Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pham the Sham and the Sahrawis

Recently, a very creepy character by the name of J. Peter Pham has been spearheading a media assault on the rights of the Western Saharans. After his entrance into the debate on the future of the territory with an article in the World Defense Review (June 11, 2008) titled Western Sahara: Time to Move Ahead, Realistically, he has continued with a steady stream of pro-Morocco and anti-Polisario articles with revealing titles such as Moroccan Exceptionalism? and Why Morocco Must Stay . His strenuous arguments in favor of Morocco’s autonomy plan for the region follow closely the royalist party line: the Western Sahara has always been Moroccan, the referendum never took place because the parties could never agree on things, Western Saharan independence is not realistic because it is too small, too poor, and would be a failed state, the Polisario has Al Qaeda sympathies, Moroccan hegemony over the region is essential for the war against terrorism, the autonomy plan is a wonderful compromise. Same ‘ol stuff. His genuflection before the Moroccan monarch is so servile one would think he is auditioning for the Commander Alouite. It is not hard to understand how he has become perhaps the most quoted source by the pro-Morocco crowd.
Pham’s thing is clearly the failed state/war on terrorism argument. He makes only a half-hearted attempt to justify Moroccan invasion and occupation historically, and international law is just of no concern to him (he never even mentions the International Court of Justice opinion). His point of view boils down to the following:
... given the importance to the United States and its allies of a stable and secure Maghreb, the compromise of autonomy offered by Morocco—reasonably located between complete assimilation into the Sharifian Kingdom and total independence—is the only realistic course. With no arable land to speak of and only the barest of natural resources, an independent Western Sahara would be an instantaneous failed state. Its prospective population of less than 200,000—that is, those Moroccans (including Sahrawis) who didn't opt for the more promising prospects of life in Morocco and abandon the territory before any independence—would thus be among the poorest and least economically viable people in the world.
Predictably, Pham offers up little or no evidence to back up his assertion that the Western Sahara would be “an instantaneous failed state” whose population would be “among the poorest and least economically viable people in the world.” Stephen Zunes and Jacob Mundy in their illuminating recent book, Western Sahara: War, Nationalism, and Conflict Irresolution, estimate earnings from the Western Saharan fishing and phosphate sectors alone at upwards of three-quarters of a billion dollars. Pham’s “evidence” from his 2008 article that the phosphate sector “has seen its price continue to plummet to below half of what it was only a year ago” completely ignores the huge run-up in phosphate prices since 2006 which currently still leaves the phosphate price several times higher than the 2000-2006 average. Furthermore, if you can believe on-line advertisements for wind-surfing vacations on the Western Saharan coast, there is tourism potential. Last but not least, Morocco continues to believe that there is oil under the Western Sahara, and solar energy potential appears limitless. The economic viability of an independent Western Sahara is clearly far greater than Mr. Pham is willing to admit.
So who the hell is this J. Peter Pham? A bio from the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, where he his is Senior Fellow and Director of the Africa Project, reads as follows:

Dr. Pham is currently on leave from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where he is tenured as Associate Professor of Justice Studies, Political Science and Africana Studies and served as Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs. He is also nonresident Senior Fellow for Africa Policy Studies at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C., and has been part of the adjunct faculty of the SubSaharan African Studies Program at the U.S. Air Force Special Operations School, Hurlburt Field, Florida and a Research Fellow at the Institute for Infrastructure and Information Assurance, a National Security Agency Center of Academic Excellence.
A specialist on U.S. foreign and defense policy, African politics and security, and terrorism and political violence, Dr. Pham is the author of over three hundred essays and reviews and the author, editor, or translator of over a dozen books. He also writes a weekly column on African security issues and American interests, “Strategic Interests,” which is distributed by the World Defense Review, and contributes to a number of online publications, including National Interest Online and Dr. Pham has appeared in various media outlets, including CBS, PBS, CBC, SABC, VOA, CNN, the Fox News Channel, MSNBC, National Public Radio, the BBC, Radio France Internationale, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, USA Today, Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The Weekly Standard, New Statesman, and Maclean’s.
Dr. Pham has testified before the U.S. Congress on a number of occasions – most recently on June 25, 2009 – and conducted briefings or consulted for U.S. and foreign governments as well as private firms. In 2005, he served as member of the U.S. Agency for International Developmentfunded International Republican Institute (IRI) delegation monitoring the national elections in Liberia. He also served on the IRI preelection assessment (2006) and election observation (2007) delegations to Nigeria. In May 2008, at the invitation of General William E. “Kip” Ward, he gave the keynote address at the first Senior Leaders Conference of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) in Mainz, Germany.
Dr. Pham is the incumbent Vice President of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), an academic organization chaired by Professor Bernard Lewis and representing over 750 scholars of Middle Eastern and African Studies at more than three hundred colleges and universities in the United States and overseas.
Dr. Pham was the winner of the 2008 Nelson Mandela International Prize for African Security and Development presented by the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) for Defense and Security Studies, the Brenthurst Foundation, and the Nelson Mandela Foundation.

