A New U.S. Response to Upheaval in the Middle East


A New U.S. Response to Upheaval in the Middle East
(Walid Phares, September 6, 2013)

Transcript available below

About the speaker

Dr. Walid Phares, who served as a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump and Mitt Romney and is Fox News national security expert, will assess US policy towards the Greater Middle East from Afghanistan to Libya, with insights into major crises in Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Gulf and Turkey. 

Dr. Phares is an engaging and highly sought after Middle East expert and pacesetter, often predicting trends and situations on the ground years before they occur. He is a Fox News Expert, advisor to the US Congress and the European Parliament and served as a senior advisor on national security foreign policy to presidential candidate Mitt Romney 2012.

Dr Phares is the only expert/author who predicted the Arab Spring a year before it occurred in his pacesetting book, The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East (Threshold, a division of Simon and Shuster 2010). Dr Phares holds an extensive CV and noteworthy achievements in the fields of academia, government strategies, media and publishing critical advice on combatting terrorism and countering jihadi radicalization both stateside and abroad.

Dr Phares holds a Ph.D in international relations and strategic studies from the University of Miami, and a Political Science Degree from St Joseph University and a Law degree from the Lebanese University in Beirut and a Master in International Law from Universite’ Jean Moulin in Lyons, France. 

Dr Phares taught political science and Middle East studies at Florida Atlantic University between 1993 and 2004. Since 2006, he has taught Global Jihadi strategies at the National Defense University in Washington DC. Dr Phares lectures on campuses nationwide and internationally, including at the US Intelligence University. He lectured at Georgetown University, George Washington University, American University, Columbia, University of Chicago, Pepperdine, Boston College, Brandeis, UC Berkley, University of Colorado at Boulder, Loyola New Orleans, UC Santa Barbara, and many others including Ecole Militaire of France in Paris. Dr Phares lectures also to various academic associations including the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa in Washington DC and Middle East American ethnic organizations.

After having authored six books on Middle East politics and history (in Arabic) in the 1980s, Dr Phares authored another five in English stateside since the mid 1990s. His most important volumes were published after 9/11 starting with Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against America, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and a critically acclaimed book that was ranked in the top ten books of the 2006 Foreign Affairs List. Future Jihad was read and cited by many members of Congress and the European Parliament. Dr Phares predicted the rise of jihadi urban networks and set forth strategies to counter them in the West and overseas.

Dr Phares published two more books on global strategies: The War of Ideas (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008) explaining the ideological indoctrination and The Confrontation, a policy strategy book designed to isolate radicals. Media and colleagues alike rave about Phares’s hallmark book, which predicted the Arab Spring a year before it occurred: The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East (Simon and Shuster, 2010). The book was endorsed by US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, and praised by many leading figures in Congress, political circles and media on both sides of the Atlantic.

Dr Walid Phares is a native of Beirut, Lebanon, and immigrated to the United States in 1990. He speaks fluent Arabic and French as well as English. Prior to moving stateside, Dr Phares was a student union leader, a lawyer, a publisher, a university professor, and founded a social-democratic party, which he represented in several political coalitions.

Phares also spoke at Westminster on the subjects of US Strategy in the Middle East till 2020: Will it Work? and Geopolitics of the Jihadi Threat: Assessment of ISIS and Iran’s Strategies.


Walid Phares:


My less than twenty minutes remarks are going to give us strategies. I think you have heard enough about theology, ideology, not enough, I think you could hear more. I wouldd like to go to the map, the geopolitical map of this war of ideas, not the military one.

The NGOs that we are working with – that is a good way to begin my remarks – are in fact doing what the U.S. government should have been doing. That is what Bob was talking about. We should not be doing the business of waging a war of ideas while billions of dollars are dedicated, earmarked by Congress, so many agencies that in principle should be the ones to counter the extremist ideas.

