If the New York Times is to be believed, Attorney General John Ashcroft has lost the allegiance of the religious conservatives whose strong support helped secure his confirmation in early 2001. Unsurprisingly, liberal Democrats and like-minded interest groups who sought to block the Ashcroft nomination have not noticeably warmed to the AG since he took office. This would appear to set up the sort of Right-Left Washington mugging that often precedes a Cabinet member’s precipitous, and usually involuntary, departure from office.
Don’t bet on it this time. For one thing, the Times’ dire assessment notwithstanding, most of the religious conservatives cited in the article are not gunning for John Ashcroft. They recognize him as a man whose extensive public service has been rooted in a profound Christian faith.
Paul Weyrich, who has long been and remains an influential figure in those circles, has told me that he continues to support the Attorney General. Ken Connor of the Family Research Council said much the same thing last week to the Weekly Standard Magazine’s online edition, as did Gary Bauer, Chuck Colson of the Prison Fellowship Ministries and a representative of James Dobson’s Focus on the Family.
This is not to say that every one of these leaders of the Nation’s religious conservatives -- or their followers -- is uncritical of every aspect of the Attorney General performance on the job. The front-page New York Times article that appeared on July 24th could not be dismissed out of hand because a number of conservatives have openly expressed concern about legislative steps that Mr. Ashcroft initiated and FBI guidelines he relaxed as part of the war on terrorism, measures they fear could in the future be used by a hostile Justice Department to infringe upon their civil liberties.
Still, religious conservatives -- and, indeed, conservatives of every other persuasion -- have at least two reasons to be deeply grateful that they were successful in helping President Bush to place John Ashcroft in the Attorney General’s job. First, he is certainly one of their own. And second, during his time in the United States Senate (which preceded his present tour at the Justice Department), Senator Ashcroft was among that chamber’s staunchest advocates of privacy rights and civil liberties.
The fact of the matter is that, in his present capacity and under current circumstances, Mr. Ashcroft has to make hard decisions every day about where to draw the line in balancing the need for enhanced security while trying to protect the free and open society that all Americans, and particularly those on the Right, hold so dear. Such decisions are rarely a clear call and the choices to be made are not easy. We are very fortunate that the man who, first and foremost, has to make them is as sensitive as John Ashcroft has proven himself to be to the risks to our liberties.
There are, to be sure, other complaints about the Ashcroft tenure at Justice being cited in the Times and elsewhere. For example, some critics contend that the AG was guilty of grandstanding when he announced from Moscow the apprehension of alleged would-be “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla. He has also been blamed for what is said to be the Bush Administration’s undue trumpeting of threats of imminent attacks on the United States. Some express displeasure that he allowed Justice bureaucrats and other law enforcement officials to turn the September 11th attacks into a pretext for forcing through previously sought, but long-rejected, enhancements to their power and authority, etc.
These charges seem to reflect legitimate disagreements about management style and judgment calls on substantive matters, rather than an itemization of firing offenses. Even if conservatives feel there are grounds for such disagreements, they should ask themselves: Would I have done differently if I had to walk in John Ashcroft’s shoes during these challenging times -- when the American people need both to be warned of the magnitude of the terrorist threat and assured that progress is being made in contending with it, while enhancing on an emergency basis the government’s ability to do the latter?
The Weekly Standard online noted last Wednesday that there is, however, one group of “religious conservatives” who are decidedly unhappy with John Ashcroft and who appear quite keen on having him removed from office: Wahhabi Islamists.
Individuals and organizations tied to the extremist and virulently anti-American Saudi strain of Islam recognize a formidable foe in the Attorney General. His Justice Department has already led raids on a number of their operations and funding sources. And it could end their audacious and thus far largely successful efforts to: recruit felons in U.S. prisons; select like-minded imams to serve as military chaplains and indoctrinate American servicemen and women; use Saudi-financed mosques and madrassas in this country (perhaps as much as 80% of all those in the United States) as instruments for fomenting anger against this country within the Muslim community; and mainstream radicals as legitimate interlocutors -- indeed, the only ones -- for the Administration’s Muslim-outreach agenda.
Such initiatives could give rise to a potent Wahhabi “fifth column” inside America at a time when we are obliged to wage war on its Islamist counterparts elsewhere around the world. These dangers demand in the Attorney General’s post a man of John Ashcroft’s competence, judiciousness and convictions. Patriotic conservatives -- religious and otherwise -- like the country as a whole, are fortunate to have him there and should pray that he will continue to serve for the duration.