On first reading this, I have to admit to being somewhat intimidated by the shear weightiness of these credentials. Furthermore, I just couldn’t figure out how I had never even heard of the guy before he came out with his Western Sahara article in 2008 – especially since I too consider myself somewhat of an africanist. Pham’s institutional affiliations give us an idea of where he is coming from.

The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) where he is a Senior Fellow is described by Sourcewatch as “a neoconservative think tank that claims to conduct ‘research and education on international terrorism’” issues. With a strong pro-Israel/zionist orientation, its leadership Council includes Louis J. Freeh, Newt Gingrich, Bill Kristol, and Joseph Lieblerman and Board of Advisors Richard Perle, Gary Bauer, and Charles Krauthammer. One critical assessment of the FDD pegs it as “one of the most influential and powerful of the Zionist lobbies which changed its name and sprung into action immediately after 9-11.” For an interesting description of the marriage of convenience between the Israel and Morocco lobbies, I refer you to Morocco and AIPAC -- What They Have in Common from the blog Milfuegos.

Pham’s vice-presidency of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) puts him in the company of popular author and scholar of Islam and the Middle East and Chair of the organization, Bernard Lewis, who is described by Western Sahara historian, Stephen Zunes, as a “notorious genocide-denier” (for his work on the Ottoman Empire and the Armenians). Perhaps genocide denial has a place in this discussion, given Professor Pham’s desire to have the Sahrawis turned over to the Moroccan crown for disposal. What makes Pham’s background even more fascinating, however, is another bio, this one from 1997:

John-Peter Pham, a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Peoria, Illinois, is a fellow of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. He is the editor of upcoming volume, "Centesimus Annus": Assessment and Perspectives for the Future of Catholic Social Doctrine, and served as the co-moderator of the International Congress on Social Doctrine in Rome (1997), sponsored by the Acton Institute and the Pontifical Athenaeum "Regina Apostolorum". He holds advanced ecclesiastical degrees in theology and canon law in addition to his prior studies in economics at the University of Chicago, where he wrote his thesis on The Declining Labor Force Participation of Older Americans since 1970 under the direction of Dr. D. Gale Johnson and for which he was awarded the Donnelly Prize for 1990.

First of all, from photos attached to this bio, it is clear that John-Peter Pham and J. Peter Pham are indeed the same person. He apparently, decided to alter his name a bit during the 2000’s. His transformation from a Roman Catholic priest in 1997 to academic and africanist is, indeed, fascinating. In August 2004, Pham joined the faculty of James Madison University (JMU). Biographical information from the JMU website fills in many of the gaps in this transformation:

Before coming to JMU, Pham held various diplomatic appointments through the Vatican Secretariat of State, including serving as the interim head of the diplomatic mission mediating the regional conflict in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone from 2001-02. He was acting deputy chief of mission at the Vatican Embassy in the Philippines in 2000 after a five-year tenure as counselor to the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the Vatican office in charge of human political, economic and social rights.
Pham apparently caught the Africa bug while serving in the Vatican diplomatic service (talking about Neanderthal institutional affiliations) in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, and by 2004 he was ready to turn in his priestly garb for academic tweed. His book on Papal succession that year seems to be the last of his religious writings, and with his appointment to JMU his subsequent work is on Africa/International affairs topics.

In the end, I find Pham’s demonization of the Polisario, denigration of Western Saharan nationalism, and glorification of Morocco highly suspicious, given his sympathetic treatment of some of the other self-determination cases in Africa – most notably South Sudan and Somaliland. His attempts to rewrite Western Sahara history to justify Morocco’s invasion and occupation only reinforce my suspicions. His willingness to ignore the Western Sahara’s clear-cut case for self-determination under international law in the name of some ill-defined and nebulous drivel about viability and political realism makes it hard to see him as anything more than an apologist for Moroccan expansionism
And again, I can’t help but find J. Peter Pham incredibly creepy. It’s just that neo-con/zionist-aligned pontificating papists-turned-africanists who have gone through mid-life name changes and choose to vilify the most deserving national liberation movement on the planet totally freak me out.


  1. Merci pour cette brillante démystification et cette recherche sérieuse.

  2. Pues mirar este post