Damage control on a general’s comments

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(Host) Commentator Bill Seamans say the comments by an army general on Islam have put President Bush in a awkward situation.

(Seamans) How free should a U.S. Army general be to express his personal opinions in public – especially if his remarks send a wrong message about the Muslim religion? Should the degree of discretion a general exercises be commensurate with the high responsibility of his rank? When he speaks in public is he considered a spokesman for the United States even though he is making a personal statement? Should the general keep his job if his comments are disavowed by his commander in chief?

This flurry of questions was set off by Lt. Gen. William Boykin speaking at several evangelical Christian churches. Boykin said Satan was the enemy in the fight against terrorism and that God had put Bush in the White House. He said he told a Muslim militia leader he had captured in Somalia, “I knew my God was bigger than his. I knew my God was the real God, and his was an idol.”

Well, it took just minutes for Boykin’s remarks to rocket throughout the Muslim world where they were interpreted by our enemies as denigrating Islam. Critics claim Boykin’s words helped inflame hate-America passions.

All this at a time when new and more lethal guerilla attacks were intensifying political pressures on President Bush. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has tried to cool the situation by handing the Boykin problem over to the Military Inspector General’s office which is looking into the situation. Now, because Boykin has recently been given the very sensitive and strategic job of deputy undersecretary for intelligence, some congressional critics have demanded that he be moved into a neutral parking orbit. Both Bush and Donald Rumsfeld have refused to reassign Boykin.

In his news conference last week, Bush was asked if he thought Boykin should be disciplined or asked to resign. Bush avoided a direct answer, but he did say: “He doesn’t reflect my point of view, or the view of this administration.”

Boykin, meanwhile, says “I am not anti-Islam or any other religion. – For those who have been offended by my statements, I offer a sincere apology.”

What makes Bush’s problem even more difficult is that Boykin is truly a great soldier. He was an outstanding leader of our most elite special forces. He personally led several hazardous clandestine missions to prove to his men that he would not send them anywhere he wouldn’t go. He was twice wounded in action.

So what should President Bush do about Boykin – fire him to prove to the Muslim world that Bush means it when he says Islam is not our enemy? Or should Bush save the career of this top-notch soldier who has served his country so well, however indiscrete he may have been?

This is Bill Seamans.

Bill Seamans is an award-winning journalist and former bureau chief for ABC News in the Middle East, He spoke to us from our studio in Norwich.

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