Mark Tooley interviews Providence co-founder Robert Nicholson, chief of the Philos Project, which helps American Christians address Mideast issues thoughtfully, theologically, and positively.

Nicholson talks about the recent calamity in Beirut and its impact on Lebanon’s politics, about the Koch/Soros-backed Quincy Institute’s advocacy for US strategic withdrawal from the Mideast, and why Christians should prudently support constructive American Mideast engagement despite countless mishaps. From a Christian Realist perspective, alternatives may be worse.

You’ll appreciate Nicholson’s nuanced analysis.

Rough Transcript of the Conversation:

TOOLEY: Hello, this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence, A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy, and today I have the pleasure of talking to my co-founder of Providence, Robert Nicholson, who is the chief and also founder of the Philos Project, which is a program encouraging Christian engagement with Mideast issues, friendship with Israel, and advocacy on behalf of persecuted Christians. So Robert, good to talk with you again; it’s been too long.

NICHOLSON: I’m very happy to be in this chair, Mark. I’ve been watching some of these interviews you’ve done, and I have to say I’m in distinguished company, even numbered among your so-called enemies. I love, by the way, how you’ve been reaching out to your ideological sparring partners and getting them on this show, it’s actually really cool. I don’t see many people doing that these days.

TOOLEY: Well if you have any adversaries you’d like me to talk to, please feel free to suggest anyone.


TOOLEY: Robert, I only briefly described Philos, but give us a little bit of a more elaborate explanation of what you all are.

NICHOLSON: Sure, so Philos was founded in 2014, not long before the founding of Providence, and the mission is to promote positive Christian engagement in the near east. We’re a Christian organization, broadly ecumenical. People from different backgrounds, different Christian backgrounds, join Philos. And all of them are united in interest in the Middle East spiritually, but also in terms of practical action. Especially among young Christians these days, a generation that’s grown up with only the memory of Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a real feeling of helplessness in the face of what seems like intractable problems—the Syrian refugee crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, everything that’s happening with Turkey—and I think there’s a real feeling of defeatism, that there is nothing we can do, just sort of let it go, leave, walk away. And then you have the opposite extreme, which is sort of the, I would say, the naive approach, that everything’s our fault, and this place is just misunderstood, and if we had the right people leading, we could sort of lock arms and be friends forever. And what Philos is trying to do is to create a third way, essentially, to show people what’s happening in the region, to introduce them, often physically, by bringing them on trips to different parts of the region to what’s really happening. And it’s something we’ve tried to do in Providence, is to talk about the reality. There’s a lot of images of what the Near East is, about Israel, about Arabs, whatever it may be. So we try to bring people there to see it, so that not only can they be renewed in their faith—which is something that almost always happens when people go over there—but also that they see how they can engage in real time. So we bring leaders, we bring future leaders; we’re trying to really build this bridge of connection between the two.

And we have people also—last thing I’ll say—as we build this community of American leaders, future leaders, we’re also, at the same time, using that community to support people on the ground in these countries. That’s the model; we befriend people on the ground who share our values, our vision, people who, unlike us, can actually change their societies and impact them as locals. So we have advocacy fellows, we have research fellows, and they’re in different countries around the region. And we support them in lots of different ways. They have humanitarian projects, educational projects. They’re Palestinians, Arabs, Jews. And our idea is that we sort of build a community here, build a community there, and that the two sides can help each other.

So it’s almost six years now, we’ve had a lot of success, a lot of failure, in some cases. And we see ourselves as very much like, you could say, a startup. We try to create new ways of engagement, to work with new communities. A lot of people think, “Israel—Evangelicals.” And that’s true, we work with a lot of Evangelicals, and Protestants more broadly, but we also work with Catholics, and Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox, and we have special programs with the African American community, the Latino American community, and we’re just trying things. We know there’s something there, the power of Jerusalem, the power of this region, the fact that our faith and so much that we value comes from this place, that we want to figure out, what are the new ways to engage with the region? And I think that most people assume, “Oh, well of course we want to help them.” And it’s true that a big part of what we do is trying to help people over there, but there’s this other part of it that many people forget, which is that, in a time when faith here in the West is declining, and one could argue even collapsing, in so many different ways, this reconnection actually will help us as much as it helps the people over there. And so I always say, that if revival does come to this country, I believe it will come through this kind of reconnection, reestablishing relations with the place and the people from which our faith and our values come.

TOOLEY: And Philos, of course is an explicitly Christian organization, but it does not subscribe to any particular, specific theology relating to Israel. So you are not dispensationalist, for example. You are ecumenically Christian, if I understand correctly.

