Despite distorted reports that the military remains unified in opposition to the imminent repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bars homosexuals from serving openly in the U.S. military, the true profile of opinions among senior officers appears much more complicated. Today, Joint Chiefs Chairman ADM Mike Mullen gave a hint as to what the real priorities are when he disclosed that his support of the repeal language now pending in Congress results from the fact that the language gives senior military leaders discretion in when and how to implement the repeal.
Skeptics might point out that the “study” that ADM Mullen points to is a time-honored delaying tactic. Those skeptics would be wrong, in my opinion. At least, many of those skeptics aren’t accounting for the nuances of civil-military relations in the United States. The belief that senior military leaders remain permanently and unalterably opposed to repealing DADT relies on the assumption that those leaders don’t care about the costs of the policy on their ability to train and maintain a maximally-effective force. If anti-gay bias is their motivation, then they must be willing to lose critical skills like linguists to indulge it. That’s a plausible interpretation only if one makes some pretty strong and extremely negative and ultimately unprovable presumptions about their motives.
It seems more plausible to look on it as yet another round in the perpetual turf war between civilians and senior officers. Military leaders know that, for practical and political reasons, the days of DADT are numbered. I believe this policy will be gone within two years, notwithstanding the efforts by some GOP traditionalists to obstruct it’s repeal by a filibuster. Surveys show that huge majorities of the American people believe the policy is outdated, information about its costs in the loss of critical skills like linguists is becoming more broadly known all the time, and all the objective data available from other countries indicates that any problems with transition are manageable by sensible application of existing rules about sexual behavior among military members.
So since they know DADT is almost certainly on the way out, the real question for senior military leaders is to negotiate the best terms for its repeal. And what they want to protect more than anything else, as ADM Mullen’s comments indicate, is their ability to retain control over military personnel policies generally. If they fight a repeal that happens anyway, the loss of control would reverberate over the long term. But if they hold off implementing a repeal that is coming no matter what until they can say that they completed a study that endorses repeal, they can put themselves on the “winning” side. It’s a neat political sleight-of-hand that is a well-worn tool among Washington insiders — those who control policy implementation in a given area can position themselves to be the champions of a policy change that they know is coming rather than fighting it and being seen as defeated.
DADT will probably be repealed, but implementation will probably be delayed until the military makes a climactic endorsement of the policy change that’s coming anyway. The modern military is politically savvy enough to make itself the winner of the turf war in the process.