Idol Talk

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Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld isn’t one to hold back from attacking Pentagon colleagues. When, in February, the then Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki told a congressional panel that securing Iraq would require hundreds of thousands of troops, Rumsfeld shot him down, saying the estimate was “far off the mark.” So why the hesitation to rip Army Lt. General William Boykin, who, it came out last week, made inflammatory remarks about Islam, in full army uniform, at church meetings earlier this year?

For those of you who missed it, The Los Angeles Times first reported Boykin’s comments last week, offering up some choice quotes:

“‘There was a man in Mogadishu named Osman Atto,’ whom Boykin described as a top lieutenant of Mohammed Farah Aidid. When Boykin’s Delta Force commandos went after Atto, they missed him by seconds, he said…’Well, you know what?’ Boykin continued. ‘I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.’ Atto later was captured.

Other countries, Boykin said last year, “have lost their morals, lost their values. But America is still a Christian nation.”

“Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army.”

“George Bush was not elected by a majority of the voters in the United States. He was appointed by God.”

Such was the subsequent outrage that, at Boykin’s own request, the Pentagon will investigate his remarks. But Rumsfeld hasn’t exactly been on top of this. He said last weekend, “There are a lot of things that are said by people in the military, or civilian life, or in the Congress, or in the executive branch, that are their views, and that’s the way we live. We’re a free people.” But Boykin’s statements are in direct conflict with his professional role. As Fareed Zakaria points out in the Washington Post, Boykin’s job as Deputy Undersecretary for Intelligence requires him to work with officials from countries like Indonesia, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. Chances are they won’t be too keen to work with him. Zakaria says Boykin’s should have no place in the Pentagon:

“When asked about these remarks, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld refused to condemn them, explaining, ‘We’re a free people.’ The issue, though, is not whether the general is free to express his views but whether Rumsfeld wants someone who holds such views in high office. After all, were Boykin to have expressed the opinion that the Iraq war was a blunder, he would have been fired. Were he to have made an anti-Semitic comment (like the noxious ones Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad made last week), he would have been fired. Why? Because those freely expressed views would contradict the Bush administration’s basic philosophy. So are we to assume that Boykin’s views do not contradict administration policy? No one is urging that Rumsfeld muzzle Boykin, merely that he allow him to enter the private sector, where he may express his views even more freely. He could even sit in for Rush Limbaugh.”

Papers in Muslim countries have already picked up on the controversial statements. A reformist Daily Times of Pakistan said, “If the administration’s war is really not against Islam, Boykin should be asked to pack his bags.”

In the U.S., some found Rumsfeld altogether unserious about the matter:

“Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld laughed off reporters’ questions about the comments late last week, taunting reporters as a ‘blood-thirsty’ bunch when they asked what he thought about Boykin’s missives.”

At yesterday’s news conference Rumsfeld said he just didn’t know enough about Boykin’s comments to make a call.

“I have seen — the only tape that I have gotten my hands on is a tape that has very poor quality, put out by one of the networks, with subtitles that I’m not able to verify. He has requested an inspector general review the matter. It seems to me that’s a perfectly responsible thing for him to do on his part…I’m going to wait for the inspector general to complete their review and come back to us, at which point, then, we’ll know what they have to say about that.”

But Rumsfeld must know that Boykins refused to back down from his assertion that “Judeo-Christian roots in America or our nation as a Christian nation are historically undeniable.” This was part of the Pentagon-approved statement by Boykin, in which he apologized for any offense caused and emphasized that he doesn’t see the war on terror as a religious conflict.

One reporter pressed Rumsfeld on the issue, saying:

“It is a matter of fact that that statement we know was constructed by General Boykin with the advice of your senior press affairs and legal staff; that they reviewed the statement and that they looked at it and that it was amended along the way…How should people interpret this as other than a statement from the Department of Defense and the U.S. military that it’s historically undeniable this is a Christian nation, when the president himself has been so clear in his views about all of this?”

Rumsfeld didn’t dispute the fact that the statement was issued by the Pentagon, but he said that the statement was Boykin’s, not the rest of the department’s.

The whole flap about Boykin, says Dick Meyer of, is more of a great story than a great worry. But, excuse us, this guy is top Pentagon brass. And the fact that his bosses would hesitate to criticize a top military official who says, by way of mitigating his anti-Islamic slurs, that the United States is a Christian nation testifies raises some questions about their own position on this. And that’s why it’s a great worry, as well as a great story.


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