Thursday, February 4, 2010

Gays in the Military: Politics as Usual?

The Obama Administration just announced it will take a year to study the issue of gays in the military, and then report to Congress on changing the current policy of “Don’t ask; don’t tell.” A Congressional vote is necessary to rescind “Don’t ask, don’t tell” because Congress codified it in the Military Personnel Act of 1993, after President Clinton initiated a veritable war by attempting to rescind the military’s anti-gay policy through Executive Order.

There’s nothing to study. No detailed report are necessary. No nuance or splitting the difference; no grand political compromise will resolve the issue. Either gays serve, or they don’t.

The delay is simply political – to “kick the can” past the November election. Congress would clearly prefer not to vote on the issue during an election year. We expect courage from our military personnel, but clearly not from politicians.

But what is the issue? Is it military or political?

The simple issue is one of military preparedness. Sexual orientation has no bearing on military preparedness.

Baron Von Steuben, the drill master of the Continental Army, he who whipped the colonial army into shape, may or may not have been gay, but it didn’t matter. The Continental Army beat the professional British Army.

Just as “there are no atheists in a foxhole,” so too the military has often overlooked sexual orientation in wartime. The code then is bravery, not preference or religion.

Winston Churchill, twice First Lord of the Admiralty in England, is reputed to have once said the tradition of the Royal Navy is “rum, sodomy, and the lash.” England lifted its ban on gays in the military in 2000. Israel, perhaps the best military in the world, has no problem with gays in the military.

But we have to study it for a year? A further year will not tell us anything we do not already know. Ask England or Israel to fax over their policies. That’s all we need.

If the issue is political, then a grievous political misjudgment is at work.

The key issues in November 2010 will not be gay rights or defense of marriage. In the immortal words of President Clinton: "It's the economy stupid."

Economics, or Heaven forbid, a terrorist attack will drive the election.

A basic rule of politics is that in times of economic difficulty, voters vote their pocket books, but when times are good, they vote social issues. Abortion and gay rights will not be defining issues this election cycle.

If the Obama Administration, Secretary Gates, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff wish to end the policy, now is the time when the Democrats still control Congress, and the President retains some capital in the bank.

The November elections are 8 months away, which is an eternity in politics, but absent a sea change in the electorate, November will be a Republican rout. A conservative, Republican Congress will be less likely to change the existing policy than the current Democratic Congress.

The Congressional Republicans were in shell shock a year ago. They would have beat a strategic retreat on the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell.”

Our perspective has changed on gay rights, or LGBT rights, since 1993.
Eventhough a majority of the public opposes same sex marriages, they support civil union statutes - close but not the equivalent of marriage.

Police, fire, clergy, Hollywood, students, teachers, professors, lawyers, doctors, dentists, accountants, executives, reporters, publishers, editors, labor leaders have come out of the closet.

Even politicians have come out. Democratic politicians are more likely to be open about their sexual preferences, but Michael Huffington, Steve Gunderson, and Jim Kolbe were not, and are not, the only gay Republican Congressmen. Presumably Larry Craig was not the first, last, and only gay Republican Senator. Governors and mayors have come out of the closet.

Indeed, probably only among LGBT athletes on team sports is there a reluctance to come out, as least while still competing.

Senator John F. Kennedy penned a classic best seller in 1955, Profiles in Courage. He detailed the stories of eight Senators who displayed great political courage.

Sadly, many of today's legislators find their courage in campaign contributions, focus groups, and polls.

If repeal fails, it will simply be another casualty of the health reform battles, and that rests on the President. Upon assuming office, President Obama had to pass some sort of economic stimulus plan, address the bankruptcies of GM and Chrysler, and further shore up the financial institutions of America.

Beyond that though, he subordinated his program, cap and trade, card check, “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” to health reform, losing health reform, his political capital, and the remainder of his program in the process.

Perhaps the reason the Obama Administration has revived the military policy now is to reestablish his connections with his base. If so, that is especially cynical, and politics as usual.

It doesn’t have to be.

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