GWB and “Don’t ask, don’t tell”

Conservatarians such as Glenn Reynolds have a difficult time dealing with the absurdity of “don’t ask, don’t tell.” On the one hand, they hate the policy as obnoxious in principle and damaging in practice. On the other hand, they hate criticizing the Beloved Leader. So they fall back on the formally correct but substantively absurd claim that DADT is Congressional policy and therefore Congress’s fault.

As a matter of history, the policy developed because candidate and rookie President Bill Clinton had no notion how limited the powers of the Presidency are in practice, and therefore promised to, and tried to, change the existing anti-gay policies “with a stroke of the pen.” For this he was slapped down by a coalition consisting of the senior Pentagon brass (notably Colin Powell) the Hill barons (notably Sam Nunn), and the Christian right and associated secular wingnuts, with the Republican establishment cheerfully helping out and the Democrats on the Hill running away from Clinton as fast as they could. (In their defense, it’s hard to recall from this distance in time how unpopular Clinton’s proposal was with the public.) The brass was thoroughly insubordinate, choosing that time and issue to put the new kid in his place: the RAND report demolishing the pseudo-science of “unit cohesion” was suppressed until after the political knife-work was complete.

But in terms of current policy, no one in his right mind doubts that the Young Churchill, the Wartime President, could easily get virtually any revision of DADT he proposed through the Congress. Not only is the public now overwhelmingly on the liberal side of the question, so is (I am reliably told) most of the officer corps, though not the generals and admirals. (Of course, under the theory of the “inherent power of the Commander-in-Chief he wouldn’t need the Congress to act, but of course that absurd theory appeals to conservatarians only when it is invoked to violate liberty rather than to vindicate it.)

No, we still have DADT today because George W. Bush doesn’t want to expend any political capital to get rid of it. Now that his stock of such capital is running low, that’s understandable. But what excuses his failure to ask for a change as a wartime measure in the wake of 9/11?

As apparently always happens in wartime, the policy in practice is less homophobic than the policy on paper. But that doesn’t make the policy on paper — including the criminalization of sodomy under UCMJ — any less disgusting.

Footnote I agree that universities shouldn’t ban military recruiters from campus just because the military has unjustifiably discriminatory policies. (In particular, given the rather heroic resistance of the JAG corps to the Bush Administration’s torture-friendly policies, the case for encouraging liberal law students to sign up for a tour seems overwhelmingly strong.) But there’s more than one way of solving that problem, isn’t there?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: