L’Affaire Boykin

The bizarre comments of Lt. General William Boykin have ignited a firestorm. Boykin, who serves as Deputy Undersecretary of Defense, has, it was recently revealed, made a number of public speeches displaying a decidedly religious fundamentalist mindset.

On one occasion, for example, he described the war on terrorism as "a spiritual battle. Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army."

On another occasion he noted that, "America is still a Christian nation…[other nations] have lost their morals, lost their values…George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States…he was appointed by God…He’s in the White House because God put him there."

When describing his efforts to stop a Somali warlord, who was Muslim, Boykin said that he was confident of victory because, "Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol."

Because the United States is engaged not only in a war on terror, but an intensive effort to engage the Muslim world through a public diplomacy campaign, Boykin’s remarks have caused real concern.

What has been surprising, however, is the degree to which this entire affair has become a partisan debate.

Almost immediately after Boykin’s comments were made public, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked whether the General would be censured or removed from his post. Rumsfeld’s response was disturbingly disingenuous.

He observed, "We’re a free people. And that’s the wonderful thing about our country…I think that for anyone to run around and think that that can be managed and controlled is probably wrong. Saddam Hussein could do it pretty well, because he’d go around killing people if they said things he didn’t like."

Even Secretary of State Colin Powell would do no more than to state that, "[Boykin] is a man of faith, and I respect his faith. But, however, as the president has said, we are not involved in a war against Islam. We are not placing our God against anyone else’s God…these kinds of expressions I don’t think reflect the president’s policy, certainly do not reflect the administration’s policy."

For his part, President Bush, when challenged by reporters to state his views about Boykin noted, "That’s why Mr. Boykin’s comments were – or General Boykin’s comments don’t reflect the administration’s comments. And by the way, there’s an IG investigation going on inside the Defense Department now about that."

What is interesting about the President’s remarks were that he appeared ready to say that the General’s comments were wrong, but then hesitated and reversed direction saying only, "He doesn’t reflect my point of view or the view of this administration. Our war is not against the Muslim faith."

Bush’s Democratic challengers were not so shy. Speaking at the Arab American Institute’s National Leadership Conference, most of the Democratic candidates had strong words for Boykin and the Administration.

Senator John Kerry, for example, noted, "Our cause in winning the war on terror isn’t helped when we have Army officers like Lieutenant General William Boykin speaking in Evangelical churches and claiming this as some sort of battle for the Christian religion. That’s wrong, that’s un-American…and Don Rumsfeld was wrong to pass up every opportunity to condemn those comments."

Senator Joseph Lieberman stated, "I was angry yesterday when I read about a lieutenant general in the American military who has repeatedly cast the war on terrorism as a clash between the Judeo-Christian values and Satan, and referred, I believe to Allah, perhaps to the Prophet, it’s not clear from his statement, as an idol. I’ve studied Islam, that’s not just wrong, that is a desecration. The war on terrorism is a war on terrorists, not on religions. The Bush administration, which has said before it understands that, needs to separate itself from anyone who says otherwise."

And Governor Howard Dean added, "Lieutenant General Boykin…ought to step down. He does not represent America. He does not represent the majority of American feelings. There is no place in America for bigotry – either anti-Islam or anti-Semitic."

In response to this entire affair, 19 Democratic members of Congress have introduced legislation that "condemns bigotry and intolerance against any religious group, including people of the Islamic faith" and seeks "to reassign Lieutenant General Boykin to a new position in which his views will not impact United States Government policy decisions toward Muslims."

What is, of course, disturbing, is the degree to which the religious right and their supporters in the Republican Party have banded together to support General Boykin. Eighteen Republican members of Congress have sent a letter to the Secretary of Defense stating that, "We ask that any actions taken in response to Lt. Gen. Boykin’s remarks not, in any way, intimidate the free religious exercise of his faith."

They have been joined by conservative columnists and television commentators who have also leapt to Boykin’s defense. I was personally stunned to find myself engaged in a number of debates with neo-conservatives and Christian fundamentalists on this issue. For any number of reasons, I would have thought that the Administration would have wanted to dispense of this affair as quickly as possible. As several editorials observed, the failure to rebuke Boykin undercuts the credibility of the President’s criticism of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed’s inflammatory remarks about Jews. It also undercuts the United States’ public diplomacy outreach to the Muslim world and exposes the United States to the charge of having a double standard. Saying that General Boykin’s remarks are not the views of the President, but allowing him to remain in his critical Pentagon post because "this is a free country" and we "respect his faith", makes a mockery of U.S. demands that other nations rebuke and remove clergy and officials who make anti-Christian or anti-Jewish remarks.

Why can’t they just say, "Boykin is wrong" and remove him? It may well be because the core vote group in today’s Republican Party shares Boykin’s views. Fundamentalist leaders like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham and Ralph Reed have said much the same. While President Bush has noted that he does not share their views-they have not been rebuked and continue to enjoy respect.