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Don’t Mess With Success

Is now the time to overturn Don't Ask, Don't Tell?

Feb 8, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 20 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Don’t Mess With Success

In his State of the Union address, Barack Obama worried that “too many of our citizens have lost faith” in “our biggest institutions.” Many of those institutions have, of course, invited disillusionment with their feckless and irresponsible behavior. But poll after poll shows that at least one major American institution retains citizens’ faith. Indeed, this institution has improved its standing in recent years as respect for others has declined. That institution is the U.S. military.

So what institution does the president want to subject to an untested, unnecessary, and probably unwise social experiment? The U.S. military.

“This year,” the president informed us, “I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.” 

It’s hard to know where that “finally” came from. Until a year ago, Americans had elected presidents who were in favor of upholding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”—so if action on this has been overdue, it’s only been for the single year of the Obama presidency. 

But the repeal is something that Obama campaigned on. He believes in it. But with all due respect to his sincerely held if abstractly formed views on this subject, it would be reckless to require the military to carry out a major sociological change, one contrary to the preferences of a large majority of its members, as it fights two wars. What’s more, it isn’t a change an appreciable number of Americans are clamoring for. And even if one understood this change to be rectifying an injustice, the fact is it’s an injustice that affects perhaps a few thousand people in a nation of 300 million. 

But, “It’s the right thing to do,” said the president.

Here is contemporary liberalism in a nutshell: No need to consider costs as well as benefits. No acknowledgment of competing goods or coexisting rights. No appreciation of the constraints of public sentiment or the challenges of organizational complexity. No sense that not every part of society can be treated dogmatically according to certain simple propositions. Just the assertion that something must be done because it is in some abstract way “the right thing.”  

John McCain’s response to Obama’s statement was that of a grown-up: “This successful policy has been in effect for over 15 years, and it is well understood and predominantly supported by our military at all levels. We have the best trained, best equipped, and most professional force in the history of our country, and the men and women in uniform are performing heroically in two wars. At a time when our Armed Forces are fighting and sacrificing on the battlefield, now is not the time to abandon the policy.” Whatever its muddled origins and theoretical deficiencies, the fact is “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” works pretty well at accommodating the complex demands of a war-ready military nestled in a liberal society.

The advocates of repeal say, it’s a matter of basic rights. No, it’s not. Leave aside the fact that there are difficult and unresolved questions of how our society should deal in various areas of public policy with questions of sexual orientation. There is no basic right to serve in the military. That’s why forms of discrimination we would ban in civilian life are permitted: Women have less opportunity to fight than men. The disabled are discriminated against, as are the short, the near-sighted, and the old.

Advocates of repeal will say sexual orientation is irrelevant to military performance in a way these attributes are not. But this is not clearly true given the peculiar characteristics of military service.

We’ll hear a lot, as the debate moves forward, about gay Arabic translators being discharged from military service. A decision to separate from the military someone who is sitting in an office in Northern Virginia may look silly. But the Obama Defense Department is entirely free to ensure that those men and women continue to use their skills to serve their country in those same offices as civilians. And translators who are uniformed members of the military are subject to the usual demands of training and deployment, so the questions about the effect of open homosexuals on unit morale and cohesion in training and combat situations remain relevant. 

As an intellectual matter, gays in the military is a not uninteresting question. We have our views, as does President Obama, and we are not averse to debating the issue. But surely there are more pressing and important matters for our political and military leaders to be spending their time on.

—William Kristol  


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