11/30/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who's Leading the DADT Debate?

One of the most disturbing questions in Washington today is just how much sway the military and the Pentagon have over the President in matters ranging from the number of troops in Afghanistan and the conduct and aims of that war, to their eagerness--indeed, their willingness--to advance repeal of "don't ask don't tell" (DADT).

Historically we know Congress and the Presidency have given considerable weight to the Pentagon's recommendations in military personnel matters--as well they should. But it is one thing to give the Pentagon considerable weight and another thing altogether to let it dictate the timing and terms of the debate, and the final decision.

This is true whether the debate is about repealing DADT, about getting an updated GI bill through Congress or sending more troops and treasure to Afghanistan. We want the Pentagon's recommendations, but do we really want the Pentagon to make the final decisions on matters that will deeply affect the welfare of the entire country? That is why we have the separation of powers and why the President commands the military, not the other way around.

Everything in Washington is politics, but what may be a political game in Washington is not a game to the country at large or, for that matter, to the world. The games we play in Washington make the reality beyond the Beltway.

Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told President Nixon that if he wanted to get the thousands of war protestors, many of whom were students and their parents, off the streets, the draft should end. It did, in January 1973, and the demonstrations pretty much ended, too, while the war dragged on for another two years. Kissinger's intent was to strengthen the President's hand, not the hands of the Pentagon generals.

But that was not exactly what happened. A consequence of that decision was that very few of our Congressmen have worn the uniform of our country or have any real knowledge of how the Pentagon works. Our last three presidents have had no military experience. (I don't count President Bush's undocumented reserve duty as military experience.) Very few of our Congressmen have pulled guard duty on a freezing night or done a hardship tour or two or three in Iraq or Afghanistan, or seen a buddy die on the battlefield or in their arms. (Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) is among the notable exceptions, and he is the House leader on the repeal bill, H.R. 1283.) Brief tours to combat zones accompanied by scores of security guards and brass to brief them do not count as military experience.

The era of the citizen soldier ended in 1973. The military went to an all-volunteer force coupled with enormous outsourcing to civilian contractors, a system the Pentagon now prefers. The diversity that universal military service--the old draft--brought to the ranks is sorely missed. By and large and with a few notable exceptions, you will not find the sons and daughters of the privileged classes filling the ranks of the military today. Neither they nor their parents feel they have the huge stake they once did in matters of war and peace.

President Truman was a decorated Army captain in World War I. President Carter was a nuclear submarine officer. The first President Bush was a decorated fighter pilot. They did not feel they had to earn their stripes with the brass and they did not feel intimidated by them. But we know Clinton was and it hurt him and us dearly. We are soon to find out about President Obama. The ultimate decision is his.

If President Truman had listened solely to the Pentagon, he would never have ended racial segregation in the armed services. If Congress had followed the advice of the opposing admirals and generals, women would never have been admitted to the military academies or had new career opportunities opened to them in the ranks. Likewise, Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen are important in the DADT debate today but they are not the entire debate nor do they decide where it ends.

On a brighter note, in the forthcoming "official, authoritative Department of Defense edition" of Joint Forces Quarterly, Colonel Om Prakash, USAF, who took first place in the Secretary of Defense National Security Essay Competition, argues forcefully for the abolition of "don't ask, don't tell" and the institution of open service. You can find this important report in pdf format here. It's on page 86.

More good news: Admiral Mullen seemed to be moving in the President's direction when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee two weeks ago that it was time for women to serve on submarines.

Welcome to the 21st Century.