Military Disservice

With friends like Bill Clinton, gays don't need enemies.


Gays should have started to worry when Bill Clinton, even before the inauguration, reneged on a campaign promise that he had made as a matter of principle. Clinton announced that he would maintain the Bush administration's ban preventing Haitian boat people from making claims that they were political refugees, thus denying them a legislated right afforded all other migrant populations. While campaigning, he had called the ban "cruel and illegal." The motivation for the special ban also seemed patently racist. But once Clinton was elected, this cruelty and illegality turned out to be a cruelty and illegality he could live with and even defend before the Supreme Court.

Within the first week of office, Clinton showed that such shaky morality would permeate his civil-rights policy. Both during the campaign and immediately following his election, he promised to lift by executive order the ban on gays in the military. More generally, during the campaign he said to gays, "I have a vision of America—and you're part of it." Here, as in his early statements on the Haitians, he outlined a moral position: Government may not place people in a degraded status because of what they are, as opposed to what they do, and it may not pursue its legitimate ends through means that violate this principle. But he started a moral retreat from such a principled stand as soon as resistance emerged from Congress, the military, and the people.

Clinton's first moral step backward—and strategic blunder to boot—was to suppose that this was an issue that could be properly addressed by consensus. To try to build a consensus, he turned first to the Joint Chiefs of Staff for advice. But he did so in a way that positioned them as free agents operating independently of the executive branch, rather than as subordinates in a military chain of command. Clinton conceded as much in his January 29 "compromise" speech, when he said the Joint Chiefs had "agreed" to the compromise, implying they had veto power over him.

And what is the value of consensus here anyway? Consensus-based decision making may be the best method for addressing matters of policy, but it is incompatible with matters of principle and of rights, for two reasons. First, to do something as a matter of principle—because it is right rather than popular—requires going against consensus. Second, rights are at heart minority claims against majorities, and so matters of rights can never legitimately be left to the tender mercies of majoritarian rule, let alone consensus. So Clinton was both conceptually confused and morally misguided when he tried to apply his business-as-usual political approach to a gay issue. In doing so, instead of advancing the dignity of gay people, he humiliated them.

Bad strategy aside, Clinton's own justification for lifting the ban also virtually guaranteed that he would fumble on the issue. His justification has always been made in terms of human resources, never in terms of human rights. Harking back to broader, generally communitarian campaign themes, Clinton claimed that "we don't have anyone to waste": We—society as a whole—will simply be wasting human resources if we don't allow gays into the hiring pool for the armed forces. As late as the eve of the April 25 gay March on Washington, he was giving as his justification for wanting to lift the ban: "I believe we need the services of all of our people."

Now, some of us Americans believe that the purpose of government is that articulated in the Declaration of Independence: "That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men." We believe that government exists for the sake of the individual, rather than that the individual is to be viewed as a resource for society. Indeed, we thought the position holding that the individual exists for society was the political ideal which defined the corporate state or fascism.

But whatever the theoretical merits of this communitarian-fascist posture—and it should be remembered that communitarians have never incorporated any gay perspectives into their world visions—the posture had three disastrous consequences for Clinton's handling of gays in the military.

First, the human-resource argument, feeble to begin with, thins to the breaking point when faced with the Cold War's end and the continued down-sizing of the armed forces. If Clinton is worrying, as he says he must, about what to do with military personnel who will be laid off because of reductions in the armed forces, then worries over the size of the military's hiring pool will have a hollow, contrived ring to them.

Sometimes the cost-benefit argument is recast as a claim about the price of administering the ban: The administrative expense of witch hunts and discharges is what makes them objectionable. At his February 11 national "town meeting," Clinton made exactly this argument: "Let me tell you why I favor lifting [the ban], very briefly….Your government spent $500 million to get rid of about 16,300 homosexuals from the service in the 1980s." This implies that if a witch hunt cost only two bucks or if a 20-cent saliva test could be devised to detect homosexual desire, chucking gays out of the military would be perfectly all right. So much for gay worth. So much for gay dignity.

Second, human-resource issues and matters of economic policy generally are more properly the preserve of Congress, as the law-passing body of government, than of the executive branch, whose function is to carry out laws. On human-resource issues, the president proposes, but Congress disposes. Clinton's human-resource argument thus played right into the hands of Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and the Republicans, who claim that the issue properly belongs to Congress.

Third, by failing to cast his argument in terms of rights, Clinton also left himself open to a hecklers' veto. He legitimated a claim by soldiers, their commanders, and their supporters that the disruptiveness of straight soldiers made uncomfortable by the mere presence of gay soldiers justifies the ban. In determining what sort of government concerns can legitimately override a right, it is a settled moral principle as well as legal doctrine that bigotry against and fear and hatred of a group are to be given no weight at all in determining whether discrimination against that group is rational. In the military debate, Clinton has never once said that the rationales that the armed forces offer for the ban, based as they are on bigotry and fear, are illegitimate for the same reason they were illegitimate when used to try to justify segregating black soldiers.

