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Sept 25, 2012
Tomgram: Andrew Bacevich, Even Dumb Ideas Have Consequences
Posted by Andrew Bacevich
Introduction by Tom Engelhardt
It came and went in a flash and now it’s long forgotten, buried in the rubble heap of
history. But maybe, given recent events, a little excavation is in order. After all, as
the author of Constantine’s Sword, James Carroll, wrote in 2004, looking back on the
9/11 moment, “A few days after the assault... [s]peaking spontaneously, without the
aid of advisers or speechwriters, [George W. Bush] put a word on the new American
purpose that both shaped it and gave it meaning. ‘This crusade,’ he said, ‘this war on
It was the presidential equivalent of a Freudian slip, the sort that reveals one’s
deepest preconceptions. After all, there was only one set of “crusades” and Medieval
Christendom launched them against Islamic "infidels" of the Middle East. There has
been no such presidential slip since.
When, in January 2002, for example, George W. Bush gave his State of the Union
address, his speechwriter David Frum, who liked to speak of the “stinking bowl” of the
Arab world, ditched the very thought that there might be a crusade against Islam in
America. Instead, he and an associate came up with a phrase that hinted at a more
ecumenical set of enemies. In imitation of Germany, Japan, and Italy, the “Axis
powers” of World War II, he puffed up three rickety regional regimes -- Iraq, Iran, and
North Korea -- into a looming “axis of evil.” (“Seeking weapons of mass destruction,
these regimes pose a grave and growing danger.”) It may have been farfetched to
compare Iraq’s megalomanic autocrat Saddam Hussein, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali
Khamenei, and North Korea’s “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-Il to Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo,
but it proved adequate for the needs of that moment.
How, after all, could the United States be “at war with Islam,” when the distinctly non-
Muslim North Korea was on board the SS Axis of Evil? Still, when you look back on
the fate of that “axis,” something strange should jump out at you. After all, the Bush
administration knocked off Saddam over a non-existent Iraqi nuclear and WMD
program which, in the pre-invasion months, its officials insisted might put mushroom
clouds over American cities and leave Iraqi drones spraying chemical and biological
poisons over East Coast cities. Since then, in conjunction with Israel, both the Bush
and Obama administrations have gone after Iran’s nuclear program, including rounds
of cyber warfare, a massive build-up of forces in the Persian Gulf region, threats of
war, sanctions, Israeli assassinations of nuclear scientists, and so on, and yet Iran,
too, has no nuclear weapon and no one claims it does, nor do most experts think it's
As it turned out, only the one non-Islamic country in that axis of evil actually built and
tested a perfectly real nuclear weapon in those years. And the response seems
curiously instructive: though it announced its first successful test in 2006 and the
actual building of a bomb in 2009, no war threats ensued, no invasion occurred, no
cyber-attacks were launched, no giant military build up in the region occurred. In the
end, next to nothing happened. In fact, when you think about it, since 2001, just
about every war-like act by Washington, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan,
Libya, Somalia, Yemen, the Philippines, or elsewhere, has been directed at a Muslim
country or at Muslims in a county.
That Washington is at war in a number of Islamic countries may not mean that the U.
S. is “at war with Islam” -- after all, North Korea lacks energy reserves, while Iraq and
Iran are located in the oil heartlands of the planet -- but two administrations have
certainly had a remarkably curious way of showing their respect for Islam. Crusade?
Hmmm. Just consider, as does Andrew Bacevich, TomDispatch regular and author of
Washington Rules, the curious case of “Jerry” Boykin. Tom
Joe McCarthy Would Understand
By Andrew J. Bacevich
First came the hullaballoo over the “Mosque at Ground Zero.” Then there was
Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida, grabbing headlines as he promoted
“International Burn-a-Koran Day.” Most recently, we have an American posting a
slanderous anti-Muslim video on the Internet with all the ensuing turmoil.
