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Nathaniel Frank Headshot

A Fact-Based Foreign Policy? Ask the Candidates About 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

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On September 10th, 2001, a message was intercepted by American intelligence that warned that "tomorrow is zero hour" but it sat untranslated from the Arabic until it was too late: the U.S. government didn't have enough interpreters to do the work quickly enough, in part because it had been kicking them out under "don't ask, don't tell."

Talk about politicizing national security. Social issues have barely come up in the presidential debates, which seems unlikely to change since the last debate is on foreign policy. This is understandable given the import of the economy and our nation's wars. Yet in this election, there is a starker difference between the two major candidates on social issues than in any in recent memory. And social issues are not just "social" -- they speak to how a leader assembles facts into his or her governing vision. If part of the purpose of election campaigns is to prompt the country to debate the major issues that affect our lives, then LGBT equality -- considered by many to be the civil rights issue of our time -- deserves a louder hearing in the campaign's final weeks.

As a national security issue, there are actually many good reasons to raise DADT in the last debate. The story of the untranslated cables makes its relevance to national security clear. Though the policy is now history, thanks in part to the leadership of President Obama, the GOP platform darkly hints it might reinstate it. And then there's Benghazi. This fall we've watched the Republican talking points machine politicize the anti-American killings in Libya by attacking Dems for failing to prevent the incident or to label it "terrorism" the very moment it happened (instead it took a day). Never mind that President Bush responded to the killing of 3,000 on American soil by reading about pet goats to 7-year-olds and then misled the country for years citing faulty intelligence. Mitt Romney got so caught up in what Andrew Sullivan called the "sustained lie" of Democratic weakness on Libya that he trapped himself in a game-changing error in last week's debate. Yet in today's media world of feigned fair and balanced reporting, the narrative of Democratic weakness has gained traction in a way that fair criticism of Republican weakness on terrorism never has.

Thus the relevance of DADT: The candidates' opposing positions on this issue has an important bearing on presidential leadership and character, as it speaks to how willing a leader is to press a fact-based national security policy instead of politicizing the facts to serve the interests of a narrow group or ideology.

In the years leading up to the final debate over DADT, a wealth of research, including extensive study by the Pentagon itself, showed that ending the gay ban would help, not harm, national security. Then, a year after repeal of DADT was implemented, a major study (that I co-authored) released by UCLA and a team of military professors found that ending the gay ban "had no negative impact on overall military readiness," a finding echoed by other research. The evidence also mounted over the years that the assertion that openly gay service threatened military readiness was not grounded in any evidence but was, instead, a moral concern wrapped up in the banner of national security.

But the GOP dug in its heels, opposing equality at every turn in an obvious sop to the religious right. Indeed, for years conservatives have been more than happy to play politics with this issue. Sen. John McCain led the fight against repeal, insisting -- against all the evidence -- that it would do "great damage" to the military and "harm the battle effectiveness" necessary to our troops' survival. Elaine Donnelly, head of the Center for Military Readiness, a tiny Michigan shop dedicated to opposing women and gay soldiers in combat, enlisted over a thousand retired generals and admirals to sign a letter stating that openly gay service would "undermine recruiting and retention, impact leadership at all levels, have adverse effects on the willingness of parents who lend their sons and daughters to military service, and eventually break the All-Volunteer Force." Paul Ryan voted against repeal even after the top Pentagon leadership backed it, armed with a military report that was the most extensive ever to be produced on the issue.

Mitt Romney's current position is, not surprisingly, hard to pin down. He supported openly gay service in his 1994 senate run before he opposed it in his presidential bid before he said in his next presidential bid that, as a fait accompli, it no longer really matters. It's a flip-flopping routine that has become legendary, and shows no signs of letting up. Just last week, the Romney campaign said through top advisor, Bay Buchanan, that the candidate wanted to leave same-sex marriage up to the states and "would not get in the way of what states decide to do on marriage." The remark clearly signaled a reversal of Romney's support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage; but days later Buchanan was forced to issue a "clarification" indicating that the candidate still supports a constitutional amendment and only supports states' rights when it comes to couple benefits, not marriage.

If Republicans believe openly gay service is a threat to national security, shouldn't they fight to reinstate the ban? And if they were wrong in that belief, shouldn't they be forced to say so? If the years-long debate over DADT has been a giant red blur -- a red herring to throw red meat to red states -- will they now state publicly that their opposition to gay equality is a moral and political position and not a national security one? That they have been politicizing national security for decades and that doing so remains a crucial part of their plan for the future?

Obviously not. But the question deserves to be asked. So to Mitt Romney in the foreign policy debate: You and your running mate opposed ending DADT, but after the policy changed anyway, the military said it was a success; were you wrong, and what should voters infer from this about whether you'll implement a fact-based foreign policy?