Bush's Newest Crusader

William Fisher

December 01, 2005

William Fisher has managed economic development programs in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and Asia for the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development. This piece was originally published in The Daily Star and is reprinted with permission.
Washington is a town where the best and the brightest usually coexist with well-connected political hacks. However, the Bush administration has taken promotion of the latter to embarrassing extremes, selecting unqualified people for posts because of their political loyalty and ideological persuasion. The most recent example of this was the appointment of Paul Bonicelli to be deputy director of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), which is in charge of all programs to promote democracy and good governance overseas.

One would have thought the administration had learned its lesson. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, was forced to resign because of his incompetence in dealing with the consequences of the storm. Soon afterward, President George W. Bush named While House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. Her lack of qualifications, and a Republican revolt against the nomination, forced her to withdraw.

Like Brown and Miers, Bonicelli has little experience in the field he has been tapped to supervise. The closest he comes to democracy promotion or good governance is having worked as a staffer for the Republican Party in the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives.

More significant to the administration, perhaps, is the fact that Bonicelli is dean of academic affairs at tiny Patrick Henry College  in rural Virginia. The fundamentalist institution's motto is "For Christ and Liberty." It requires that all of its 300 students sign a 10-part "statement of faith" declaring, among other things, that they believe "Jesus Christ, born of a virgin, is God come in the flesh;" that "Jesus Christ literally rose bodily from the dead"; and that hell is a place where "all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity."

Faculty members, too, must sign a pledge stating they share a generally literalist belief in the Bible. Revealingly, only biology and theology teachers are required to hold a literal view specifically of the Bible's six-day creation story. Bonicelli has stated, "I think the most important thing is our academic excellence, [and the fact that we] combine it with a serious statement about our faith and values ... I believe in six literal days, but I remain open to someone persuading me otherwise."

Patrick Henry was founded in 2000 for home-schooled students. Among the fundamentalist community, home-schooling is seen as a way to promote Christian values as an alternative to what is regarded as an increasingly secular and irreligious culture prevalent in public schools. The college says it aims to "prepare Christian men and women who will lead our nation and shape our culture with timeless biblical values and fidelity to the spirit of the American founding." It seeks "to aid in the transformation of American society by training Christian students to serve God and mankind with a passion for righteousness, justice and mercy, through careers of public service and cultural influence."

Though Bonicelli has scant credentials for his new post, he and his institution enjoy close ties to the Bush administration and to fundamentalist religious groups that form such a critical part of the president's base. Many Patrick Henry students have been chosen to serve as interns working for White House political adviser Karl Rove, for the White House Office of Public Liaison, and for Republican members of the House and Senate. "Most students' values don't link up with [those of] the Democrats," Bonicelli says.

In 2002, Bush appointed Bonicelli—along with former Vatican adviser John Klink and Janice Crouse of the ultra-conservative Concerned Women for America—to an American delegation attending a United Nations children's conference, where they sought to promote biblical values in U.S. foreign policy. This sparked angry protests from groups advocating women's rights and the separation of church and state.

What's wrong with this picture is that the USAID programs Bonicelli will run are important weapons in the arsenal of Bush's new public diplomacy czarina, White House confidante Karen Hughes. These programs are intended to play a central role in boosting Bush's efforts to foster democracy and freedom in Iraq and throughout the broader Middle East.

One can only wonder how Muslims, the target audience for these USAID programs, will react to the view that "all who die outside of Christ shall be confined in conscious torment for eternity."