Jewish and Arab leaders say President Bush’s appointment of Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes to a federal think tank — despite the objections of Arab groups and some congressional Democrats — offers a window into White House thinking on Middle East issues.
Bush’s Aug. 22 appointment of Pipes, director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, to the board of directors of the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) comes after Arab American and Muslim groups waged a strong battle against his Senate confirmation. They called Pipes an "Islamaphobe" who made bigoted comments against Arabs and Muslims.
The USIP was founded by Congress in 1984 to create programs and fellowships that foster peace and nonviolent conflict resolution. The organization frequently sponsors lectures in Washington on international conflicts. Its board is appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate.
Jewish groups were gearing up to back Pipes in the Senate, saying they rely on his insight and scholarship on militant Islam. In the end, however, no heavy lifting was required. Instead, Bush placed Pipes on the board through a recess appointment, allowing him to serve without confirmation until the end of the congressional term in January 2005.
Jewish leaders say the move shows the White House’s commitment to combating the threat radical Islam poses to the United States and its allies. Pipes had warned of the danger of militant Islam long before Sept. 11 and criticized many scholars in his field who he said had become apologists for Islamic militancy.
Arab leaders, however, say the appointment shows that some White House officials hold the same "right-wing" views on Middle East issues as Pipes. Specifically, they point to Elliott Abrams, a senior official on Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, who they say has a track record of public comments that put his positions in line with those of Pipes.
Pipes was nominated for the post in April, but his confirmation was postponed last month by the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee after several lawmakers, including Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), voiced opposition to it.
"It certainly reached a level of attention and publicity that surprised me," Pipes said. Major newspaper editorials came out for and against the nominee. Pipes said he was told the White House decided to use a recess appointment, because of its eagerness to fill the institute’s board, not because of concerns over his ultimate confirmation.
Pipes said Kennedy and others misunderstood the writing and work he has done for more than 25 years, at times taking his comments out of context and at other times distorting them.
Arab groups claimed Pipes had said that Muslims do not follow proper hygiene, but Pipes said he was simply describing the way Europeans look at Muslims. Also, he said many of the comments he has made about radical Islam often are mistaken as accusations against the Muslim religion in general.
"I’m making a fairly complex and novel argument about the differences between religious Islam and radical Islam," he said. "It’s an important argument that needs to be made."
Pipes said he will expand on his rationale for the objections to his nomination in a column for the New York Post.
Hussein Ibish, communications director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said Pipes is prevaricating when he says that he is trying to distinguish between Islam per se and terrorist actions linked to militant Islam.
"He defaults to putting everyone in an Islamist militant category," Ibish said. "You have to basically agree with his pro-Likud stance to not be considered a militant Muslim."
Several Jewish groups quickly praised Pipes’ nomination, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. The Anti-Defamation League said Pipes had an "important approach and perspective to the challenges facing the U.S. in the post-9/11 world."
The nomination of Pipes, a frequent lecturer to Jewish audiences, was being watched in the American Jewish community. Jewish officials said they would have backed Pipes vocally if a fight over his nomination had erupted on the Senate floor.
Instead, the community decided to stay silent in order not to derail a process that was moving in Pipes’ favor. Meanwhile, many Arab leaders voiced their opposition.
When word of Pipes’ impending recess appointment became public, nearly a dozen Muslim and interfaith groups spoke out against him and led a phone campaign to the White House against the appointment.
Ibish said Arab and Muslim groups consider the fact that Pipes’ nomination required a "backdoor" appointment a victory for their cause. "It’s an important political statement that the White House had to do it this way," he said.
Pipes said his writings have been more closely scrutinized in the past five months and that he has learned to be more cautious.
"I’ve learned to be careful to make sure things I say cannot be taken out of context," he said. "It is the lesson of increased attention that I hope I have profited from."