Last edited: December 05, 2004

A Policy for the Timid

Washington Post, June 19, 2001
1150 15th Street NW, Washington, DC 20071

By Lawrence J. Korb

In a string of recent speeches and appearances, President Bush and his foreign policy team have pledged to take the risks necessary to create a brand new, post-Cold War military fit for the 21st century.

Bush told graduating officers at the Naval Academy that he was "committed to fostering a military culture where intelligent risk-taking and forward thinking are rewarded, not dreaded." Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently in an interview: "It’s wrong to allow people to develop a zero tolerance for risk."

How odd, then, that this same administration clings to a costly military policy from the Clinton era that is mostly based on a timid aversion to risk. It is the law that covers gays in the military, known as "don’t ask, don’t tell," which bars acknowledged homosexuals from serving in the armed forces on the grounds that their presence "would create an unacceptable risk to the armed forces’ high standards of morale, good order and discipline."

As Harvard University Prof. Janet Halley demonstrated in a recent book, risk aversion is not a trivial element of the gay ban. On the contrary, Halley shows that the government’s primary rationale for firing gay and lesbian service members is to avoid the imagined risk they might pose to the military.

But in fact the risks attributable to lifting the gay ban are minimal. For example, the CIA, FBI, Secret Service and National Security Agency have not experienced problems since they began allowing known homosexuals to serve. Twenty-three foreign armed forces, including the crack Israeli and British militaries, have lifted their bans on gays without trouble.

Meanwhile, the Pentagon, even though it has a difficult time retaining qualified personnel and meeting recruiting targets, fired a record 1,231 service members for the crime of being gay last year — the highest number since 1987 — and now must waste more than $30 million training their replacements.

Responding recently to a survey of enlisted personnel that showed widespread dissatisfaction, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, the Army chief of staff, spoke of "things that needed to be corrected for years. And the time is now for doing what’s right."

The "don’t ask, don’t tell" policy was hammered out as a temporary compromise when Sam Nunn, who opposed lifting the ban, chaired the Senate Armed Services Committee. The new chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), has been on record for years as an advocate of gays in the military.

In addition, a blue ribbon commission has just recommended the elimination of a military law that forbids sodomy. Sponsored by the distinguished National Institute of Military Justice, the panel of legal experts concluded this week that punishing sodomy can seem "arbitrary, even vindictive."

Anti-sodomy law often has served as a justification for excluding homosexuals from the armed forces. The panel’s recommendation is yet another indication of the growing consensus that the military is on the wrong side of history. According to a recent Gallup poll, 72 percent of Americans favor letting gays serve in the military.

If the Bush administration’s promised commitment to the spirit of innovation and risk-taking implies an honest reassessment of an outdated fighting force, it should work with Sen. Levin to scrap the gay ban. Doing so would put the United States on a par with the free world by ending the final bastion of government discrimination against proven patriots.

  • The writer was assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan. He is currently vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

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