A journalist called me yesterday afternoon for a comment on the recent news that Mitt Romney had appointed Walid Phares to his foreign policy team. As is well known, Phares was a member of the Lebanese Forces’ Executive Committee during the Lebanese Civil War, and the news of his appointment provoked a few expressions of surprise and dismay among DC-based Mideast policy wonks.
After getting off the phone, I did a quick search through the news archives and turned up a 1995 article in the Jerusalem Report, describing an initiative launched by Walid Phares in the mid-90s called the Leadership Committee for a Free Middle East. The committee brought together “top officials of the Zionist Organization of America, the Jewish Action Alliance, Americans for a Safe Israel and Likud America, along with groups claiming to represent Lebanese Maronites, Egyptian Copts, Iraqi Assyrians and South Sudanese Christians.” Here’s the part to read:
The groups have natural common interests, said Manfred Lehman, a member of the ZOA’s national executive and an organizer of the coalition. Christians in the Middle East are often persecuted by Muslim governments, he said, and are threatened by Islamic fundamentalism.
The initiative for the committee came from Walid Phares, the Maronite founder of the World Lebanese Organization. “For us, the conflict in the Middle East is not Arab against Israeli, but Arab against non-Arab,” he said, arguing that the Maronites, and most other Mideast Christian groups, are not ethnic Arabs, but descendants of Christian peoples who lived in the region before the Muslim Arab conquest in the seventh century.
Phares’s own history points to further motives behind the new coalition. A former official with the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia, he fled to the United States in 1990 after Syrian troops crushed the last Christian resistance in Beirut. His group has branches in several countries and in Israel’s security zone in South Lebanon, which he says is “for us the last free enclave for Lebanese Christians.”
The Leadership Committee for a Free Middle East seems to have had a short-lived history, but the few hits that Google turns up include this little gem from Manfred Lehmann’s website
We had a nice minyan for all Shabbat services, including a Sefer Torah from a neighborhood synagogue. I did not attend any of the Shabbat sessions, but was told that the most sensational presentations was rendered by Professor Walid Phares, head of the World Lebanese Organization, who co-chairs with me the Leadership Committee for a free Middle East. He showed how the Moslem Arabs in the Middle East are invaders, conquerors and occupiers of land that was owned by the original Christian populations — the Copts in Egypt, the Maronites and Phoenicians in Lebanon, the Assyrian/Chaldeans in Iraq, etc… They all look upon Israel — the only country that regained its historical land — as their own only hope to regain their own political and religious independence. He also explained something absolutely fundamental. The main reason the Arabs hate Israel is that they fear exactly this re-awakening of the original inhabitants of the lands they have usurped. While Israel exists, the Arabs must fear that the original populations will make a comeback and evict the Moslems from the lands conquered by them. Hence the close love by these Christians for Israel and their feeling of total interdependence. Eighteen million Christians are affected by this situation — the most important and powerful group of allies Israel has, which until now it has ignored and neglected!
What I find most interesting about the Phares story is, sadly, not the fact that Romney appointed him to his Mideast advisory committee, but rather how bizarrely out of sync Phares’s views are with mainstream Christian politics in Lebanon today.
The Lebanese Christians have a “close love” for Israel? They regard the Muslims as “invaders”? If Walid Phares ran for political office in Lebanon today, how good would his chances be, do you think? I’d put them somewhere in Antoine Lahad territory.
This is not to say that there aren’t Lebanese who share Phares’s oddball views about the ethnic origins of the Maronites and their secessionist aspirations, and some of them may even hold public office today. But these views are no longer part of the mainstream Christian discourse, just as Hassan Nasrallah’s calls for the creation of an Islamic state in the 1980s are now regarded as an embarrassment by the party (and were anyway disavowed by Nasrallah himself as early as 1995).
My point here is that while much is made of Lebanon being a divided society — as reflected in its confessional politics and civil conflicts — it is also true that over twenty years have passed since the end of the civil war, and whatever Lebanon is today, it is not what it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Certain things have changed, for better or worse.
The Maronite Patriarch’s defense of Hizbullah’s weapons is only the most recent example we could point to. Beshara al-Rai took a lot of heat from some Christians for his statements, but he also gained sympathy from many others who support the FPM’s alliance with Hizbullah. And speaking of which, who could have imagined such an alliance between the Aounists (whose views were not that different from those of other right-wing Christian parties) and Hizbullah, twenty years ago?
Yes, there is plenty of opportunism and cynicism in play. But let’s not brandish silly terms like “stagnation” and “feudalism” as a substitute for real engagement with Lebanon’s complexities. Our society remains divided, but the fact that the views of Hassan Nasrallah (circa 1985) and Walid Phares (circa 1995 and perhaps still today) are largely out of place in contemporary Lebanese political discourse is a reminder that divisiveness is not hard-wired into Lebanon’s society or its politics. To insist otherwise is, in my view, a symptom of intellectual laziness.
This post started out about Mitt Romney and has sort of morphed into a response to the friendly criticisms of my recent post about Lebanon and the Arab Revolutions. In that essay, I made the simple argument that the reason Lebanon has not witnessed massive popular protests as we’ve seen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen has little to do with our “social divisiveness” or “political immaturity” and everything to do with the absence of authoritarian conditions and a single, hegemonic, universally reviled “regime”.
I also argued that Lebanese democracy activists have relatively fewer formidable challenges to contend with than their counterparts in countries where the remnants of a once-powerful regime are effectively dictating the course of events in the post-revolutionary period. This is not to say that Lebanese activists do not have their own cast of reactionary forces to face off with, but let’s be honest: there is a difference between Nabih Berri and Field Marshal Tantawi (who is targeting civil society groups with greater ruthlessness than Mubarak did).
The point of this argument is not to get into a pissing match about which Middle Eastern countries are more suited to democracy (especially given that different democratic models may work for different countries). Rather, my underlying point was the following:
If one is willing to make a case for cautious optimism regarding the possibilities of reform in countries like Egypt and Libya, then there’s no reason not to be similarly optimistic with a case like Lebanon.
Some of you remarked that Lebanon does not need a revolution of the streets, but rather a “revolution of thought”, a change in mindsets and orientations. I would suggest that such changes are already taking place gradually, under the surface, and we would be better served by recognizing them and trying to bolster them rather than sitting around and waiting for a “revolution of thought”.
Let me close by reiterating that this essay should not be read as a defense of the status quo. If there’s a purpose behind Qifa Nabki, it’s to think critically and aggressively about the problems of governance in Lebanon. Doing that effectively means, in part, being clear-eyed about the true nature of the challenges facing the country, the opportunities available for reform, and the resources that can be drawn upon to effect progressive change.