Throughout, the official U.S. position has remained fixed: the United States
government condemns Islamophobia. Americans respect Islam as a religion of
peace. Incidents suggesting otherwise are the work of a tiny minority -- whackos,
hatemongers, and publicity-seekers. Among Muslims from Benghazi to Islamabad, the
argument has proven to be a tough sell.
And not without reason: although it might be comforting to dismiss anti-Islamic
outbursts in the U.S. as the work of a few fanatics, the picture is actually far more
complicated. Those complications in turn help explain why religion, once considered
a foreign policy asset, has in recent years become a net liability.
Let’s begin with a brief history lesson. From the late 1940s to the late 1980s, when
Communism provided the overarching ideological rationale for American globalism,
religion figured prominently as a theme of U.S. foreign policy. Communist antipathy
toward religion helped invest the Cold War foreign policy consensus with its
remarkable durability. That Communists were godless sufficed to place them beyond
the pale. For many Americans, the Cold War derived its moral clarity from the
conviction that here was a contest pitting the God-fearing against the God-denying.
Since we were on God’s side, it appeared axiomatic that God should repay the
From time to time during the decades when anti-Communism provided so much of the
animating spirit of U.S. policy, Judeo-Christian strategists in Washington (not
necessarily believers themselves), drawing on the theologically correct proposition
that Christians, Jews, and Muslims all worship the same God, sought to enlist Muslims,
sometimes of fundamentalist persuasions, in the cause of opposing the godless. One
especially notable example was the Soviet-Afghan War of 1979-1989. To inflict pain
on the Soviet occupiers, the United States threw its weight behind the Afghan
resistance, styled in Washington as “freedom fighters,” and funneled aid (via the
Saudis and the Pakistanis) to the most religiously extreme among them. When this
effort resulted in a massive Soviet defeat, the United States celebrated its support for
the Afghan Mujahedeen as evidence of strategic genius. It was almost as if God had
rendered a verdict.
Yet not so many years after the Soviets withdrew in defeat, the freedom fighters
morphed into the fiercely anti-Western Taliban, providing sanctuary to al-Qaeda as it
plotted -- successfully -- to attack the United States. Clearly, this was a monkey
wrench thrown into God’s plan.
With the launching of the Global War on Terrorism, Islamism succeeded Communism
as the body of beliefs that, if left unchecked, threatened to sweep across the globe
with dire consequences for freedom. Those who Washington had armed as “freedom
fighters” now became America’s most dangerous enemies. So at least members of
the national security establishment believed or purported to believe, thereby curtailing
any further discussion of whether militarized globalism actually represented the best
approach to promoting liberal values globally or even served U.S. interests.
Yet as a rallying cry, a war against Islamism presented difficulties right from the
outset. As much as policymakers struggled to prevent Islamism from merging in the
popular mind with Islam itself, significant numbers of Americans -- whether genuinely
fearful or mischief-minded -- saw this as a distinction without a difference. Efforts by
the Bush administration to work around this problem by framing the post-9/11 threat
under the rubric of “terrorism” ultimately failed because that generic term offered no
explanation for motive. However the administration twisted and turned, motive in this
instance seemed bound up with matters of religion.
Where exactly to situate God in post-9/11 U.S. policy posed a genuine challenge for
policymakers, not least of all for George W. Bush, who believed, no doubt sincerely,
that God had chosen him to defend America in its time of maximum danger. Unlike
the communists, far from denying God’s existence, Islamists embrace God with
startling ferocity. Indeed, in their vitriolic denunciations of the United States and in
perpetrating acts of anti-American violence, they audaciously present themselves as
nothing less than God’s avenging agents. In confronting the Great Satan, they claim
to be doing God’s will.
Waging War in Jesus’s Name
This debate over who actually represents God’s will is one that the successive
administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have studiously sought to
avoid. The United States is not at war with Islam per se, U.S. officials insist. Still,
among Muslims abroad, Washington’s repeated denials notwithstanding, suspicion
persists and not without reason.
