Bush’s Inaction Over General’s Islam Remarks Riles Two Faiths
More than a month has passed since the disclosure that a fundamentalist Christian policymaker at the Pentagon had disparaged Muslims for worshipping idols.
Yet to U.S. diplomats charged with selling America to the Arab world, the remarks by Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin are an albatross they cannot seem to shake.
“I get calls from officials in Arab countries every day about Boykin,” said James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute. “They are stunned nothing has happened.”
While the Pentagon investigates Boykin’s remarks, the passage of time is turning the episode into a no-win dilemma for the Bush administration, pitting its need to reach out to the Arab world against the sentiments of fundamentalist Christians, who form a core constituency heading into an election year.
Both camps are livid about the White House response to Boykin’s remarks -- President Bush has distanced himself but has not taken any steps to remove him -- and profess amazement that the matter has not yet been resolved in their favor.
The battle over Boykin shows a Bush administration torn between its policy imperatives and its political interests -- a White House hoping the controversy will fade away, or maybe that Boykin will.
In an administration where the president himself is a born-again Christian, punishing believers does not come naturally.
“There’s a school of thought that says the whole thing may die down and you can ignore it, but that’s just the domestic side. It doesn’t take the impact in the Middle East into account,” said an official who recently left the Bush administration.
“Boykin has to retire. This is a situation where the guy has to ask himself, ‘Can I help the administration more by staying or by leaving?’ That’s a hard thing to do, but he’s got to do it.”
In speeches to Christian groups around the country, Boykin, often in uniform, has said that radical Muslims hate the United States “because we’re a Christian nation ... and the enemy is a guy named Satan.” He also said that in dealing with a warlord during the U.S. operation in Somalia in 1993, “I knew that my god was a real god and his was an idol.”
The Pentagon, at Boykin’s request, is looking into whether the general, who was recently named deputy Defense undersecretary for intelligence, violated any regulations with his remarks.
Whatever the outcome of the inspector general’s investigation, the effect on the Middle East has been tumultuous.
A top official who is part of the U.S. team trying to win hearts and minds in the Arab world was traveling in the Middle East when news of Boykin’s remarks broke.
“It was the worst day of my life,” recalled the official, who asked not to be named. “It confirmed their conspiracy theory that the war on terrorism is really a war on Islam.”
Officially, the State Department says it is not lobbying for Boykin’s dismissal. But privately, one high-ranking State Department official told visiting Arab leaders that the administration should have fired Boykin at the first opportunity because he “helps Osama bin Laden’s recruitment efforts.”
Arab leaders are furious at the lack of action and believe it is evidence of a double standard in which Bush rebuked the president of Malaysia for anti-Semitic remarks but said little about Boykin’s.
And fundamentalist Christians are angry that Boykin is not being applauded.
Many military officers who served with the oft-decorated Boykin in Bosnia and other hot spots are also rallying to his defense.
“Anything that looks like punishment or reprimand will turn off, disappoint and demoralize a certain percentage of the president’s base that he is going to desperately need a year from now,” said Gary L. Bauer, chairman of the Campaign for Working Families, a conservative political action committee.
“I’ve heard nothing but outrage that Gen. Boykin has been treated this way. The Islamicists say we are to be killed because we are infidels. We can’t win a war unless we understand what it’s about,” Bauer said.
Boykin is not the first U.S. figure affiliated with the Bush administration or the Republican leadership whose rhetoric poisoned relations with the Arab world.
Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft, a devout believer who composes Christian songs, was quoted by conservative columnist Cal Thomas as saying, “Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you.” Arab and Muslim groups were furious and called for Bush to fire Ashcroft.
In a letter mailed to Muslim and Arab American groups, Ashcroft aides said the remarks “do not accurately reflect the attorney general’s views.”
And House Majority Leader Tom Delay of Texas, on the eve of a trip to the region, said he doubted the Middle East is ready for a Palestinian state.
“I can’t imagine this president supporting a state of terrorists,” he told the New York Times, another remark that angered Arabs. “You’d have to change almost an entire generation’s culture.”
When Bush welcomed Arab leaders to the White House last month for the annual iftar dinner that breaks the day’s fast during Ramadan, he did not mention the Boykin case in his public remarks. But when he sat down at the head table for dinner, he heard a mouthful.
“I sat across the table from him and he looked me in the eyes and I told him [the president] that statements by public officials like this general do not serve amity between the Muslim world and the West,” said Dr. Ziad J. Asali, president of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine. Bush replied as he has in public, telling Asali that Boykin’s views are neither his nor those of his administration.
Some critics say they are not gunning for Boykin’s dismissal, but rather his removal from a position of such sensitivity in the Arab world.
Among other things, he helps oversee the hunt for Al Qaeda’s Bin Laden and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
“You can even promote him to general in charge of counting shoes for Third Infantry Division if you want,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council of American Islamic Relations.
Then again, it might be too late to undo the damage.
“You can spend all the money you want on public diplomacy but at the end of the day, it’s what we do, not the image we try to project,” said Zogby of the Arab American Institute. “What he said is absolutely awful, and Arabs I talk to are having trouble understanding why we just don’t get how hurtful this is.”
Some argue that Boykin should not be punished for expressing his personal religious views in a church setting.
But if nothing else, the Boykin case demonstrates that there is no such thing as a private speech by a public official. After Boykin spoke to church groups in Oregon, Oklahoma and Florida, the reports of his comments bounced off the walls in places like Bahrain, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
“Everybody in the Middle East pays attention to the news now. They’re all hooked up to satellite television and car radios,” said Harold C. Pachios, a Portland, Ore., attorney who serves on the State Department’s Advisory Commission for Public Diplomacy.
“If you took a poll in the United States, you might get 1% who know who Gen. Boykin is and what he said. If you took a poll anywhere in the Islamic world, a majority would know,” Pachios said.
“And they would believe that he was speaking for the U.S. government.”