This includes the chestnut that close military quarters mean that gays will invade the legitimate privacy of straight soldiers. The Army claimed the same of blacks: The real horror was that white soldiers would have to live in the same privacy-bereft quarters as blacks, who were viewed as dirty, polluting, dangerous, and identity-destroying. Or as Sam Nunn's predecessor in the Senate from Georgia, Richard Russell, put it in 1948: Soldiers "eat and sleep together. They use the same sanitary facilities day after day. They are compelled to stay together in the closest association."

If we have here a human-resource issue about social inefficiency, it is properly resolved by congressional study and decision. But if, as seems to be the case, we have here an issue of human rights, it is to be settled by appeal to morality and resolved in a principled manner. Consequently, an executive order that not only lifts the ban but also articulates a general principle of nondiscrimination in the armed forces is appropriate.

Clinton should have taken a moral and political tip from Jimmy Carter. Carter acted with decisiveness and principle his very first day as president, when he granted amnesty to those Americans who avoided the Vietnam War. The armed forces, veterans' groups, and their conservative fellow travelers were outraged at Carter's bow to draft dodgers, whom they considered traitors to the nation, better fit for a noose than a pardon. But Carter's swift move prevented this widespread ill will from turning into hysteria and action. By contrast, Clinton and Defense Secretary Les Aspin's indecisiveness, together with an early willingness to compromise principle, practically invited the ensuing hysteria from veterans, Christian fundamentalists, and conservative talk-radio listeners. Populism is morally indistinguishable from prejudice.

And so Clinton handed gays a humiliating defeat. The ban on openly gay people in the military continues, and the regulation of gays becomes ever more ramified, articulated, and entrenched. Under Clinton's "compromise," gays cannot be asked if they are gay on admission to the armed forces. But they can be prosecuted if they say they are gay once they are in—prosecuted up to the point of actual discharge, at which point they are sent to something that is a cross between Limbo and Siberia—Inactive Standby Reserve—with no pay, no benefits, and all the dishonor of apartheid.

The day before Clinton publicly announced his capitulation to Nunn and the Chiefs of Staff, a federal district judge in California declared the ban on gays in the military an unconstitutional violation of equal protection. Quoting official documents, the judge found that the government and military's own factual findings contradict the justifications offered for the policy of exclusion. But in Clinton's compromise speech, he made no mention of this moral and legal backing for ending the ban. How could he? For the apartheid of gay soldiers instituted in his compromise would, under the judge's decision, be as unconstitutional as the ban itself. Once one begins to sell out principle, one cannot easily return to a principled stance, or even use the principled actions that are handed one by others. Indeed, Clinton's Justice Department is now appealing the judge's decision. Courageous actions breed courageous actions; moral weakness breeds moral weakness.

At his compromise press conference, Clinton announced that some sort of executive order would be issued in mid-July. In the meantime, the armed forces, Congress, and unnamed "others" were to be consulted. To Clinton, gay voices were not even worthy of mention among those who might have something to say about the policy. Indeed, Clinton started running from gays as fast as he could, saying that we Americans need to press ahead on the important issues of the times—as though banning certain classes of people from serving their country in the armed forces were a fringe issue. In fact, as the racial and gender history of the military shows, the ability to serve in the armed forces has been a defining characteristic of full citizenship—and, indeed, full personhood. In overlooking this point, Clinton cast gays as a dismissible, selfish "special interest" group—just as conservatives view them.

Although Clinton kicked the gay ban squarely into the political realm, he said he would do no politicking on the issue in the six-month period before issuing the mysterious executive order. So it's likely that the political ground will be as poorly prepared for the order as it was for Clinton's promise to end the ban.

Clinton did not even take the opportunity provided by the interim period to mandate military training aimed at reducing homophobia in the armed forces. The military takes pride in its ability to use in-service instruction and discipline to reduce racism in the armed forces; in the wake of the Tailhook scandal, it has aggressively moved to confront sexism by the same means. Rather than deploying the military's unique educational capacities to smooth the transition to an integrated force, Clinton simply suggested that gays should be grateful that they have a president who is in the lead of the civil-rights movement. But since he has done nothing positive for gays, indeed has contributed to our humiliation, this all-talk, no-action ploy is a rather transparent attempt to seize moral credit on the cheap.

To add to his humiliation of gays, Clinton hightailed it out of town when hundreds of thousands of gays converged on Washington on April 25 for a rally aimed in large measure at ending the ban on gays in the military. Two weeks after his election, Clinton had sent a letter to a conference of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, saying that the gay vote had been necessary to his election. But now Clinton was clearly sending the message to the nation that gays are just too embarrassing to be seen with in public.

To try to placate gays in advance of the March on Washington and to announce firmly that he would not speak to the march, Clinton had a few leaders of gay organizations to the White House the week before. He gave them the political advice that they should avoid abstractions and instead cast their cause in terms of stories and personal experience. One could hear between the lines of this sweet talk the further bit of advice that gays should avoid appealing to principles, because frankly Clinton himself doesn't have any.

Richard D. Mohr, professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois, Urbana, is the author of Gays/Justice (Columbia University Press) and Gay Ideas: Outing and Other Controversies (Beacon Press).