Tuesday, April 04, 2006


By William Fisher

Last month, the U.S. Muslim World Advisory Committee of the United States Institute of Peace sat down for a talk with Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Under-Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes. These are the kinds of meetings Arab-American and other Muslim-American groups have been having throughout the country with U.S. officials at various levels of government since soon after 9/11.

These meetings usually end with oh-so-diplomatic remarks about the "full and frank exchanges of views" and praiseworthy statements from each about each.

Yet, though Arab-American and other Muslim organizations are reluctant to discuss the issue for the record, they tell me privately that they are worried that the Bush Administration is sending dangerously mixed signals precisely to those whose "hearts and minds" it claims to be trying to win.

Consider the following:

President Bush continues to assert that Arabs and other Muslims are valued and contributing members of American society. He denies that his Global War on Terrorism is a war against Islam. Secretary Rice and Ambassador Karen Hughes spend substantial time with Arab-American and other Muslim advocacy groups, reasserting their "mission" to reach out to these communities. The FBI, CIA, the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense, State, and other U.S. government agencies spend millions to recruit members of these communities to apply for jobs, then deny them security clearances because they have relatives in the Middle East. Then Ms Hughes takes off on another of her "listening tours" of the Middle East, promising to reach out to "Muslim Moms".

At the same time, the FBI and the DHS continue to practice racial profiling and to harass and prosecute Arabs and other Muslims here at home. The FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Forces work with local law enforcement to snoop on Arab and Muslim communities and wiretap mosques. We tell the Arabs we don't want them running our ports. And legitimate Muslim charities can't raise a nickel without fear of being put on the government's "support for terrorists" list.

Which of these contradictory messages do you think resonates most loudly in the U.S.? Just take a look at the myriad of polls that measure the degree of pervasive insecurity among these constituencies at home, and attitudes of other Americans toward these minorities! The common denominator is fear, one of the other. And fear breeds intolerance and even violence.

Why should we care what Arab- and Muslim-Americans think and what we, their neighbors, think of them? For one thing, they're Americans. They live here, among us. They are business and labor leaders, clergymen, sports figures, engineers and mathematicians and physicists, teachers, doctors and nurses, ordinary working citizens, even members of Congress.

Secondly, their ties to family and friends in other countries can provide us with important bridges to understanding. They might just be capable of helping Karen Hughes to explain U.S. policies to parts of the world we desperately need on "our side". Or to better understand how the "other side" sees us.

Thirdly, Arab- and Muslim-Americans vote. And that, if nothing else, ought to capture the attention of our elected officials.

Finally, how our government acts toward these sizable minorities helps shape how the rest of us act.

Jingoism has no good consequences, for anyone.

No one ever said that balancing these competing interests would be easy. Terrorists in our midst must be identified and prosecuted. So must so-called charities that illegally use their organizations as fronts for laundering material support for those who would harm us and our allies.

At the same time, there is zero evidence that Arab- and Muslim-Americans are anything but loyal to our country, and just as horrified as the rest of us by the attacks of 9/11. Thousands of these hyphenated Americans are now serving in the U.S. armed forces, many of them in Iraq and Afghanistan. And how many terror-related convictions resulted from the mass roundups of Arab and Muslim men in the weeks following 9/11? None.

Yet there appears to be no consistent effort anywhere in the upper reaches of the Bush Administration to engage these communities or to explain or coordinate what much seem to them as grossly contradictory and conflicting efforts.

Which should make us wonder whether this is about ideology: the "clash of civilizations? Or about creating smokescreens: blaming the media for not reporting all the "good news" from Iraq? Or about more of the unbelievably uncoordinated incompetence that gave us the Katrina disaster? Or about the political tone-deafness that resulted in Harriet Myers?

The short answer is "I don't know". Maybe a bit of all.

What I do know is that this is an issue on which George W. Bush has shown a somnambulistic failure of leadership. It is not enough for the president from time to time to tell Arab-Americans and other Muslim minorities - and the rest us - that he values our citizenship. It is not enough for him intermittently to reassure Muslims - and attempt to assure the rest of us -- that we are not at war with Islam.

At the very least, there needs to be high-level, visible, and transparent interest in worrying about the mixed signals we're sending. It can't be left to Karen Hughes alone. There is only one person who can get this done: the president.

So, Mr. Bush, here are two modest but doable suggestions:

First, you should appoint a permanent high-level advisory body to keep the administration informed about what Arab- and other Muslim-Americans are thinking, feeling, and doing about what they see as problems between their communities and government, and how other Americans see the same picture. This body should advise you about perceptions and misperceptions and how to address both with honesty and clarity. It should include thoughtful representatives of these communities, clergy of all faiths, private sector representatives, members of both political parties, and senior members of the Departments of State, Homeland Security, Defense, Justice, and the FBI and CIA.

But without the machinery to act on its findings and recommendations, this will be just another of thousands of government advisory bodies. It needs teeth. Talented people who know how to do implementation.

So, Mr. President -- notwithstanding that government is historically a notoriously flunked communicator - you are surrounded by some very smart people and could have some of the world's most adept professional communicators at your service instantly. These experts should convince you to take Arab-American alienation very seriously and to mobilize whatever public and private sector resources you need to craft honest messages and make sure they get heard.

Without your leadership, these steps will be - and be seen to be -- little more than cosmetics. Only you can make them important. You need to reach out in a powerful and consistent way to explain to Arab-Americans and other Muslims - and their neighbors, all the rest of us -- the contributions made by these populations over many years. Instead, your silence will only metastasize the uninformed and unreasoning Islamophobia that is rapidly become implanted in our national genetics. And, at the same time, you need to tell the Arab- and Muslim-Americans, and our population at large why it's important for law enforcement to do what it does to protect us (hopefully, while reigning in their over-zealousness to prosecute).

