Posted on December 01, 2003 in Washington Watch

It was over one month ago that it came to light that one of the Pentagon’s top officials in the war on terror, Lt. Gen. William Boykin, had repeatedly made statements, in uniform, displaying an anti-Muslim bias.

The response was immediate and opinion quickly divided along party lines. While Democratic leaders denounced Boykin, Republicans have circled their wagons, since they were anxious to both distance themselves from the General’s views while not alienating the religious right-wing, a core group of Republican votes.

The Bush Administration is in a bind. The American people are repulsed by intolerance. They may differ on policy issues, but across party lines, most Americans do not want to see their leaders embrace bigotry in any form. That was why George W. Bush defined himself as a “compassionate conservative” and sought to portray his Party as inclusive. That was why the President acted so quickly last year to remove former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, when he was accused of making racist remarks. And that is one of the reasons why the President has continued to speak supportively about Islam as a “religion of peace.”

But the Boykin affair, in addition to the broader foreign policy implications of this controversy, presents the President with a different sort of challenge. A recent poll shows that, predictably, an overwhelming majority of Americans agree with the President that the U.S. is not engaged in a war against Islam. By a margin of five to one, almost every sector of the public supports the President’s view over the more intolerant views of Gen. Boykin. But when asked whether or not Gen. Boykin should be criticized for his views and reassigned, the margin drops considerably to only a little over two to one in favor of rebuking Boykin. While Democratic and independent voters maintain a five to one margin in opposition to the General, Republican voters are evenly divided on this question. This is due to the fact that a majority of voters who define themselves as “born again Christians” are supportive of Boykin, and this group comprises about one-fifth of Republican voters. This is a constituency that Bush must be wary of alienating.

To make this point clear, a recent article in the Los Angeles Times quoted Gary Bauer, a religious conservative leader who ran against Bush in the 2000 Republican primary contest, as saying “Anything that looks like punishment or reprimand [of Boykin] will turn off, disappoint and demoralize an certain percentage of the President’s base that he is going to desperately need a year from now. . . .I’ve heard nothing but outrage that General Boykin has been treated this way.”

With religious fundamentalists holding key posts (for example, Attorney General John Ashcroft and Congressional Majority leader Tom DeLay), or playing important roles as supporters of the Republican Administration, the Boykin controversy is even more problematic for Bush than the Trent Lott affair of 2002.

Compounding the dilemma that Boykin’s comments have created for the White House is the fact that it has widened the rift between the Pentagon and the State Department. Boykin is not just any General. He is a highly regarded defense intelligence expert, a decorated member of the Special Forces, and now serves as Deputy Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. In this capacity he oversees the U.S.’s efforts to find Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. As such, his Pentagon bosses are not inclined to remove or reassign Boykin. In fact, the best they are hoping for is that the entire matter be quickly forgotten. Therefore, to buy time, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld requested that the Department of Defense’s Inspector General “investigate” the General’s comments.

Meanwhile, over at the Department of State, U.S. diplomats are dealing with the international fall out of the Boykin affair. As quoted in the above-mentioned LA Times article, one top U.S. official noted that the day the Boykin story broke in the press “was the worst day of my life. . . .It confirmed [the] conspiracy theory that the war on terrorism is really a war on Islam.” And another high ranking diplomat observed that the General should have been fired, “because he helps Osama bin Laden’s recruitment efforts.”

As Americans engaged in the U.S.’s public diplomacy effort have observed, this Boykin controversy has done real damage. While most Americans may not be focused on this matter, Arabs and Muslims are. U.S ambassadors and diplomats who see the U.S. from the outside know that the U.S.’s rather expensive image building efforts are seriously undercut by hostile comments from and actions by Administration officials. Just as Americans were shocked by the anti-Jewish comments by Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Muhammad, and supported President Bush’s rebuke of him, so too have Arabs and Muslims been outraged by the comments made by Boykin; and they wonder why the President and others in the Administration have been so slow to respond.

The reason, like so much else in the U.S., is about politics; the intimate interplay that occurs between developing a sufficiently broad enough coalition to win elections, and the crafting of public policy that sustains the support of that coalition.

And so the Boykin issue still simmers. It has not, and most probably will not, come to a boil. The Administration will remove the General only if they feel they have no choice and they can do so without paying a steep political price. Otherwise, they will seek to wait out the storm and hope that it passes.

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