October 23, 2003 | Broadcast

CNN Newsnight with Aaron Brown

Take the case of General William Jerry Boykin, who, in a speech to Christian groups, implied that Muslims worshiped an idol — other things said there, too. A subsequent apology, his request for the inspector general to investigate haven’t done much to quiet down the protests over the remarks.

So the question on the table tonight, should the general be removed or does he have the right to express his opinions, no matter what those opinions might be? Though we would argue it is a bit more complicated than that, too.

Joining us now to talk about all of this, Ralph Peters, retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. His most recent book is entitled “Beyond Baghdad: Postmodern War & Peace.” And also joining us, Cliff May, from the Foundation For the Defense of Democracies. They’re both in Washington and they’re both welcome.

Mr. May, why don’t we start with you?

You think the general is getting a bad rap here.


And I’m sorry. I’ve got an echo here.

Look, I think it’s very serious to accuse Somebody of anti-Muslim bias or anti-Semitism or anti-Christian bias. And, Aaron, what you just said is that he compared Muslims to idol worshipers. I don’t think that’s what he did. I think he’s talking about the people he fights every day. He’s talking about terrorists, people who have adopted an ideology that is not Islam, although they claim to act in the name of Islam.

I think he — I think, from the excerpts we have, it’s simply not fair to conclude — and he has said that he is not anti-Islamic. And I don’t think he’s said what he has been purported to have said.


BROWN: Well, let’s work on the echo program.

Let me go to Lieutenant Colonel Peters here for a second.

Just briefly, Ralph, make the case that he ought to go.

RET. LT. COL. RALPH PETERS, U.S. ARMY: Well, Aaron, this is actually personal for me, because, several years ago, as a serving officer, with a successful career, I decided that there were things I wanted to write and say that were controversial and shouldn’t really be said by a serving officer. Not appropriate.

So I made the decision — and a tough one — to retire, to take my uniform off, so I could speak freely. Now, General Boykin can take his uniform off at any time and say whatever he wants. But he cannot say things prejudicial to good order and discipline or things that are, frankly, controversial and uncleared and accusatory while he’s in uniform.

But, Aaron, even more importantly, this man isn’t a captain of a tank company at Fort Hood. He is the deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence. And what deeply troubles me is, in a time we’re facing such challenges in the Muslim world, around the world, that this man would suggest that Muslims are idol worshipers, that shows he knows nothing about Islam.

And then he talks about seeing Satan’s face in the clouds. We need intelligence officers who see reality on earth, not Satan’s face in the clouds. So he sounds to me, hate to say, like a foolish man who said some very foolish things.

BROWN: Let me go back to Mr. May for a second.

I just — I think it’s fair to kind of argue about what he meant. But just the context that I heard the Somali comment in, he said that this warlord said to him, he knew he would be safe because Allah protected him, to which he said: I think he was wrong, because my God is the real God. His God is an idol.

Are you sure that that — are you still sure of your position?

MAY: Let me remind you who he was talking about. He was talking about what you call or may be called a warlord.

But this was somebody who was going around stealing food that Americans were trying to give to starving people. This was somebody who was sending — if you remember “Black Hawk Down,” the movie or the book — sending women out with a baby in one hand and AK-47 in the other to kill Americans. This was somebody, these were the people who were dragging American soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu.

I think that anybody who believes that such people represent Islam is committing a terrible insult to a great faith. I don’t think that’s what he meant at all. I think he meant this criminal — who, by the way, we now know was probably al Qaeda trained — all these guys are — not al Qaeda, but bin Laden. That was before the formulation of al Qaeda — but was trained like that.

I think he may have been saying that these guys that he was fighting in Somalia, they pray to a false God. I do not think he was saying — he was making this comment about Turkish Sufis or about Muslims in Detroit or about our Kurdish allies.

BROWN: Cliff, just as a practical matter, as a practical matter, much of the Muslim world has now heard all of this. They are — we are told this came up with the president yesterday.

So, as a practical matter, then, fair or not, should the guy stay or go?

MAY: Well, as a practical matter, let’s understand that when somebody from “The L.A. Times” goes and tapes this guy and will only release excerpts, not the full context, not the full text of what he said, and then it’s misreported all over the press, as if we simply know that he wasn’t talking about the terrorists he fights, but all Islam, a terrible disservice is being done to this man, very unfair, and to the country in general.

Now, I don’t disagree with what Colonel Peters is saying. I think somebody in uniform or somebody who works for State or Defense, he doesn’t have the same free speech rights that you and I do. He has to keep to the looking points. And this general absolutely should have had a media adviser or a press secretary or a speechwriter. And maybe he’s ruined at this point, because, look, what we do right now, it’s very dangerous stuff, like going out and fighting terrorists, because you can put your foot in your mouth.

But I think it’s unfair for us to all simply assume that this is an example of anti-Islamic bigotry, when I think he was probably only talking about militant Islam, jihadists, totalitarian Muslims.


BROWN: I’m sorry. Let me give Ralph the last word here.

Do you think that the damage, essentially, has been done, that there’s no way to salvage this career of what is otherwise a very — considered to be a very fine officer?

PETERS: Well, he may have been a good soldier on the operational level. I have to wonder why he’s in this intelligence position.

And, again, Aaron, I’m just troubled by the fact that the highest-ranking uniform in — supposedly, intelligence officer or intelligence adviser on the SecDef’s staff has no idea about Islam. Now, there is much we can criticize about the Islamic world or the Middle East, from the oppression of women, to the bigotry. And I’m not shy about that.

But this man was wrong in his facts. And he’s at too high a level to be wrong in his facts. There’s something terribly wrong. He sounds incompetent. And, by the way, again, I go back to the fact that he is free as a citizen to say what he wants, but take off the uniform. He disgraced the uniform.

BROWN: Got it. Point made, both of you. Thank you. Nicely done tonight. Thank you.

PETERS: Thank you.

MAY: Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you.