Consider the case of Lieutenant General William G. (“Jerry”) Boykin. While still on
active duty in 2002, this highly decorated Army officer spoke in uniform at a series of
some 30 church gatherings during which he offered his own response to President
Bush’s famous question: “Why do they hate us?” The general’s perspective differed
markedly from his commander-in-chief’s: “The answer to that is because we're a
Christian nation. We are hated because we are a nation of believers.”
On another such occasion, the general recalled his encounter with a Somali warlord
who claimed to enjoy Allah’s protection. The warlord was deluding himself, Boykin
declared, and was sure to get his comeuppance: “I knew that my God was bigger than
his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.” As a Christian nation,
Boykin insisted, the United States would succeed in overcoming its adversaries only if
“we come against them in the name of Jesus.”
When Boykin’s remarks caught the attention of the mainstream press, denunciations
rained down from on high, as the White House, the State Department, and the
Pentagon hastened to disassociate the government from the general’s views. Yet
subsequent indicators suggest that, however crudely, Boykin was indeed expressing
perspectives shared by more than a few of his fellow citizens.
One such indicator came immediately: despite the furor, the general kept his
important Pentagon job as deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence,
suggesting that the Bush administration considered his transgression minor. Perhaps
Boykin had spoken out of turn, but his was not a fireable offense. (One can only
speculate regarding the fate likely to befall a U.S. high-ranking officer daring to say of
Israeli Prime Benjamin Netanyahu, “My God is a real God and his is an idol.”)
A second indicator came in the wake of Boykin’s retirement from active duty. In 2012,
the influential Family Research Council (FRC) in Washington hired the general to
serve as the organization’s executive vice-president. Devoted to “advancing faith,
family, and freedom,” the council presents itself as emphatically Christian in its
outlook. FRC events routinely attract Republican Party heavyweights. The
organization forms part of the conservative mainstream, much as, say, the American
Civil Liberties Union forms part of the left-liberal mainstream.
So for the FRC to hire as its chief operating officer someone espousing Boykin’s
pronounced views regarding Islam qualifies as noteworthy. At a minimum, those who
recruited the former general apparently found nothing especially objectionable in his
worldview. They saw nothing politically risky about associating with Jerry Boykin. He's
their kind of guy. More likely, by hiring Boykin, the FRC intended to send a signal: on
matters where their new COO claimed expertise -- above all, war -- thumb-in-your eye
political incorrectness was becoming a virtue. Imagine the NAACP electing Nation of
Islam leader Louis Farrakhan as its national president, thereby endorsing his views on
race, and you get the idea.
What the FRC’s embrace of General Boykin makes clear is this: to dismiss
manifestations of Islamophobia simply as the work of an insignificant American fringe
is mistaken. As with the supporters of Senator Joseph McCarthy, who during the early
days of the Cold War saw communists under every State Department desk, those
engaging in these actions are daring to express openly attitudes that others in far
greater numbers also quietly nurture. To put it another way, what Americans in the
1950s knew as McCarthyism has reappeared in the form of Boykinism.
Historians differ passionately over whether McCarthyism represented a perversion of
anti-Communism or its truest expression. So, too, present-day observers will disagree
as to whether Boykinism represents a merely fervent or utterly demented response to
the Islamist threat. Yet this much is inarguable: just as the junior senator from
Wisconsin in his heyday embodied a non-trivial strain of American politics, so, too,
does the former special-ops-warrior-turned-“ordained minister with a passion for
spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Notably, as Boykinism’s leading exponent, the former general’s views bear a striking
resemblance to those favored by the late senator. Like McCarthy, Boykin believes
that, while enemies beyond America’s gates pose great dangers, the enemy within
poses a still greater threat. “I’ve studied Marxist insurgency,” he declared in a 2010
video. “It was part of my training. And the things I know that have been done in every
Marxist insurgency are being done in America today.” Explicitly comparing the United
States as governed by Barack Obama to Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao Zedong’s China,
and Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Boykin charges that, under the guise of health reform, the
Obama administration is secretly organizing a “constabulary force that will control the
population in America.” This new force is, he claims, designed to be larger than the
United States military, and will function just as Hitler’s Brownshirts once did in
Germany. All of this is unfolding before our innocent and unsuspecting eyes.