NICHOLSON: That’s right. I think a lot of people assume that there’s a creed, a theological or eschatological creed behind what we do, and we always say, of course, the Nicene Creed is kind of a baseline for all of us. But beyond that, certainly when it comes to Israel, which is always the elephant in the room, even on our staff there are a variety of approaches. Some of them theological, some of them more moral, or cultural, or historical. And we think that’s good, because this conversation about this region shouldn’t be limited only to Israel, and certainly shouldn’t only be limited to some very narrow theological school that actually doesn’t resonate with all kinds of different people. So it’s a big tent. There are boundaries on the tent, but within that, there’s tons and tons of diversity.

TOOLEY: So obviously the big news out of the Middle East in recent days is the calamity in Beirut. So what is your perspective on Lebanon politically at this point? The government has just resigned; is there any hope as Lebanon seems to be spiraling?

NICHOLSON: That’s a great question, is there any hope? Well, on my dark days, I think no, but you caught me on a good day, so I’ll say yes. I do think there’s hope. I think this is a very unique country—and some people seeing this may know more or less—but Lebanon is very unique in the region, even among Arab countries, in that it’s the closest thing—I always say—to a Christian country in the region. About thirty, forty percent of the population are Christian. It’s established more or less in a very Christian part of the region. Many Christians, after the Arab conquests, fled to the mountain that is Lebanon, and they hid there, just like people did in Armenia in the mountains of Southeastern Turkey. And this community had de facto autonomy for centuries. And they’ve been there. There’s a very rich Christian culture, a big diversity of Christian culture there. The Maronites are the biggest, but you have all these other Christian groups. Almost all of them from the region are represented. And I think it’s unique also in that it maintains, and has maintained, for a very long time, strong relationships with the West. So on one hand, it’s very Arab, you might say, or very Near Eastern, but at the same time, it feels very Western. And that’s unusual for the countries over there. It’s a new country, like most of them, established formally in the twentieth century. And it’s had some great years and even some great decades, certainly toward the middle part of the twentieth century, it was known as the Paris of the Middle East, particularly Beirut. And it prospered; a lot of banking went and continues to go through Beirut, lot of publishing; Beirut was a publishing hub. In addition to that, it was and remains an educational hub. The American University of Beirut was established by Protestant missionaries and has gone on to become the most important educational institution in that part of the world.

And yet, it is deeply dysfunctional. It has been for at least thirty years, arguably more. And the dysfunction stems from the makeup of the country. It is not only diverse in terms of Christian sects, but also in terms of sects in general. So you have Christians, but you also have Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, and you have a Druze community, which really doesn’t fit any of those boxes. And the way the country works, to make it very basic, is that these groups have established a power sharing arrangement. It’s a confessional system, where the President has to be Christian, the Prime Minister has to be Sunni, the Speaker of the parliament has to be Shia. And it’s worked—sort of—for a while, but the civil war that broke out in the 1970s and continued into the eighties really just shattered the country, and shattered the country’s sense of confidence, in some sense, undermined its sense of identity, and created, really, a series of billiard balls, each community fending for itself, trying to get as much of the pie as possible, and not really feeling a truly Lebanese identity. Now, this is a very big generalization, but it’s true.

Now, the last couple of months, you’ve seen some protests where people from different groups are saying, “We’re all Lebanese, we need to stand together in this moment of crisis.” But, by and large, all of these divisions in society make it inherently fragile as a political system. On top of that is the fact that Lebanon has been deeply affected by regional power dynamics. So, it was occupied by Syria for years; the Syrians were finally kicked out in 2005 in the Cedar Revolution. But, through Iran’s proxy Hezbollah, Lebanon has been occupied in a very tangible sense by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Since the eighties, certainly the nineties, this terrorist organization has more or less held this country hostage. And as the Western powers pulled back a bit, they were allowed to flourish, and to grow, and to sort of sink their tentacles ever deeper into the society.

So this explosion that happened this past week is just kind of the cherry on top. And this was a country already, really for years, sliding toward the abyss. Now facing this massive humanitarian disaster, which, in some sense, is almost anticlimactic. A lot of people have been spinning conspiracy theories about the Israelis being behind it, the Americans being behind it—there’s all of this—but it looks like it is just, at this point, a case of pure negligence. Which would fit with the overall pattern of this deeply dysfunctional state. They’ve had a sanitation crisis for years; the state can’t take out the garbage, literally. And now you have these explosive chemicals, stored for years and years. And there were pictures that came out about how they were stored, just thrown into a room. And everything that came about was the result of just mismanagement. Now it appears like Hezbollah also had a role to play, but at this point you don’t even need Hezbollah to make this just a terrible story of a state on the brink of collapse. It’s a massive financial crisis.

