Unfriendly Fire
How the gay ban undermines the military and weakens America

How Long Should We Wait to Lift the Ban?

For those of you interested in the contours of the coming fight over gays in the military, I will be posting, over the next few months, some remarks on what people are saying who oppose lifting the ban, or at least oppose doing it now. Some of these are liberals who find themselves indignant that other liberals would insist on equality at a time when we’re busy bailing out millionaires.

Here’s a rather typical sentiment among liberals these days, taken from a newspaper editorial: “‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ is bad policy, but now’s not the time to change it.” The key argument is this: first, now’s not the time to “force the new president to arm wrestle the Pentagon and conservatives in Congress on such a hot political issue.” Second, the lesson of Bill Clinton is that “by immediately taking on the issue of gays in the military,” he overreached and lost; he should have waited longer and consulted the military more. Finally, “the best suggestion is to first appoint a commission of members of the military and Congress to study” lifting the ban. All are wrong.

Let me be clear: I’m not pushing Obama to lift the ban in the first six months of his administration. But let me argue why this “I’m on the right side of history but let’s not rush equality” position is limited.

First, the battle with the military won’t be a replay of 1993. Yes, there will be a fight, because some in the military will squawk, particularly military evangelicals, who only care about maintaining government disapproval of homosexuality for moral and religious reasons. But what I’m hearing from the Pentagon is that many inside the building understand reform is inevitable and some even think it’s long past due. The Defense Secretary and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs have made far softer statements about this issue than in 1993, basically indicating they will comply with what political leaders decide. And Obama has already reached out to forge relationships with the military, out of necessity in an era of war that didn’t exist 16 years ago. Today, four fifths of the public favor repealing the policy, as do a majority of self-styled “conservatives,” and three quarters of enlisted personnel are “personally comfortable” around gays. As the book shows, this issue is just not the hot potato it once was, though the religious right will try to make it so.

Second, it is a myth that Clinton moved too quickly and didn’t consult the military. Delay and deference were precisely his errors. Instead of issuing an immediate executive order which would have proven overnight that gays don’t undermine the military, he ordered a 6-month “study period” during which time the religious right sent inflammatory anti-gay videos throughout the Pentagon, and hypocritical closet cases like Ted Haggard of New Life Church rallied their Christian soldiers to jam the switchboards of Congress while frothing anti-gay venom. Clinton did consult the military, meeting with the Joint Chiefs right after both the election and his inauguration. But they didn’t like what they were hearing, so they balked, and Clinton caved.

Which brings us to the third argument, that we need a study commission. Are you out of your mind? Gays in the military has been “studied” repeatedly, by the military, by the U.S. government, including its Congressional research arms, by dozens of foreign governments, and by independent academics. All the conclusions show gays can serve, but our so-called leaders stick the studies—and their heads—in the sand. Some say we should study how—not whether—to lift the ban, but remember this is exactly what Clinton ordered; and when he realized he was losing, he changed the definition of what it meant to end discrimination, and we got “don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Sure, consult the military—I realize it’s virtually politically unavoidable. But Obama should do it this way: tell the military that fifty years of evidence show conclusively that their troops are capable of serving effectively with known gays, just as they do in Britain, Israel and 22 other countries; solicit their input for how to smooth any concerns they have over implementation; consider an executive order staying homosexual discharges (even though the gay ban is now a federal statute, the president has the authority to suspend its enforcement for national emergencies; while this could be controversial, it will be less controversial than the fight to get this through Congress, and once he suspends discharges, he can point to the actual presence of open gays and show that the sky hasn’t fallen); then signal to Congressional leaders that the time has come, and push the repeal bill through Congress.

As in all the other countries where this happened, here it will be a non-event. And we’ll all look back on this and wonder why the fuss?

3 Responses to “How Long Should We Wait to Lift the Ban?”

  1. […] with the same promise. And again Barack Obama is saying, “let us wait.” Over the weekend, I argued against those who want to punt this down the field. And as if on cue, the Secretary of Defense on Sunday said […]

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