Boykinism: The New McCarthyism
How many Americans endorsed McCarthy’s conspiratorial view of national and world
politics? It’s difficult to know for sure, but enough in Wisconsin to win him reelection in
1952, by a comfortable 54% to 46% majority. Enough to strike fear into the hearts of
politicians who quaked at the thought of McCarthy fingering them for being “soft on
How many Americans endorse Boykin’s comparably incendiary views? Again, it’s
difficult to tell. Enough to persuade FRC’s funders and supporters to hire him,
confident that doing so would burnish, not tarnish, the organization’s brand.
Certainly, Boykin has in no way damaged its ability to attract powerhouses of the
domestic right. FRC’s recent “Values Voter Summit” featured luminaries such as
Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, former Republican Senator and
presidential candidate Rick Santorum, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and
Representative Michele Bachmann -- along with Jerry Boykin himself, who lectured
attendees on “Israel, Iran, and the Future of Western Civilization.” (In early August,
Mitt Romney met privately with a group of “prominent social conservatives,” including
Does their appearance at the FRC podium signify that Ryan, Santorum, Cantor, and
Bachmann all subscribe to Boykinism’s essential tenets? Not any more than those
who exploited the McCarthyite moment to their own political advantage -- Richard
Nixon, for example -- necessarily agreed with all of McCarthy’s reckless accusations.
Yet the presence of leading Republicans on an FRC program featuring Boykin
certainly suggests that they find nothing especially objectionable or politically
damaging to them in his worldview.
Still, comparisons between McCarthyism and Boykinism only go so far. Senator
McCarthy wreaked havoc mostly on the home front, instigating witch-hunts, destroying
careers, and trampling on civil rights, while imparting to American politics even more
of a circus atmosphere than usual. In terms of foreign policy, the effect of
McCarthyism, if anything, was to reinforce an already existing anti-communist
consensus. McCarthy’s antics didn’t create enemies abroad. McCarthyism merely
reaffirmed that communists were indeed the enemy, while making the political price of
thinking otherwise too high to contemplate.
Boykinism, in contrast, makes its impact felt abroad. Unlike McCarthyism, it doesn’t
strike fear into the hearts of incumbents on the campaign trail here. Attracting
General Boykin’s endorsement or provoking his ire probably won’t determine the
outcome of any election. Yet in its various manifestations Boykinism provides the
kindling that helps sustain anti-American sentiment in the Islamic world. It reinforces
the belief among Muslims that the Global War on Terror really is a war against them.
Boykinism confirms what many Muslims are already primed to believe: that American
values and Islamic values are irreconcilable. American presidents and secretaries of
state stick to their talking points, praising Islam as a great religious tradition and
touting past U.S. military actions (ostensibly) undertaken on behalf of Muslims. Yet
with their credibility among Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and others in the Greater
Middle East about nil, they are pissing in the wind.
As long as substantial numbers of vocal Americans do not buy the ideological
argument constructed to justify U.S. intervention in the Islamic world -- that their
conception of freedom (including religious freedom) is ultimately compatible with ours
-- then neither will Muslims. In that sense, the supporters of Boykinism who reject that
proposition encourage Muslims to follow suit. This ensures, by extension, that further
reliance on armed force as the preferred instrument of U. S. policy in the Islamic world
will compound the errors that produced and have defined the post-9/11 era.
Andrew J. Bacevich is currently a visiting fellow at Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for
International Peace Studies. A TomDispatch regular, he is author of Washington
Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, among other works, and most recently
editor of The Short American Century.
Copyright 2012 Andrew J. Bacevich