No War of Ideas

Now, of course, we hear that those programs exist. I have been, god, how many times advising on the issue, but I can reiterate what members of the panel have affirmed. We are not, as the United States at this point time, we are not waging the war of ideas, and if we are, we are waging it on the side of those who are opposing us. That is very simple. That is very dramatic.

These efforts are important – the efforts of these NGOs and foundations – so that we can inform the American public. This is a democracy and now we know these days on the Syria issue how important our now votes and the lawmakers assent is across the Atlantic, so lawmakers represent public opinion and the public opinion is not informed.

Misinformation, Disinformation, and No Information

The public opinion for example, continues to ask the question: what is the difference between a Shia and a Sunni? We have a problem. Or where is Syria? Or is the Middle East on the other side of the ‘Middle West’? We are at a very dramatic level of misinformation, disinformation, and no information.

I mean you are all on social media and many among you teach in undergraduate and graduate. Many among you I know and you know how problematic it is at the beginning of a semester when you teach Middle East studies. [It is] very problematic, so in a void like this, obviously the most organized, the most concentrated strategic forces in the space of the world of ideas, in the same way that most organized forces in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia have seized the moment and grabbed powers at the beginning or almost at the beginning of the Spring, of the Arab Spring. It is happening here as well.

Whenever we have a chose in foreign policy and national security, what happens? You have a debate in this building and across into the White House and in the elite media, but our public is very far away from understanding. We have probably, I calculated one million [of] over 300 million Americans who understand what we are talking about. That is all the bloggers, all the readers, all the social media, all the graduate, undergraduate studies, all workers in federal and state level dealing with these issues. That is one million people.

When we deal with a social issue, who divorced who, right? A social matter. We have 280 million people who understand what we are talking about, but when we deal with the Middle East or national security, very few [understand] and in the void comes the organized forces in the war of ideas.

Four Points for Discussion

I am going to be talking about four points. Point number one is that there is a[n] original crisis, which is the mothership, the root cause for the battle we are engaging [in] and that is the crisis of Middle Eastern studies in this country, the academic crisis. This is the genesis. This is where it all begins. Now, I will make the case.

And point number two, our talk about how we conducted foreign policy since 9/11 in terms of the war of ideas and how the fact that Middle Eastern studies were compromised; it had a major impact on the way we failed when we could have that is to say post-9/11, the Bush Administration, regardless of who was the President, but we were responding, we were trying, we were spending, we were creating, we liberated [a] couple places in the Middle East, a couple countries, yet we were not able to win the war of ideas as we were winning the war against the terrorists. That is mind-boggling.

Then, comes a third period, which I will talk about quickly. When the government, the administration that is, actually espoused the ideas of the Islamists or of Middle Eastern studies’ beliefs that [have] been influenced by the Islamists, then there is no problem. Under the Bush Administration, we were going in a direction and we had pushbacks.

Under the Obama Administration, there is no pushbacks. It is all going in one direction. That is why we are making one problem, one failure, after the other in the Middle East, one after the other. It is very bad advice, coming from those who should be the elite in thinking, who should be standing here and addressing us. And last, if we can, if we have time, a few remarks about suggestions. I am not going to be very optimistic. I will make suggestions and then I am going to conclude that we cannot do them right now.

The Crisis in Middle Eastern Studies

So the Middle East studies crisis which I have developed in a couple of books, the first book some of you are maybe familiar with, Future Jihad: Terrorist Strategies against the West. And the second book’s title is relevant to our discussion, The War of Ideas: Jihadism against Democracy.

The crisis in Middle Eastern studies basically is a crisis of what I call political penetration. Many among you are experts on this. It is really a deep influence exerted by an organized network that is basically a front or influenced or working with or partnering with the Muslim Brotherhood. I know many experts here have done a great job in exposing this, so I am not going to duplicate this, but it is important to begin where the problem has been.