Now I say all of that, and you might come back at me and say, “Well okay, so what’s the positive here again?” The positive is that this part of the region has been a—not to be too cliché—but like a source of enlightenment, you might say. The publishing, the education, the relative amount of coexistence, certainly compared to other parts of the region, are definitely unique. The role of the Maronite church in particular has been deeply responsible for that state of affairs. And within that church, but even within the broader Lebanese community, beyond the Christian sector, you find a certain—how can I say—you find a very familiar sensibility inside the country for someone like me, coming from the United States. Walking around Lebanon, you feel that there’s a connection; there’s some kind of shared value, shared mentality, that is much more palpable than maybe in other parts of the region. Now Israel is a unique case; we can maybe exclude that. But go to Egypt or Iraq, there’s certain commonalities—we’re all people, we’re all humans—but in terms of culture, you often feel like this is a very different culture. Lebanon has that as well—it certainly has a unique culture—but because of the Christian connection between the country and between me as an American, there’s something there that I think needs to be supported. The state has the raw materials and has demonstrated over the years that it is a place where all of these triangles touch, this is a place where good things can happen, but until now, since the civil war etc., etc., this country really hasn’t had the chance to do what it was, you could say, intended to do. So personally, I think this is a very complex case.

Forgive me if I’m being simplistic, but I think the US needs to engage more, not less. Now there’s a smart way to engage, and a stupid way to engage. The stupid way is just to throw money at the state, which is riddled with corruption, and nepotism, and everything that you can imagine. The smart way is to use this moment as a way of expanding US influence from the bottom up. And there are people in government who are saying such things, and that gives me a little hope as well.

TOOLEY: So in some ways, you could argue that Lebanon’s problems, not exclusively of course, but date in part to the West withdrawal from Lebanon over the last thirty years, certainly for the US since the bombing of the marine facility in the early 1980s, compared to where the US was in earlier decades. And on that point of US withdrawal, if I could ask you about this latest report from the Quincy Institute, which is a foreign policy collaboration between the Koch brothers and George Soros’s philanthropy. And this latest report, in sync with their overall messaging of US military and strategic withdrawal from the world, advocates a US further stepping back from the Mideast. What is your reaction to that kind of proposal?

NICHOLSON: Well, that’s a that’s a good question. And I read that report and felt a little concerned, mainly because it resonates. This is a position that is actually one of the few things these days that is shared between people on the right and people on the left. This feeling that America is doing too much, we’re stretched too thin, we have our fingers in pies that don’t belong to us, and in the meantime, there’s really nothing good that we’re doing in the world anyway. So, let’s pull back. We have enough problems, especially these days, in 2020, there’s nothing that could be more terrifying to many Americans than to say that, “Hey, we’re going to do more stuff in the Near East; we’re thinking about doubling down on our commitments there.”

So, I’ll start answering your question by saying that there are things about this report, and maybe this project more broadly, that I agree with. I think probably many Americans agree. You probably agree with some of it as well. I think, for example, that it’s true that we’ve probably spent too much money and energy patrolling the region, at least these last few years, and our interests don’t necessarily require that. I would agree that the invasion of Iraq was probably a mistake. I would probably agree with some concerns about Afghanistan—a much more just cause I think after September 11th, but one that almost twenty years later, is getting a little long in the tooth. I’d agree that support for autocratic regimes, or at least complicity with or tolerance of dictatorships in the Near East is problematic. I agree that we should protect our interests as Americans first and foremost, obviously that’s a cardinal rule of any nation state. And I do think that people there should do more of the heavy lifting.

But all of those agreements almost don’t matter, because there are some fundamental problems with this region that don’t really depend on our engagement or disengagement. This region has been conflicted, let’s say, before we became engaged with it. I think many Americans forget, or they’ve been led to forget, that we were not imperialistic in the same way that Britain and France were. We didn’t make the Sykes-Pico agreement; we didn’t try to create mandates. In fact, we were—a lot of people don’t know this—the Syrians, under would-be king Faisal, expressed to a UN commission sent to the region after the war, after World War II, to figure out how to solve some of these problems. The nascent Arab kingdom of Syria expressed to that commission the desire that America would take the mandate for Syria, that America would actually become an imperial power, that we would come in and sort things out, because the idea was that we would be more of an honest broker than the British of the French. And what did we do? We declined that. We’ve never been the kind of state that seeks these kinds of power arrangements. Now it has been true that in history, we’ve taken control—sovereignty in some cases—over certain areas. But it’s not a driving force of our foreign policy, it never has been. So, in some sense, it’s not unusual that Americans want to pull back or to stop being so involved in something; it’s sort of in our nature.

