A Policy for the Timid
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: "Its 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 "dont ask,
dont 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
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 governments 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
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 whats right."
The "dont ask, dont 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 panels 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 administrations 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
[Home] [Editorials] [US