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Nathaniel Frank

Nathaniel Frank

Posted: May 18, 2009 12:03 PM

Another Phony Rationale for Delay on Gay Troops


In recent weeks, this and other forums have seen heated debate, largely among the left, about whether, when, and how to end discrimination against gays in the military. Until now, the answer given by many liberals was that Obama needs time--time to deal with higher priorities like the economy, to spend political capital on more important goals, to build political consensus for eventual repeal once everything else is all taken care of.  Ending the discharge of gay troops--no matter the terrible cost to our soldiers and to our national security efforts--has been considered a "distraction."

But a big part of this thinking was rooted in the mistaken belief that only Congress can lift the ban, and that a battle on Capitol Hill would mean dragging the nation through an agonizing repeat of the culture wars of 1993.  Last week, a new study showed that Obama can end the discharges with an immediate executive order using the "stop-loss" authority that Congress has already granted the commander-in-chief (disclaimer: I was a co-author of that study).

Response to this idea has been swift. This weekend, a petition circulated by Courage Campaign was signed by over 95,000 people asking Obama to suspend the ban immediately. The petitioners want the president to stop the discharge of Lt. Dan Choi, an openly gay Arabic translator and Iraq War combat leader, "and any other soldier as a result of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy." The White House switchboard was flooded with calls at the hands of Knights Out, and other groups of gay veterans who want to be able to serve their country with the honesty and integrity such service demands. Congressman Rush Holt has also called for an executive order lifting the ban.

On Friday, the White House itself was asked about the idea for the second time. But Press Secretary Robert Gibbs invoked an implausible rationale for delay in claiming that using the president's power to halt the firings was "not the way to seek any lasting or durable solution" to the problem. The "only durable solution," he said, is for Congress to make the change. Surely Gibbs knows that the executive option would be quite durable. But the president would rather punt it to Congress, which is, incidentally, waiting for him to lead.  No one wants to own gay rights.

The executive option demands from the left (and the White House) a new rationale for delaying equal treatment for gay troops. If a protracted battle with Congress is not needed because Obama has the power to stop the madness, what exactly are we waiting for? Indeed, while the common wisdom is that Clinton's error was moving too quickly on this issue, the truth is that it was his delay that ultimately derailed him: during his 6-month "study period," members of the military and the religious right joined forces to convince the nation--with scare stories and literally no empirical evidence--that the risks of change were too costly. 

It is troubling to now see liberals using what amounts to this same "unacceptable risk" tactic to argue against lifting the ban immediately. The phrase, which appears in the "don't ask, don't tell" law itself, says openly gay service is an "unacceptable risk" to the military, but it has always been hogwash: in my research on "don't ask, don't tell," I spoke to senior officers who helped write the policy, and even they told me it was "based on nothing" but "our own prejudices and fears." A bipartisan panel of retired flag officers who authored a 2008 study on the gay ban concluded that the "unacceptable risk" language had simply been made up. What makes a risk unacceptable anyway? Answer: a judgment by those in power that they don't value the benefits of a proposed change enough to press forward if they can't have guarantees about the outcome. 

What if the political argument that is scaring liberals away from gay rights--the one that says defending gay rights is an "unacceptable risk"--is also wrong? What if that risk is wildly exaggerated?  What if the idea that backing gay equality is too distracting or politically costly is based on an ungrounded fear? Perhaps the real impulse of those who would block equality in the military is that they don't value the benefits of lifting the ban enough to press forward if they can't have guarantees about the outcome.

Perhaps, too, the gradualists don't realize that too often, "later" never comes. When do people think that Obama will have achieved enough that he will really, truly, turn to "don't ask, don't tell" and expend political capital on it? Sure, Obama believes this policy should end.  But what the White House is really doing is called "deprioritization": he is taking one of the quickest, easiest, most militarily and morally necessary items on his agenda, and placing at the bottom of the heap. He is saying this must not come up now, and if it never comes up, so be it.

This is a policy which can be ended with the stroke of a pen, thereby improving military readiness and freeing the president to focus on the nation's other pressing needs. It's a policy that liberals accommodate when they say that righting this wrong now is an unacceptable risk. It's a policy that's rooted, really, in a wish to spare the military the "blemish" of homosexuality.  And accommodating it is a practice rooted in the wish to spare the liberalism that very same "blemish."

What has lost liberals political power and electoral victories in the past is their unwillingness to press for what they believe in. So what'll it be, liberals? Are gays and lesbians a blemish who ought to be papered over, even at the expense of national security? It's time for liberals to put their money where their mouth is.