Yesterday Rick Perry went to New York, stood with Jewish leaders, and declared his support for Israel. He called it a democracy, a bulwark against terrorism, and a stalwart ally of the United States.
Then he was asked: "To what extent do you view America's continued protection of Israel as a theological priority?" He answered:
Well, obviously, Israel is our oldest and most stable democratic ally in that region. That is what this is about. I also as a Christian have a clear directive to support Israel. So from my perspective, it's pretty easy. Both as an American and as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel.
Whoa. That's something George W. Bush never did. Bush never said he had a Christian duty to stand with Israel, because to say such a thing would have been stupid and dangerous. By framing U.S. foreign policy in terms of a religious alliance between Christians and Jews, Perry is validating the propaganda of Islamic extremists. He's jeopardizing peace, Israel, and the United States.
Bush understood that the terrorists who struck us on 9/11 wanted a religious war. The key to defeating them wasn't to wage that war, but to refuse it. That's why Bush constantly praised Islam, emphasized American freedom of religion, and dismissed Osama Bin Laden as a renegade killer of Muslims.
Israel was part of that rhetorical struggle. Bin Laden routinely invoked the plight of Palestinians to rally Muslims to his side. He accused the West of waging a "Zionist-Crusader war" against Islam. He warned Muslims: "Take not the Jews and the Christians for your friends and protectors. They are but friends and protectors to each other."
Go back and look at Bush's comments about Israel. In eight years, he never mentioned his Christianity as a basis for his policies there. He defended Israel as a democracy and an ally. When he mentioned Judaism and Christianity in this context, he always included Islam. "The Middle East is the birthplace of three great religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam," Bush said in a speech to the American Jewish Committee a few months before 9/11. "Lasting peace in the region must respect the rights of believers in all these faiths." In 2007, Bush told Al Arabiya: "I believe that all the world, whether they be Muslim, Christian, or any other religion, prays to the same God. … I believe that Islam is a great religion that preaches peace." Again and again, Bush affirmed: "If you're a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim, you're equally American."
Perry has trashed this legacy. By declaring that "as a Christian, I am going to stand with Israel," he has vindicated Bin Laden's narrative. Across the Muslim world, Perry's policies—starting with his declaration that "it was a mistake to call for an Israeli construction freeze" as a precondition for talks with the Palestinians—would be seen as a Christian-Jewish alliance against Islam.
In the age of Bin Laden, this kind of sectarian bluster would have been bad enough. In the age of the Arab Spring, it's catastrophic. Country after country is grappling with Islam, democracy, and anti-Americanism. The last thing we need is a crusading president who turns the Muslim world against us.
Perry seems eager for such a confrontation. "We have been slow to recognize the risks posed by the new regime in Egypt," he warned yesterday in his prepared remarks. "We must signal to the world, including nations like Turkey and Egypt whom we have considered allies in recent years, that we won't tolerate aggression against Israel." Considered allies? Is that a declaration of separation? And in case Perry's blasts at Turkey and Egypt weren't enough, he threatened to cut off the United Nations: "America must make it clear that a declaration of Palestinian Statehood in violation of the spirit of the Oslo accords could jeopardize our funding of U.N. operations."
As a Texan, I'm sure that kind of talk goes over well in towns like Paint Creek, where, as Perry fondly recalls, there were two choices: a Baptist church and a Methodist church. But out here in the big world, Governor, there are mosques and temples. And if you can't figure out how to talk to the billion or so Muslims who hold Israel's fate and our national security in their hands, you'd best head back to a place small enough for your theology.