Of course, there has been the influence of the Iranian lobby. In Future Jihad, I describe the general Islamist lobby as having two branches, the same branches that exist in the Middle East. One is coming from the petrodollars, inserted in our systems. Somewhere after 1973 to the oil shock into the ’80s and increasingly in the ’90s, there was a huge insertion of petrodollars, donations. Now where did they target these donations? They targeted precisely the nerve system of our academic world and that would be Middle Eastern Studies, Islamic Studies, International Relations, and Political Science dealing with that region.

I know because I have been teaching for the last twenty years on many campuses. And I know even more because I have been in a debate, including within the Arab media sphere for the last ten, twelve years. Every day I am in the Arab media debate, so I know the idea on both sides, and that is not a very comfortable position because you know that your side is losing. When you see both sides in a chess game and you see how the moves are coming and you see that on your side there are no moves or countermoves or wrong moves, you are in a bad situation.

Those funds for Middle Eastern studies from the most prominent Ivy Leagues to the smallest college in Augustine. There is a big one there. It impacted the way we teach in the classroom, and when you actually impact the classroom, you have a series of impacts that go after that. It is almost mathematical. When you impact the classroom, meaning you are compromising the understanding of the region and the various forces of the region, the ideologies of the region, you start calling the Islamists ‘revivalists’.

When I showed up in this country, I immigrated twenty-three years ago, I was at MESA, the Association of Middle East Studies of North America. It is the NRA of Middle Eastern Studies in this country. I was surprised to hear prominent speakers introduced as the Gods of Middle Eastern Studies, talking about the Islamists and the Jihadists as the ‘revivalists’, meaning almost quasi-reformers. And later on they called them reformers. This is where the problem is coming from. It is the “original sin,” quote unquote, from a theological perspective here.

So when the classroom is going to produce graduates or undergraduates to go occupy other rooms, then we are in a systemic problem. It is not what the president sees or does not see, it is the whole system that is problematic because from the classroom you go to the newsroom, the media. You know how many thousands of times you have been protesting against – why is it that The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, C-SPAN, you know the whole list, are not doing well with these issues? And these are brilliant people. They have PhDs that size.

It does not matter the size of your PhD. If one part of it is wrong, you are done. If you cannot understand that Osama bin Laden in 1998 after he did the strikes and after he declared war against the United States, and the Crusaders, and the Zionists, and the Jews, on Page 6,000 of The New York Times (which shows how important it was for them), they called them ‘Saudi dissidents’.

Now that is a classroom problem and I know why. Instead of saying this is the leader of the new jihadist movement, therefore our strategies, our ideologies, prepare yourself for a 9/11 that could come, all of The New York Times (and, of course, their brothers and sisters) have interpreted bin Laden to be as a Saudi dissident upset with the Saudi royal family. No, that was not the case. That is just a tiny, little example. There are thousands of examples, which I can give later on.

So now we have the newsroom media is impacted, but then there is the courtroom. Remember those law students or [other] students are going to becoming what? Judges, lawyers, defense lawyers, so all our questions about what is it about court system that it is not able to understand that there is an ideology at work? Is it that they can see it? Well, it goes back to the origin of the issue, and I have been exposing this now for twenty years. An expert witness, many among you have been in court, and I saw it is disastrous. If every player in the room does not understand what the issue is about, should it be about terrorism or political asylum cases, we are in trouble.

And last but not least, the war room, the government. The war room decisions on national security and on international foreign policy issues are always the product of policy papers. You are familiar with them, advising. The policymaker is not an expert in these issues. He or she is told about these issues, so whomever has the network that can surround the policymakers with what to do, and we have seen it this week, I am going to hint, it is not just, you know, the administration, even its opposition is contaminated with regard to Syria, with regard to understanding the other forces on the ground.

You can call them the rebels. I am sure there will be a lot of discussions about what is ‘the rebels’ and I am surprised, very surprised, that three years into the Arab Spring we still have questions on major TV networks, who are the rebels? Who are the rebels after three years – if you do not have an idea about three years we are in, again, deep trouble.

