Thursday, October 23, 2003

President Bush distanced himself yesterday from the three-star general who has spoken publicly of the war on terror in religious terms, but officials at the Defense Department said the general won’t be fired.

The opinion of Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, who serves as deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence and special operations, “just doesn’t reflect what the government thinks,” Mr. Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One yesterday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s chief of staff, Lawrence DiRita, told reporters at the Pentagon yesterday that Gen. Boykin has had a distinguished military career and is not being asked to step down.

Gen. Boykin, who is an evangelical Christian, has been quoted as saying the war against terrorism is a battle between good and evil, with terrorists representing Satan.

His comments first drew fire last week when NBC News broadcast videotaped segments of speeches he had made at Christian functions while in uniform.

In one speech, the general referred to an Islamic guerrilla in Somalia who said U.S. forces would never catch him because Allah would protect him. “Well, you know what I knew, that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God, and his was an idol,” Gen. Boykin said.

A native of North Carolina, Gen. Boykin is a highly decorated combat veteran — earning the Bronze Star, Legion of Merit and Purple Heart — with years of experience commanding antiterrorism operations.

Speaking with reporters on his airplane yesterday, Mr. Bush said that moderate Muslim clerics he had met with on Indonesia’s resort island of Bali had raised concerns about Gen. Boykin.

“Yes, that came up, Boykin came up,” Mr. Bush said. “I said he didn’t reflect my opinion. … And I think they were pleased to hear that.”

The reference to Gen. Boykin was the first public remark on the subject by Mr. Bush. The president himself has frequently invoked his own Christian belief in speeches and spoken of the war on terrorism in terms of good and evil. However, Mr. Bush has repeatedly stressed that the conflict is not between Christianity and Islam.

“We’re taking action against evil people,” the president said in January 2002, during a California town-hall meeting.

“Because this great nation of many religions understands our war is not against Islam, or against faith practiced by the Muslim people,” Mr. Bush said. “Our war is a war against evil. This is clearly a case of good versus evil, and make no mistake about it: Good will prevail.”

Earlier last year, while making remarks in October on U.S. humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, he said “Islam is a vibrant faith.”

“Millions of our fellow citizens are Muslim,” Mr. Bush said. “We respect the faith. We honor its traditions. Our enemy does not. Our enemy doesn’t follow the great traditions of Islam. They’ve hijacked a great religion.”

In addition to the moderate clerics in Indonesia, other Muslims and religious and civil liberties groups, and several Democrats, have condemned Gen. Boykin’s statements as inappropriate.

On Tuesday, Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters gathered for a Pentagon news briefing that Gen. Boykin had asked an inspector general to review his actions.

“If that’s his request, I think it’s appropriate,” Mr. Rumsfeld said, adding that “there’s no doubt in my mind in talking to him that if he could pick his words more carefully, he would.”

Mr. Rumsfeld also said he has no doubt Gen. Boykin “does not see this battle as a battle between religions. He sees it as a battle between good and evil.”

Gen. Boykin was commissioned as an Army officer after graduating from Virginia Tech in 1971. He served in several units, including the 2nd Armored Division and the 101st Airborne Division, before becoming one of the first members of the elite Delta Force in 1978.

He was operations officer in the failed 1980 attempt to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran, served in the 1983 invasion of Grenada, and in 1992 was named Delta Force commander.

He commanded the eight-man Delta team sent to hunt down Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar in 1992, and in 1993 commanded the famed “Black Hawk Down” raid in Mogadishu, Somalia. He was wounded by mortar fire while serving in Somalia. From 2000 until being named deputy undersecretary of defense, Gen. Boykin commanded the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center in Fort Bragg, N.C.

Asked about Gen. Boykin yesterday, Mr. Rumsfeld’s chief of staff spoke of the general’s impressive military achievements and cited a statement the general made last week embracing freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

According to Reuters, Mr. DiRita said that “when you weigh the preponderance of all those things, nobody’s thinking about asking him to step aside.”

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