The White House and Congressional Democrats have reached a deal with the Defense Department to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that bars open military service by homosexuals. The contrasts between the present and the last time a repeal was attempted could not be more stark.
The DADT policy is a legacy of the early years of the Clinton administration, where a badly bungled effort to repeat the earlier outright ban on military service by gays resulted in a swift backlash from senior military leaders and a bipartisan coalition of Congressional supporters. President Clinton’s campaign promise to repeal the anti-gay policy was rolled out in a haphazard effort, with very little attention given to framing a sound military argument or building a coalition with senior military officers and Congressional leaders. In the immediate aftermath of the successful end of the Cold War and overwhelming military success in the Gulf War, the new President Clinton was handed a major political defeat by a wildly popular military establishment.
The present effort differs on every one of these elements. Having made a similar campaign promise to repeal DADT, President Obama has moved (much to the frustration of some activists) with deliberation and caution in stark contrast to Clinton’s haste and inexperience. Much groundwork was laid by a sea change in social attitudes regarding homosexuality generally. In 1993, there had been no “Queer Eye” and the very idea of gay marriage wasn’t even on the table. Now, surveys of social attitudes display growing acceptance of gay rights, especially among younger generations who make up the vast bulk of military members. More importantly, the argument for repealing DADT has this time focused on the military costs of the policy — the loss of linguists bites particularly hard — instead of philosophically valid but pragmatically toothless complaints about an alleged moral right to serve in the same military that most political elites prefer to avoid anyway.
In spite of all these changes, resistance in Congress remains strong, especially among Republicans (for whom opposing gay marriage and supporting “the troops” has paid big dividends among their social-conservative base) and some conservative Democrats (who continue to see opposing gay rights and supporting “the troops” as a way to hedge against Republican dominance of those issues). But their hold is weakening, especially in light of the more pragmatic argument about military effectiveness that is leading the charge this time around. Kicking out gay soldiers with impeccable military records and critical skills just because of what they do in their private lives doesn’t make military sense. And recycled arguments about “unit cohesion” are undermined by the growing raft of evidence from other military forces around the world and arguments from U.S. units themselves that regret losing gay soldiers who were effective and widely respected in their units. The military’s senior leadership is internally divided and unlikely to put up strong resistance, especially given that the most senior military leader — the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs — is strongly on record in favor of repeal.
While the “compromise” in today’s deal means that the implementation of the policy may be pointlessly delayed as a sap to opponents, DADT is probably on the way out.
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