Now, this compromised Middle Eastern Studies world that occupied most of our elites, and thanks to the world of NGOs and bloggers, the alternative world of thinking [about] the Middle East, which is part of what we do here – I mean part of us, of course, have been advising government, but the mainstream in [the] executive branch is not thinking the way we do. We understand that. Those who advised the higher echelons in the executive power, are professors that we engage on panels, and we know their thinking. We do not need to, you know, guess it too much. We know it, what it is, and we see it when a press release goes out of the State Department or National Security Council or the White House or at some point from members of this power here, this branch of power.

The problem in the agenda that was set that led to a failure in the war of ideas in my sense is number one, this elite in Middle Eastern academic studies has promoted the Islamists in the Middle East as the revivalists, as I have mentioned, but with a consequence, a political consequence. If these are the revivalists, then these will be our partners. Hence, you understand why is it that relentlessly, despite every piece of information, analysis that those circles, these circles have been pushing back, the Muslim Brotherhood have always been seen by the mainstream academia, therefore media, and therefore government as potential partners with all the mistakes they have [made].

It is not just that a delegation of MB showed up in Washington and everybody rushed in, no, it is a much older issue, it is how you interpret them. It is not what they say about themselves. They are a failure in their own propaganda. They do not know how to say things, but there is an elite that coaches them and says this is how they will lead the region from the, you know, ‘old times’ and they will push back against Al Qaeda. We know that narrative that the defenders of the Muslim Brotherhood in this city and elsewhere [promote]. We know it to the details. It is not even a secret.

The idea is that the Muslim Brotherhood or the Salafists and, of course, the Iranian branch on the other hand are those revolutionary forces that are going to be changing the region and moving forward. They have some problems, but we can bypass that. That is the essence, today, of the administration’s strategic view of the Middle East. ‘Maybe we can work with those [Muslim Brotherhood activists],’ and they are doing it. They are convinced this is the truth.

Two, [looking at] the authoritarian regimes in the region, some are against us (Saddam Qaddafi). We could either turn them around or turn them down or bring them down, and those who are with us, such as Mubarak and Ben Ali, and of course, the monarchs. And the issue is going to be that in this region we need to have strategic, long-term partners. The monarchs and the moderates will be there as long as they can handle their societies, but in the long-term we need an organized, social force. Remember those words. You can go back to your archives and see that officials in the U.S. government have been using social forces, organizing social forces. These are words to determine who the Islamist or the Muslim Brotherhood had been.

Third, and more important here in the agenda-setting, was that civil society, seculars and democrats or secular democrats are too Western. Did you hear that? I am sure you did. In the pushback by our elites against the very people that this panel and the previous panels have been trying to work with, meaning the Muslim reformers, Middle Eastern reformers, Arab reformers and dissidents, the accusation against them – right, Tawfik? – the accusation against them is that they are too Westernized and they, you know, they will represent the face of America.

Now, the 33 million Egyptians who walk the streets of Egypt, on June 30 and again on July 26, blasted the theory to the end. No, that is not true. They want exactly what we want, but they do not control the resources to get where we [are], not exactly in terms of each country. Each nation has its own cultural coloration, of course, but the driving forces in those regions, within societies, even and – I am arguing something that many of my colleagues would push back against me – even the non-educated have compulsion, have instincts, and those instincts are always rising when they see a voice that is freed and democratic and secularizing. They will push against those authoritarian ideas.

So, with these three points, the U.S. strategy in the region after 9/11 was divided in two. The first one, under the Bush administration, obviously, was that we liberate and then we provoke the return of democracy [in] Iraq, Afghanistan, and other instances. The second, the messaging, we will give the opinion, the American view, we will protect the American image, and in return, we are going to see the national rise of democratic forces. Everything should be by the book, automatic.

Now, what happened in reality, according to my view is that one, the intention at the top was fine, was going in the right direction. I looked at the speeches, I heard the speeches as you did. You know between ’01 and ’09 the speeches were going in the right direction. The problem has been that the bureaucracy did not walk the walk of the administration, the actual bureaucracy. Now, who is sitting in the bureaucracy? Those who are sitting in the bureaucracy, the ideas sitting in the bureaucracy are influenced by the academic elites.