But if you read this report from Quincy, you’ll see that there is, implicit throughout the document, a belief that diplomacy, that talking, that reasoning, will always lead to some sort of better outcome. It is prominent throughout the report. Talk to Iran, talk to everybody, with no conditions. There was a recent report that came out, I believe today or yesterday, from one of their authors about talking to Bashar al-Assad. Now, these are all case-by-case policy questions: should we do this, should we do that? I think there are good arguments for some of those. But to make that a cornerstone of a foreign policy approach, that diplomacy always will work, I think neglects the fact that diplomacy only works when it is backed by power. This is foreign policy 101. And you don’t really get that from the document.

And I think it’s because the document is sort of swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction, from the Bush freedom agenda, this more expansionist, “Let’s bring our ideas to this region and help them adopt them and implement them,” to a, “Look, let them do the work, and we’ll talk to them, and we’ll reason with them. They can figure it out on their own.” I think we’ve been a little bit too prescriptive in the way that we talk about some of the regimes over there, but I don’t think it’s true that everything will just be sorted out by them, or by them in conversation with us. It’s naïve, it’s very gullible, to think that the Islamic Republic of Iran can engage in negotiations with us, and do so in good faith, and in a way that will lead to a good outcome. Because we’ve tried that. We’ve seen what Iran does when it’s in negotiations with the United States. They may walk their positions back on some matters, but on others they do the opposite. This is what we saw under Barack Obama. I think Barack Obama had an idea, and it made sense to some people, “Let’s try a different tactic.” And while it may have succeeded in some ways on one front, on the other, we saw Iran expanding all over the region. The foothold they have today in Iraq, Syria, and in Lebanon, is much stronger because of that space that we gave them. And while it’s true that the United States should not be so militarily invested in the region, it’s silly to think that us pulling out is not going to leave a massive sucking sound right in the middle of the region that will be filled with the Russians, the Chinese, take your pick. Or Iran, just expanding more. And what happens is, when—this is I think true for the region historically; we could go way back, talking thousands of years, to see that when there is not some great power serving as a guarantor of the regional order, the people in the region, who are incredibly diverse and variegated in their ethnicity and religion, take matters into their own hands. And so the region, by definition, becomes more chaotic. That’s what we saw in Lebanon during the seventies and eighties. And eventually, someone will come in to guarantee order. And if it’s not us, it’s someone else.

Now, I always tell people, “But for the Iraq war, our commitment in this region is actually not as big as you think it is, either in terms of troops, or in terms of treasure, or in terms of whatever metric you want.” It happens to be more prominent in our minds, I think probably for almost mythical historical reasons, but I won’t get into that. But it’s actually not that much of a drain on us, as it currently stands. We have some good partners in the region; we work through alliances; we’ve chosen not to get involved in the Syrian civil war. Now we’ve seen that under both Republican and Democrat administrations. I think that we’ve actually, in the last few years, made some decent decisions from the perspective of someone at the Quincy Institute. But you wouldn’t know that by reading the report. It seems like we have hundreds of thousands of troops stationed all over the region and we’re getting into all of these wars, and I’m just not sure where they’re getting that.

If anything, we’re probably doing too little, to be quite honest. I think that there is more that could be done. Now I’m a big fan, and I’ve written for Providence about limited engagement, a strategy of limited engagement, which I think dovetails with a Christian realist world view. It’s not to say that we have to do everything, but it’s also not to say that we do nothing. There’s ways to do things in the middle, being smart about the decisions we make, the places where we demonstrate power. And in a place like, for example, Turkey, we find President Erdogan, who lies at the center of so many fights, not only in the region, but also in Europe. I think we should take a much stronger approach. We are, I think at this point, tolerating antics that are absolutely over the line. And I can probably name ten of them right now. And yet he’s there, and he’s somehow an ally. And for people at Quincy to say, “You know what, do less. Just talk to Erdogan, we’ll reach reasonable agreements that are in everyone’s interest,” I think is a little foolish. And what’s going to happen is that these powers, which right now don’t seem that big, will continue to grow. And people are waiting for us to pull out, they’re hoping that we do. And I think that anybody who takes that position, although they’re starting from a very natural place, feeling that pain of the Iraq war, they need to think much more carefully about the costs versus benefits. And I think right now, the benefits far outweigh the costs.

TOOLEY: Robert Nicholson, chief of the Philos Project, thank you for a very insightful overview of the Mideast, about which hopefully you’ll be submitting an article to Providence very soon.

NICHOLSON: No doubt, thank you Mark.