In a meeting with The Washington Post's editorial board, Republican front-runner Donald Trump revealed part of the cast of foreign policy advisers assembled for his presidential campaign. None of them rank among the mainstream cognoscenti of GOP foreign policy wonks, the vast majority of whom had already sided with now-defeated establishment candidates.
They did include at least one conspicuous name: Walid Phares, a one-time senior adviser to 2012 GOP candidate Mitt Romney and a provost at BAU International University.
"Walid Phares, who you probably know. PhD, adviser to the House of Representatives. He’s a counterterrorism expert," Trump told the Post's editorial board. Phares, who is a Lebanese-born Maronite Christian, has been a frequent guest on Fox News who has established himself as a pundit on the threat of radical Islam.
But his background goes far deeper than that. As a 2011 Mother Jones investigation pointed out, Phares was once a leading ideologue in an armed Christian faction during Lebanon's grim, bloody sectarian civil conflict of the 1980s. The entire story, written by Adam Serwer (now an editor at Buzzfeed), is worth reading. Here are some excerpts:
During the 1980s, Phares, a Maronite Christian, trained Lebanese militants in ideological beliefs justifying the war against Lebanon's Muslim and Druze factions, according to former colleagues. Phares, they say, advocated the hard-line view that Lebanon's Christians should work toward creating a separate, independent Christian enclave. A photo obtained by Mother Jones shows him conducting a press conference in 1986 for the Lebanese Forces, an umbrella group of Christian militias that has been accused of committing atrocities. He was also a close adviser to Samir Geagea, a Lebanese warlord who rose from leading hit squads to running the Lebanese Forces...
In 1978, the Lebanese Forces emerged as the umbrella group of the assorted Christian militias. According to former colleagues, Phares became one of the group's chief ideologists, working closely with the Lebanese Forces' Fifth Bureau, a unit that specialized in psychological warfare...
[In subsequent years,] Phares continued to play a prominent role in the ideological training of Lebanese Forces fighters. Geagea wanted to professionalize the militia, so he established a special school where officers would receive training not only in military tactics, but also in ideology. The various Lebanese factions were already sectarian in character, but Geagea... wanted religion to become an even more prominent part of the Lebanese Forces. For that he turned to Phares.
"[Samir Geagea] wanted to change them from a normal militia to a Christian army," says [Toni] Nissi, Phares' former associate. "Walid Phares was responsible for training the lead officers in the ideology of the Lebanese Forces."
While Phares is not implicated with any direct role in acts of violence and criminality, he was a key thinker and actor in an environment of tremendous atrocity. The most gruesome incident came in 1982, when Phalangist, or right-wing Christian, militia carried out the slaughter of hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese Shiites in Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
Phares moved to the United States by 1990, when a Syrian intervention stabilized Lebanon but made his own personal place in society unsafe. From there, he reinvented himself as an academic and positioned himself as a speaker on issues related to terrorism.
His ideological baggage occasionally seems rather close to the surface, such as an appearance on Fox News last November where he cast President Obama as a supplicant to the Iranian-Syrian axis Phares himself so bitterly opposed during the years of Lebanon's civil war.
To be sure, says Mohamad Bazzi, a Lebanese-American journalist and an associate professor at New York University, none of Lebanon's warring factions -- no matter their creed -- were innocent. "But [Phares] was in that world of the Phalangists and the Lebanese Forces when these were violent militias that were killing other Lebanese, that were killing other Palestinians," he observes.
"The key is to not let someone like him detach from the history," says Bazzi. "People do change and their thinking changes, but [Phares] has never had to account for this past."