Now, there is a whole discussion about our media, the U.S.-funded media. The [question] about it is why we were at [this] Golden Age [moment with] an opportunity to reach out to these civil societies, to these democracy forces, to these minorities. We [did not reach out] because that media, even under the Bush administration, was not going in the right direction of its own narrative, of the narrative of the President and of the majority of Congress until 2006.

The messaging, for example, especially the Arab broadcasts and the Persian broadcasts – we got reactions from the region. People, dissidents, were calling us. What is wrong with Al Hurra? What is wrong with Sawa? What is wrong with Radio Farda? What is wrong with the Persian and the other services of the VOA? They were not complaining about music to me or about stories, they were complaining about the actual message in the news.

How come we have Hamas’ version [of events] aired by your U.S.-funded media? How come Sayyid Nasrallah, Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah, is walking and talking and beaming out of your media, and our dissident leaders are not? We have never heard Copts out of Al Hurra, Al Sawa, or the other networks or even VOA. I mean we may have heard one time. [They did this] instead of following the VOA strategy during the Cold War, where the focus was on Eastern European and Central European dissidents, and Lech Wałęsa and Václav Havel, and all the dissidents of the Soviet Union. That was why VOA was created. We did not have that after 9/11 even though we had liberated two spots in the Middle East. And the rest I will let my colleague deal with.

Now, the problem – last point here is that as of 2009, what was a contradiction between the line of the administration in engaging and the line of the bureaucracy, we have emerged between the administration and the bureaucracy in going absolutely in the other direction, and that was very clear. First interview after the election of President Obama was with Al Arabiya. [His] talking points, basically, [were] we are wrong, you are right, we are going to change that, we are going to change our policy. When someone, when a politician, a leader or an elite says to the other side of the world, we are wrong, we are colonialists, we are imposing on you, and even the concept of democracy is wrong for you, that is what Harvard and Georgetown are saying then, of course, you are going to have a visibility given to the forces in the region that are Islamist, and they are armed, exposing that issue.

And then we have, of course, in June of 2009, the very famous speech or remarks made about the rise of the Green Revolution in Iran. I do not need to go back to the details. That was an important direction for the policy to come. The speech in Cairo was an important speech because it told us already what position [Obama held] with regard [to what a] potential Arab Spring was going to be. It was already done in Cairo. Some among you have [written] about this issue.

And, indeed, when the first wave – and here I may have a lot of different points of view with my friends and colleagues in our circles. I have always argued that the Muslim Brotherhood were preparing for events, but did not initiate those events, and we could have a panel on this. Those who initiated those events where the weakest elements of civil societies in the Middle East, and the evidence is the Muslim Brotherhood have been there for 80 years. They have tried and tried and tried and tried. How many armed uprisings have they done? Many. They failed.

But when weak civil society, Facebook, YouTube, groups in Tunisia and Egypt, a bit of Libya, but also the beginning of Syria started, what has happened is that the international community (because this was civil society) extended an umbrella. It is feasible, it is permissible, especially in Cairo Tahrir Square. When the umbrella was extended, now you can expect what would happen later, the Brotherhood came in, the most organized came in, and the rest is history as you know it.

The seizure of Egypt, of Tunisia with An-Nahda, half of Libya at least with the Salafists, and of what is happening in Syria today. In less than a minute because my time is up, it is done, I would like to make a large couple of recommendations. Number one, there needs to be a fundamental change in the policy direction. We cannot nibble and try and do tactics with the current direction of U.S. policy. It is not going to work. I tried. I tested. I wish we had different results in November. We would have been doing something else now, not yet successful, but would have been in different fears.

There needs to be a strategic change of direction, and it is inescapable. It will have to be done first in Congress, and second with the administration, this administration or the next one, and I am not reinventing the wheel. And last, we need to partner with civil society, which is what this panel is all about. Thank you so much.