Richard T. Cooper
The Pentagon has assigned the task of tracking down and eliminating Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and other high-profile targets to an Army general who sees the war on terrorism as a clash between Judeo-Christian values and Satan.
Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin, the new deputy undersecretary of Defence for intelligence, is a much-decorated and twice-wounded veteran of covert military operations. From the bloody 1993 clash with Muslim warlords in Somalia chronicled in “Black Hawk Down” and the hunt for Colombian drug tzar Pablo Escobar to the ill-fated attempt to rescue American hostages in Iran in 1980, Boykin was in the thick of things.
Yet the former commander and 13-year veteran of the Army’s top-secret Delta Force is also an outspoken evangelical Christian who appeared in dress uniform and polished jump boots before a religious group in Oregon in June to declare that radical Islamists hated the United States “because we’re a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christian … and the enemy is a guy named Satan.”
Discussing the battle against a Muslim warlord in Somalia, Boykin told another audience, “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.” “We in the army of God, in the house of God, kingdom of God have been raised for such a time as this,” Boykin said last year. On at least one occasion, in Sandy, Ore., in June, Boykin said of President Bush: “He’s in the White House because God put him there.”
Boykin’s penchant for casting the war on terrorism in religious terms appears to be at odds with Bush and an administration that have laboured to insist that the war on terrorism is not a religious conflict. Although the Army has seldom if ever taken official action against officers for outspoken expressions of religious opinion, outside experts see remarks such as Boykin’s as sending exactly the wrong message to the Arab and Islamic world.
In his public remarks, Boykin has also said that radical Muslims who resort to terrorism are not representative of the Islamic faith. He has compared Islamic extremists to “hooded Christians” who terrorized blacks, Catholics, Jews and others from beneath the robes of the Ku Klux Klan. Boykin was not available for comment and did not respond to written questions from the Los Angeles Times submitted to him Wednesday.
“The first lesson is to recognize that whatever we say here is heard there, particularly anything perceived to be hostile to their basic religion, and they don’t forget it,” said Stephen P. Cohen, a member of the special panel named to study policy in the Arab and Muslim world for the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.
“The phrase ‘Judeo-Christian’ is a big mistake. It’s basically the language of Bin Laden and his supporters,” said Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development in New York. “They are constantly trying to create the impression that the Jews and Christians are getting together to beat up on Islam.… We have to be very careful that this doesn’t become a clash between religions, a clash of civilizations.”
Boykin’s religious activities were first documented in detail by William N. Arkin, a former military intelligence analyst who writes on defence issues for The Times Opinion section. Audio and videotapes of Boykin’s appearances before religious groups over the last two years were obtained exclusively by NBC News, which reported on them Wednesday night on the “Nightly News with Tom Brokaw.”
Arkin writes in an article on the op-ed page of today’s Times that Boykin’s appointment “is a frightening blunder at a time that there is widespread acknowledgment that America’s position in the Islamic world has never been worse.”
Boykin’s promotion to lieutenant general and his appointment as deputy undersecretary of Defence for intelligence were confirmed by the Senate by voice vote in June. An aide to the Senate Armed Services Committee said the appointment was not examined in detail. Yet Boykin’s explicitly Christian-evangelical language in public forums may become an issue now that he holds a high-level policy position in the Pentagon. Officials at his level are often called upon to testify before Congress and appear in public forums.
Boykin’s new job makes his role especially sensitive: He is charged with speeding up the flow of intelligence on terrorist leaders to combat teams in the field so that they can attack top-ranking terrorist leaders. Since virtually all these leaders are Muslim, Boykin’s words and actions are likely to draw special scrutiny in the Arab and Islamic world.
Bush, a born-again Christian, often uses religious language in his speeches, but he keeps references to God non-sectarian. At one point, immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the president said he wanted to lead a “crusade” against terrorism. But he quickly retracted the word when told that, to Muslim ears, it recalled the medieval Christian crusaders’ brutal invasions of Islamic nations. In that context, Boykin’s reference to the God of Islam as “an idol” may be perceived as particularly inflammatory.
The president has made a point of praising Islam as “a religion of peace.” He has invited Muslim clerics to the White House for Ramadan dinners and has criticized evangelicals who called Islam a dangerous faith. The issue is still a sore spot in the Muslim world.
Pollster John Zogby says that public opinion surveys throughout the Arab and Islamic world show strong negative reactions to any statement by a U.S. official that suggests a conflict between religions or cultures. “To frame things in terms of good and evil, with the United States as good, is a non-starter,” Zogby said. “It is exactly the wrong thing to do.”
For the Army, the issue of officers expressing religious opinions publicly has been a sensitive problem for many years, according to a former head of the Army Judge Advocate General’s office who is now retired but continues to serve in government as a civilian. “The Army has struggled with this issue over the years. It gets really, really touchy because what you’re talking about is freedom of expression,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “What usually happens is that somebody has a quiet chat with the person,” the retired general said.
Richard T. Cooper