Missing the Point

Editorial

The Washington Post

Monday, August 23, 2004; Page A14

LAST FALL, DEFENSE Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld ducked the embarrassing matter of grossly offensive, anti-Islamic remarks by Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin by asking the Defense Department's inspector general to examine his behavior. This was a ruse. The problem with Gen. Boykin's words was never the possibility that they violated this or that department regulation -- the sort of thing inspectors general are charged with investigating. The problem was that Gen. Boykin, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, was delivering himself of bigoted remarks -- generally while in uniform -- that directly undercut President Bush's repeated insistence that America's war is not against Islam generally and is not a clash of religious civilizations. By unloading the matter on the inspector general, Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. Bush avoided having to condemn the remarks forthrightly while seeming to take appropriate action.

Now the inspector general's office has issued its report. And as one would expect, it avoids the only important issues that Gen. Boykin's remarks raised in the first place -- that is, whether the Defense Department ought to be espousing religious bigotry and whether Mr. Rumsfeld ought to take action when a senior officer does just that. We're still waiting for Mr. Rumsfeld to answer that question.

Gen. Boykin's words do not fall in a gray area. He said in one speech of a Somali warlord that "I knew that my god was bigger than his. I knew that my god was a real god and his was an idol"; he described the war on terrorism as a "spiritual battle," noting that "Satan wants to destroy this nation, he wants to destroy us as a nation, and he wants to destroy us as a Christian army"; and he famously described a dark section of a photograph of the Somali capital as the "evil" that is the real enemy. "It is not Osama bin Laden, it is the principalities of darkness. It is a spiritual enemy that will only be defeated if we come against them in the name of Jesus and pray for this nation and for our leaders." Such beliefs are the general's right, but when a senior defense official utters them in public, they undermine just about every value the administration is trying to project in this war.

The report, however, finds only that Gen. Boykin failed "to clear his speeches with the proper [Pentagon] authorities," that he failed "to preface his remarks with a disclaimer" that the views were his own and that he "failed to report travel reimbursement exceeding $260" on his 2002 financial disclosure form. All of this may be true, but the findings completely miss the point. Then again, that point should have been clear to Mr. Bush and Mr. Rumsfeld from the start.