WASHINGTON — President Bush said Tuesday that controversial remarks by Lt. Gen. William G. "Jerry" Boykin about Muslims and Islam do not "reflect my point of view, or the view of this administration" -- sharp language from an administration that tends to circle the wagons when a member is under attack.
Bush's move to distance himself from the outspoken general was the strongest administration response to date to disclosures of Boykin's frequent appearances before religious groups at which he characterized the war on terrorism as a battle between Judeo-Christian tradition and "Satan." His remarks have put the president in a difficult spot.
With hundreds of supportive calls coming into the Pentagon and Bush facing a reelection campaign in which he'll seek the help of Christian conservatives, it might be out of the question for the administration to fire Boykin.
"Gen. Boykin is kind of the living embodiment of a key Republican electoral constituency. So forcing him out would not be a very bright move with elections approaching," said military analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based public policy group.
But his continued presence as deputy undersecretary of Defense for intelligence is causing such trouble in the Muslim community, Congress and elsewhere that some senior defense officials and others have suggested privately that a less visible, strictly military post should be found for the oft-decorated soldier.
Bush's remarks Tuesday might make that a foregone conclusion. Said Thompson: "He may simply decide that he's become too much of an issue and seek another assignment."
Boykin's numerous statements, often given in uniform before religious groups, have been widely reported in the Middle Eastern media, roiling U.S. allies and forcing delicate diplomacy by U.S. officials. Islamic and other groups have repeatedly called for Boykin to be removed.
Bush said Tuesday at his Rose Garden news conference that Muslim leaders he met with last week in Indonesia complained about the comments.
"There was concern about Gen. Boykin," the president said. "It seemed like to me that we've got a challenge to make sure that people in countries like Indonesia understand the nature of the American people, that how we think is going to be an important part of good diplomacy in the long run. That we've got to fight off the imagery of a society which condemns entire swaths of people because of the acts of a few -- which is not the way we are."
The criticism continued Tuesday. Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said: "Again we see a disconnect. We hear pleasing words about Islam but then we see complete inaction. He's not reassigned. He's not removed. Nothing."
Boykin later apologized for the remarks, some of which he said had been taken out of context, and said he would not speak at such events in the future. The Pentagon, saying that Boykin requested it, is investigating his remarks. Members of Congress also pushed for an inquiry.
Firing Boykin would be unusual for an administration that has stubbornly protected officials under fire, said Gordon Adams, director of Security Policy Studies for the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University.
"The administration is not very good at doing that," Adams said. "They're loyal to people they put into senior positions."
Boykin, whose Pentagon duties include managing the intelligence collected in the effort to track down and capture Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein and other alleged terrorist leaders, is a former commander and 13-year veteran of the Army's top-secret Delta Force who was twice wounded in covert operations.
Supportive calls from the public to the Pentagon substantially exceed calls from critics, said one defense official, who asked not to be named.
The comments that raised the ire of religious groups include telling one audience that the United States' "spiritual enemy will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus." He told a Florida audience in January that a Muslim Somali warlord was captured because "I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol."
At the White House on Tuesday evening, Bush hosted an iftar, or fast-breaking meal, for about 80 Muslim leaders and ambassadors from largely Muslim nations, marking a rite during Ramadan, the holiest month for Muslims.
In his welcoming remarks, the president distanced Islam from terrorism, saying: "Terrorists who use religion to justify the taking of innocent life have no home in any faith."
Times staff writer Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.