There are several battles going on simultaneously in Iraq. One is to secure the country against lawlessness and terrorism. Another is to dole out the spoils of the oil resources. Third is to secure victory for George W. Bush in the 2004 elections. And yet another is to win a public relations offensive, convincing the world that this was a just war in the first place.
In that last campaign, mark one for America in the "skirmish lost" column.
Recently NBC News broadcast footage of Army Lt. General William Boykin, a deputy undersecretary of defense, equating our campaigns in the Middle East to a religious war. Among his arguments: that Islam is "a spiritual enemy. He's called the principality of darkness. The enemy is a guy called Satan," out to destroy America "because we're a Christian nation."
For bonus points, Boykin also pegged God (not the Supreme Court) as the deciding factor in the 2000 elections. "Why is this man [President Bush] in the White House?" he said. "The majority of Americans did not vote for him. Why is he there? And I tell you this morning that he's in the White House because God put him there for a time such as this."
Who does it serve to antagonize not Islamic terrorists, who need no further incentive for their deeds, but the rest of the members of the world's fastest growing religion? If any Islamic cleric or politician were to make similar statements about Christianity in a public forum, you can bet our government would decry their hate speech.
Therefore the most troubling aspect of the Boykin incident is not his words, but the Bush administration's reaction to his attacks. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called Boykin "an officer that has an outstanding record in the United States Armed Forces." He then defended the Lt. General's statements on free speech grounds, saying, "We're a free people."
A free speech defense has great appeal. But this administration, which has relentlessly criticized those who speak out against the Iraq war and occupation, seems to have a very selective view of its uses. (Remember former White House spokesman Ari Flesicher admonishing Bill Maher of 'Politically Incorrect' and "all Americans that they need to watch what they say, watch what they do"?)
Much has been made of the evangelical Christianity of President Bush. He has tried to blend his courting of evangelical voters with attempts to extend an olive branch to a growing political force, Arab-Americans. But the President and his administration cannot have it both ways. They cannot restrict the meaning of "true American" to "Christian-American," and also purport to believe in a pluralistic society. And they cannot allow the military to promote the idea of an American Jihad -- a religious war -- while claiming to fight a religion-neutral war on terrorism as well.
The issue of religion in American identity will be one of the lynchpins around which the 2004 election turns. Currently the Supreme Court is debating whether schoolchildren should use the phrase "under God" (which was only added during the Red Scare of the 1950s) while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The Supreme Court may well bar the use of the words in school -- but every politician running for President will then, to court voters, leap to their defense. On a much deeper level, the Red State/Blue State faultline corresponds nicely with states in which evangelical or fundamentalist beliefs pervade (Red) versus states with a healthy, if hard-won, sense of religious pluralism (Blue).
In our own nation, and abroad, we cannot take lightly the threat that religious warmongering holds for our Union or our standing in the world. The administration must recognize the speech of Lt. Gen. Boykin and any others like him for what it really is: a threat to national security and American democracy as well.