Note: This post was written by a Secure Nation guest author.
Few issues provide a more vivid illustration of the partisanship in Washington than the controversy over what to do about the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” law. The right maintains that President Clinton’s 1993 compromise is working, and that it is fine for 0% of military units to be gay-friendly for the foreseeable future. The left maintains that 100% of units should be gay-friendly in a year.
Both positions are demonstrably silly. The 0% position of the right is silly because it is hard to find anyone who will argue that it is a problem for a military lawyer or doctor to be gay. The 100% position of the left is silly because the military is struggling, even today, with how to welcome women on submarines. Making submarines gay-friendly would be even harder. The Navy is planning to accommodate women on submarines by providing separate accommodations that ensure their privacy from men. Accommodating gays in the same way in the close confines of submarines would be more complicated logistically. The submarine privacy issue was the clincher argument used to prevent President Clinton’s 100% solution in 1993.
Instead of these two extreme positions, there is a centrist approach to the DADT issue that would begin progress on gays in the military much faster. Congress could replace DADT with instructions for the Secretary of Defense to open up units to gays if they have the sexual privacy infrastructure to accommodate them. A similar incremental approach was used to integrate women into regular military units. Although there have been costs to set up the necessary privacy infrastructure to accommodate women, the incremental approach has been quite successful, and the privacy infrastructure created will make it easy to accommodate gays immediately in a large number of units. Under this approach, many units could be gay-friendly within months, and even more next year.
This incremental approach is a good approximation of what actually happened after courts ordered the British military to open up 100% to gays. Although de jure there was immediate full access for gays, de facto an unspoken DADT remained in many units, particularly in the early years. The details were not well publicized since the remaining de facto DADT was a violation of the court order. But despite the push back against the court order, the openness to gays has continued to improve.
Taking the incremental approach to gays in the military may seem like a go-slow approach, but in practice it is likely to be the fastest and most trouble-free way to begin opening up units to gays. In contrast, under the plans of either the left or the right, no units would be opened this year. On the right, the proposal is to wait until US troops are not very involved in military conflicts, something that is unlikely to happen soon. On the left, the Obama administration has proposed to wait for a Pentagon report by the end of the year, a time at which the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives will be reduced or gone completely, severely hampering any action on DADT. Congress needs to act much sooner in a centrist way if DADT is to be reformed soon.
The issue of gays in the military is emotional in part because it is complicated, and many of the analogies for thinking about it are faulty. In some ways it is similar to integrating blacks into the military, but in other ways it is similar to integrating women into the military. The complicated nature of the issue has made it very easy for both the left and right to accuse the other of bigotry or social engineering, forcing members of the military to avoid the issue so as not to be caught in the middle of a culture war.
But it is not just the military that is bothered by the politicizing the issue. To the public, the extreme positions of the left and right are another example of the bitter partisan atmosphere in Washington. Political observers on both the left and the right saw in the election of Scott Brown to the Senate the message that people wanted Congress to act sensibly from the center. As a result of riding this wave of discontent, Brown is well positioned to use his independence and stature to break the partisan logjam on this issue. He is likely to get a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is taking the lead on DADT reform. He has worked for decades as a military lawyer, and could speak with conviction in saying that someone gay could have done that job with no problem. It is now possible to imagine a sensible centrist approach to the DADT issue actually being championed in Congress and passing.
Michael Segal runs the AdvocatesForROTC.org site, the umbrella site for groups promoting an atmosphere supportive of ROTC on college campuses. The views expressed are his own; the positions of the constituent groups on DADT fill the full range discussed above.