SANTA BARBARA, CA, – As White House hopefuls are pressed for greater detail on their platforms, GOP candidates are having increasing trouble reconciling their past positions on gay issues with the need to satisfy their socially conservative political base, according to researchers who study gay issues. Two of the three leading presidential contenders have changed their positions on gays in the military, and all three frontrunners have sought to cast any reconsideration of the unpopular policy as out of bounds during wartime.
But researchers at the Michael D. Palm Center, a think tank at University of California, Santa Barbara, note that this view conflicts with that of military officers and other experts who have said that war is the wrong time to keep open gays out.
Rudolph Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain have all adopted the message that lifting the military’s current ban on open gays while the country is at war would be detrimental to morale, with Giuliani and Romney reversing prior opposition to the current ban on open gays. As mayor, Giuliani was critical of “don’t ask, don’t tell” and even accused the Clintons of having done “flip-flops” on the issue. [Washington Post, 1/16/98] But his current position is that “we’re at war, and now isn’t the time to question our military’s admissions policy.” [NY Daily News, 3/14/07]
When he ran for the Senate in Massachusetts in 1994, Mitt Romney criticized “don’t ask, don’t tell” and viewed it as a stepping stone to full inclusion of gay troops. But in his race for the White House, he has said he was wrong for criticizing the policy, that it is working well, and should not be changed during wartime. [LA Times, 2/1/07] “We’re in the middle of a conflict right now,” Romney said. “I would not change it.” [San Francisco Chronicle, 3/17/07] Romney told National Review Online in December that his position is to defer to military leaders. And John McCain stated recently that lifting the ban would be a “well-intentioned but midguided” step that would lead to “polarization of personnel and breakdown of unit effectiveness.” He said that military leaders tell him the policy is working.
But consulting the opinion of military leaders and scholars yields a different picture. Palm researchers provided a detailed record showing that expert military opinion has long indicated that lifting the ban is best done during wartime, and that the current policy is failing the military by discharging crucial talent.
During Congressional debate over lifting the ban in 1993, Senator Joseph Lieberman asked Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller, a vocally anti-gay opponent of lifting the ban whether, amidst the “pressures of a combat situation, differences in a group that would normally reduce unit cohesion disappear because of an obvious common purpose which is to survive or to achieve victory.” Gen. Waller, second in command during Operation Desert Shield and Storm, agreed, answering that, in actual combat situations, differences including those of sexual orientation were less of a problem than during peacetime. “When the bullets are flying,” he told the Senate, “people tend, in my opinion, to forget about what religion you are, what race you are, what you are up to or what you are doing, and it is a survival mode that takes over.” He concluded that “in those times of tremendous peril everybody will pull together, work together, and do what is best to survive.”
In a 2000 conference of international military scholars, several other experts, some of whom also opposed letting gays serve openly, said that the military should consider lifting the ban while the nation is at war. Michael Desch, who holds the Robert M. Gates Chair in Intelligence and National Security Decision-Making at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University, said that in the peacetime military context, lifting the ban would be disruptive: “Now is not the time to try and make a change of this magnitude,” he said. Instead, the change should be made “in the future” when it is justified by “military efficiency,” such as the manpower shortages that ultimately facilitated racial integration during the Korean War. Desch said he believed that “Open homosexuals do not affect the military at war.” As a result, “We ought to think about making this change in wartime or in a period of fairly intense international security threats.” After 9/11, he told Palm researchers that the gay ban is unnecessary during wartime. Scholarship shows, he explained, “that during wartime, open homosexuality has been relatively well tolerated.” He added that “a common threat and a single mission usually brings even disparate people together behind a common task.”
David Segal, a professor of sociology at University of Maryland who specializes in the military, said in the same conference that organizations tend to change most radically during periods of crisis. He said the effort to lift the gay ban under President Clinton came after the military’s downsizing of the post-Cold War period. “We did not need to look for new sources of manpower. It was exactly the wrong time.” Although Segal supported lifting the ban then, his point was that the peacetime period of military downsizing was not a propitious time for the policy change to work. By contrast, the manpower shortages that often accompany wartime make for a militarily necessary argument for letting gays serve.
Segal told Palm researchers today that the manpower needs during the current conflict warrant repealing the gay ban. “We have changed all sorts of accession standards to man the force for this war,” he said, citing the recruitment of older people, convicted felons, people with tattoos and high school dropouts. “Recruiting gays might be among the most benign of these.” He added that, in practice, the gay exclusion policy “has already been changed with regard to retention,” as the military has lowered its gay discharge rate and even recalled an out gay soldier, in order to fill manpower needs. “It is time to change the policy,” he said.
Although both Romney and McCain cited the opinion of senior military officials in defending their own positions, a growing number of military brass are now saying the ban should end. Such a position is increasingly taken by top retired officials, who have more freedom to speak out. Most prominently, Gen. John Shalikashvili, the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, this year called for repeal, saying the policy is straining the military in a time of need.
Gen. Shalikashvili is one of over a dozen retired generals and admirals who have criticized the policy publicly, and Palm researchers said that many others have privately said the policy is not working. Lawrence Korb, a former Assistant Secretary of Defense under Ronald Reagan who helped implement the ban on gay troops, has also reversed course and called for an end to the current policy. Korb, now a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a Senior Advisor to the Center for Defense Information, said today that the argument that “now is not the right time to lift the ban” is a “common argument that military leaders use to oppose many proposed changes. Whenever we deal with a controversial governmental issue, we always hear, ‘You’re right, but now is not the right time.'” Korb said the evidence is overwhelming that the gay ban is not necessary and not working, but that political leaders too frequently ignore evidence in favor of political considerations.
The current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, reiterated his support for the policy earlier this year, but did so in the context of stating his own moral opposition to homosexuality, not on
the basis of military effectiveness. Nathaniel Frank, senior research fellow at the Palm Center, who is writing a book on “don’t ask, don’t tell,” said Pace’s comments “blew the lid off the military effectiveness ruse, showing that moral opposition and not military considerations were always at the root of the gay ban.” He said the new GOP message is a classic delay tactic. “What you see here is a kind of addict’s tool of procrastination: ‘I’ll start my diet tomorrow,’ or ‘I’ll end the affair after Christmas.’ It’s a way of delaying when you actually have no intention of taking action. And in the case of politics, it smells strongly like pandering.”