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A General Bind for Rumsfeld

What to do when an extremist subordinate is also "indispensable"?

October 26, 2003|William M. Arkin | William M. Arkin is a military affairs analyst who writes regularly for Opinion. E-mail: warkin@igc .org.

SOUTH POMFRET, Vt. — In April 1862, after a bloody Union victory in the battle of Shiloh, critics who loathed the hard-drinking Gen. Ulysses S. Grant asked President Lincoln why he didn't fire his controversial general. "I can't spare this man," Lincoln is said to have responded, "he fights!"

The anecdote sheds light, a friend in the Pentagon tells me, on why Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has not moved quickly to remove Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin, the controversial deputy undersecretary for intelligence who in speaking at evangelical Christian churches has presented the fight against Islamic terrorists as a war between Christianity and Satan. Boykin is no politically correct, consensus-driven bureaucrat: He fights. "Do you want to win this war or not?" my friend, a Boykin admirer, asks.

It's certainly true that Boykin brings a warrior spirit and a strong sense of conviction to the terrorism fight. He told an Oregon congregation that the U.S. was under attack "because we're a Christian nation ... and the enemy is a guy named Satan." Though government officials have moved to distance themselves from Boykin's comments, many can't help but admire his determination.

Rumsfeld's support for his general may or may not hold, depending on how the political winds blow. But it's not hard to see why the Defense secretary would like to see him stay. Rumsfeld is worried about how the war on terrorism is going, as shown by a Defense Department memo that was made public last week. More than one Defense Department official has said to me in the last week that special operations veteran Boykin, who has a fine military record, is "indispensable" to that war.

In his memo, the secretary prods his subordinates to think about new approaches and frets about whether the U.S. is "winning or losing the global war on terror." Rumsfeld asks whether a "new institution" that "seamlessly focuses the capabilities of several departments and agencies" on fighting terrorism should be created. That sounds a lot like what Boykin has been put in charge of.

But one of the other major themes in Rumsfeld's memo is a grand strategy question that is decidedly outside of the purview of the Defense Department: "Are we capturing, killing or deterring and dissuading more terrorists every day than the [Islamic schools] and the radical clerics are recruiting, training and deploying against us?" This suggests the questions that some at higher levels in the military have been asking for months: Is the military "war" enough? Can the United States really defeat terrorism one terrorist at a time? What else needs to be done to increase the standing of the United States in the Islamic world and neutralize extremism?

But those questions also make Rumsfeld's support of Boykin all the more difficult to defend. How can he on the one hand ask pointed questions about the progress of the war and at the same time defend a key official whose private views may hinder his ability to do his job and, more broadly, run counter to U.S. objectives in the Islamic world?

On Oct. 17, after the Los Angeles Times and NBC News reported on Boykin's extremist statements about terrorism, Islam and religion, the Pentagon issued a statement in which Boykin said he was "not anti-Islam" and apologized "to those who have been offended." Boykin said he was curtailing his appearances at evangelical Christian churches and asked Rumsfeld to initiate an investigation into his conduct.

After news of his activities broke, the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John W. Warner of Virginia and Democrat Carl Levin of Michigan, suggested that Rumsfeld temporarily reassign Boykin. "Public statements by a senior military official of an inflammatory, offensive nature that would denigrate another religion and which could be construed as bigotry may easily be exploited by enemies of the United States," they said in a letter to Rumsfeld.

The Defense Department, up to now, has maintained a solid public front. "Nobody is thinking about asking him to step aside," Defense Department spokesman Lawrence DiRita said.

But Boykin is not the victim of a media frenzy. In the year before his appointment, he preached in Florida, Oklahoma, South Carolina, New Jersey, Tennessee and Oregon. Even after he became deputy undersecretary in June, he preached at least twice in Florida, the last time evidently Sept. 27. Before his controversial statements to congregations were reported in the media, Boykin seemingly did not think that his preaching -- at least some of the time while wearing his uniform -- undermined his military position.

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