his decision to appoint as his top adviser on the region Walid Phares, a  leading figure in right-wing Christian militias during Lebanon’s 1975-1990 Civil  War and a former adviser to Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea.

Critics have also  focused on Phares’ subsequent roles in the United States, where he has served as  a “terrorism expert” for Fox News and the Christian Broadcasting Network. During  these shows, he has warned that jihadists are the enemy, and that the U.S. must  act preemptively to defeat them.

“An adviser on the Middle East should be more sensitive and neutral. Walid  Phares is very extreme. He leans toward being an Islamo-phobe,” Warren David,  president of the Arab-American civil rights group, the Anti-Discrimination  Committee told The Daily Star. “I would think that most Lebanese Christians  don’t agree with his viewpoints.”

David, who himself is a Lebanese-American Christian, adds, “Fortunately, he’s  in the minority. But when you see it from one of your own it’s  discouraging.”

Joseph Nehme, a spokesperson for the Lebanese Forces told The Daily Star that  he remembers Phares from his days in Lebanon, describing him as “a nice person,” but declined to comment any further.

Phares has reportedly declared that Lebanese Christians were ethnically  distinct from Arabs, and during the Civil War he “lectured militiamen, telling  them they were part of a civilizational holy war,” according to an October  investigative report by the U.S. magazine Mother Jones.

Since his arrival in the U.S. in 1990, he has reportedly been featured as a  Middle East expert by the David Project, Israel’s college campus coalition; and  the Israeli-linked groups Jihad Watch and Middle East Forum; he is also an  associate with Israel’s Ariel Center for Policy Research and a senior fellow at  the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, an organization established after  9/11, which advocates U.S. military intervention in Muslim-majority  countries.

“Anyone comfortable with those associations should not be advising the  president,” says Corey Saylor, National Legislative Director at the Council on  American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), who has been researching Phares’ background  for about a year, ever since his appointment last February as a witness at  hearings by the House Committee on Homeland Security entitled “The Extent of  Radicalization in the American Muslim Community and That Community’s  Response.”

In a letter last February to Peter King, the Republican U.S. House  Representative who led the hearings, CAIR stated that “Mr. Phares’s prior  position in, and association with, organizations and militia groups known for  carrying out massacres and systematic torture raise reasonable concerns  regarding his relevance to any sober and objective hearing.”

The U.S. Muslim civil rights group is referring to his position during the  Lebanese Civil War in the Lebanese Forces, the Christian militia which was  implicated by Israel’s official Kahan inquiry in the 1982 massacre of civilians  at the Sabra and Shatila in Beirut.

And according to CAIR’s research, in 1999 the World Lebanese Organization,  founded by Phares, included among its “leading members” both “Col. Sharbel  Baraket, former deputy commander of the [South Lebanese Army], and Etienne Sakr,  head of the radical Guardians of the Cedars group.”

The Guardians of the Cedars’ mission statement includes restoring Lebanon’s  alphabet “to its Phoenician origins after liberating it from the defacement that  was caused by the Arabic language” and “cutting down the number of foreigners in  Lebanon…” The South Lebanese Army were allied with Israel during the 1975-1990  Civil War.

Saylor believes that Romney’s selection of Phares shows the Republican  candidate’s growing conservative leaning, possibly in an attempt to court  evangelical Christian voters. He noted that when he was running in the 2008  election Romney said that he would be open to appointing a Muslim to his cabinet  if elected president, the New York Times reported in November 2007.

“Romney, overall, has been better [than the other candidates],” Saylor says. “This is a troubling direction.”

In fact, Romney’s main competitors’ inflammatory comments about the Middle  East have caused even bigger stirs.

In early December, Republican hopeful Newt Gingrich called Palestinians “an  invented people.”

“Remember, there was no Palestine as a state. It was part of the Ottoman  Empire,” the former Georgia congressman said.

“I think that we’ve had an invented Palestinian people who are in fact  Arabs, and who were historically part of the Arab community. And they had a  chance to go many places, and for a variety of political reasons we have  sustained this war against Israel now since the 1940s, and it’s tragic,” he  said.

Then, less than a month later, his competitor Rick Santorum went a step  further by saying, “There are no Palestinians… All the people who live in the  West Bank are Israelis. There are no Palestinians. This is Israeli land.”

The former Pennsylvania senator added that “The West Bank is part of Israel,” which won it as “part of an aggressive attack by Jordan and others” in 1967.  Israel doesn’t have to give it back any more than the United States has to give  New Mexico and Texas to Mexico, which were gained “through a war,” he said. This  remark was criticized by media in Israel, where the current government has  accepted the principle of a two-state solution.

Saylor believes that the relatively extreme views being put forth might be a  case of politicians playing to their bases to win the primary before the general  election, noting that in the past some candidates have said they would move the  U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a promise never fulfilled when they  reach power.

“Once the process plays out, then we’ll see the real rhetoric,” he says.

Still, the thought Phares having a key advisory position, even at this  stage, doesn’t sit well with some.

Jim Abourezk, a former Democratic senator from South Dakota, whose family  hails from south Lebanon, told The Daily Star that although he believes Romney  is unlikely to reach the presidency, “A right-wing Lebanese would be a disaster  for Romney and a disaster for the country.”



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