This dialogue is partly about policy, but it is equally about better coordination within government, about better public-private partnerships, to actually carry out a sustained program of thoughtful, grown-up, no-spin communication.

There's a lot you can do about that. As long as you think it's important. And as long as you're prepared to listen.


By William Fisher

This week, we got yet another pitiful lesson in just how craven wanabee presidential hopefuls will be in pandering to their “base” – and how little some of them understand about how to wage and win the “Global War on Terror”.

The lesson came from Senator George Allen, the former Republican governor of Virginia, who is widely reported to be seeking his party’s nomination for president in 2008.

Senator Allen wrote to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to recommend 3-star general Jerry Boykin to be the new head of the Army’s Special Operations command.

For those of you with political amnesia, this is the same Jerry Boykin who appeared in dozens of Christian evangelical churches – often in uniform – to deliver himself of such utterances as:

About his battle with a Somali (Muslim) warlord: “I knew that my God was bigger than his God. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol.”

About the Global War on Terror: “America’s enemy is “a spiritual enemy ... called Satan.” The enemy will only be defeated, he added, “if we come against them in the name of Jesus…We in the army of God, in the house of God, kingdom of God have been raised for such a time as this… The enemy will only be defeated, he added, “if we come against them in the name of Jesus…We in the army of God, in the house of God, kingdom of God have been raised for such a time as this."

About radical Muslims: “Why do they hate us so much? …The answer to that is because we're a Christian nation."

About President Bush: "He's in the White House because God put him there."

Boykin’s incendiary remarks drew predictable praise from Christianity’s loony fringe -- the likes of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and James Dobson.

And his introduction of Crusader 101 language into the GWOT in 2002 and 2003 brought equally predictable outcries from the Muslim-American and Arab-American communities, as well as from a ton of more moderate Christian leaders and human rights advocacy groups.

So, when the Pentagon finally caved and opened an investigation, it gave Gen. Boykin a sharp slap on the wrist. It found that he violated regulations by failing to make clear he was not speaking in an official capacity when he made the speeches, sometimes wearing his Army uniform, and that Boykin violated Pentagon rules by failing to obtain advance clearance for his remarks.

The reprimand had dire consequences. Boykin is still the Pentagon's deputy undersecretary for intelligence.

Not to worry. After all, George Allen wants to be president.

So he wrote to Rumsfeld, “I am told, and I believe it to be true, that no special operations officer currently on active duty is more highly respected or admired by his superiors, peers or subordinates alike, than Jerry Boykin."

Allen’s letter said his confidence in Boykin's abilities overrides any
concerns about what may surface during confirmation hearings should the
administration nominate Boykin. Specifically, Allen mentioned the religious
statements as well as U.S. interrogation policies at the Guantanamo Bay prison, Abu Ghraib in Iraq and elsewhere.

"Granted, these are issues which (sic) cause discomfort. But I firmly believe the nomination of General Boykin to be important enough to take a stand," Allen wrote. The current commander of Special Operations, Army Gen. Bryan "Doug" Brown, is retiring.

The first term senator said his request to nominate Boykin had the support of "many of my colleagues here in the Senate" and those who have served with Boykin, given the general's extensive special operations resume, which includes the Army's Delta Force and service in the Somalia conflict.”

No doubt, though he didn’t name any of Boykin’s other supporters.

But, to his credit, one far more powerful Senate voice demurred. Virginia Sen. John Warner, the Republican chairman of the Armed Services Committee (of which Sen. Allen is not a member) said in a statement to the AP, "Senator Allen is entitled to his views. He did not consult with me on this matter, but this officer would not be among those whom I would recommend for this position."

Good for him!

But there is a much larger point here. Even if we forget what Gen. Boykin believes, the Muslim world will not. They remember Abu Ghraib. And they remember, as reported by the New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh, that the prison abuse scandal grew out of a decision to give greater influence to the Defense Intelligence unit, led by Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence -- and his deputy, guess who? Lt. General William G. “Jerry” Boykin.

They know all about the CIA’s private airline carrying out U.S. kidnappings of suspected terrorists and their “extreme renditions” to black hole prisons in Eastern Europe, and to such pillars of democracy as Egypt, Syria and a host of other hospitable venues.

They know all about the “diplomatic assurances” the U.S. gets from these countries, which routinely vow not to torture or abuse those we deliver into their gentle hands.

They know about Guantanamo Bay. They know about Bagram. They know about our then attorney general, John Ashcroft, rounding up anyone who looked like “a Middle Easterner” after the 9/11 attacks, convicting no one of any terror-related crime, but deporting many.

How do we know they know? We know because they tell us. In no uncertain terms.

Every time our hear-and-see-no-evil Secretary of State stilettos her way abroad, she gets an earful about precisely these issues. And when her sidekick, our newest public diplomacy maven, Karen Hughes, sets off on another of her tone-deaf “listening tours” of the Middle East to bond with “Muslim Moms”, what she hears is America is at war with Islam.

Even if she were qualified in public diplomacy, she has taken on an impossible job. The president has tasked her to persuade Arabs and other Muslims that he really means it when he describes them as people of peace and understands that Al-Qaida isn’t Islam.

But be not dis-encouraged. Stay the course. Mmes. Rice and Hughes will eventually be victorious in their long war because they’ll have the enthusiastic support of folks like George Allen – and Jerry Boykin.