Thursday, November 20, 2008

Robert Gates as Obama's Secretary of Defense: "More of the Same" for Gay Rights?

The Democrats ran a very conflicted campaign with respect to GLBT issues. Many political commentators believe that in 2004, opposition to same-sex marriage inspired rightwing evangelicals to vote, which helped Bush defeat Kerry. Although both Kerry and Bush stated that they did not "believe in" same-sex marriage, Kerry did not support Bush's proposed marriage amendment (which would have amended the Constitution to define marriage in heterosexual terms).

In 2008 Democrats Ran as Conservatives on Gay Rights
Against the 2004 political backdrop, the Democrats chose strategically to avoid looking progressive on glbt issues. They combined a lack of support for some glbt issues like marriage with generic statements supporting glbt rights in order to satisfy progressive voters and organizations within the party. At times, this song and dance produced very bizarre results. Obama, for example, opposes same-sex marriage for "religious" reasons -- which basically makes his position indistinct from that of the Christian Right. Yet, Obama also opposes efforts to amend state law to define marriage in heterosexual terms. So he is against same-sex marriage, unless people are voting to oppose it. Clinton basically said the same thing.

Political Compromises Can Preclude Meaningful "Change"
This week, the DC buzz, which has been remarkably accurate on cabinet issues, has concluded that Robert Gates will serve as Secretary of Defense under Obama. Gates already holds that position in the Bush administration. Accordingly, picking Gates would provide Obama with yet another opportunity to demonstrate how nonpartisan he is. It would also allow him to market himself as occupying the center-to-right of the political spectrum, contrary to much of the discourse surrounding his campaign during the Democratic primaries.

I can hear the liberal elite crying now. Literally, I can, because I am in my law school office typing this blog entry. Obama has already quashed efforts to oust Joe "Judas" Lieberman from the Democratic caucus, although he delivered a speech at the Republican National Convention during which he assailed Obama as being unprepared for the presidency. He has also met with McCain, whom he criticized as "erratic" and "out of touch." Thanks to a media presence at the meeting the public has loads of toothy photographs documenting the detente between the former political rivals. Finally, Obama is very close to naming Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State -- despite having criticized her vote to authorize force in Iraq as showing a lack of judgment (and this was probably his lightest critique of her). For the record, Biden also voted for the war.

Although collaborative governance sounds noble, compromising and being nonpartisan above all else can cause a leader to lose focus on achieving important goals. At some point, having moderates and conservatives executing and developing policy will limit the potential for actually bringing about meaningful progressive change (please note that for the sake of argument I am assuming the validity of liberal rhetoric which sees Obama's victory as necessarily ushering in liberal change).

Gates Says That Merely Debating the Military's Anti-Gay Policy Would Impede War Against Terrorism
Gates' selection could mean that glbt rights will remain on the back seat in the new administration. Gates has already dismissed concerns over the military's policy banning participation by glbt people. In January 2007, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, who is very supportive of gay rights, wrote Gates a letter soliciting his views on the military's anti-gay policy. Responding through Under Secretary Donald Chu (it is safe to assume that the letter reflects the official position of the Department of Defense), Gates first denied that the military even bans gays and lesbians! Gates explained that military policy only mandates the discharge of individuals who "engage in or attempt to engage in homosexual acts," self-identify as "homosexual or bisexual," or marry or attempt to marry someone of the same "biological sex."
Thanks for the clarification. The military does not ban gay and lesbian people as such. Instead, it only excludes, for instance, men who have sex with men, who want to marry men, or who, for some strange reason, like to tell others they are gay or bi. Apparently, this is nondiscriminatory because it applies evenly to heterosexuals. Gates' "logic" fails to pass the proverbial laugh test.

But his response gets even worse. After denying that the military even bans gays and lesbians, he argues that as long as the country remains at war and is vulnerable to acts of terrorism, then merely discussing the anti-gay policy would threaten national security:

The Global War on Terrorism is far-reaching and unrelenting. The threat to our country is here for the long term. As a result, every day, around the world, our forces engage with our allies in dangerous, life-threatening events, and this will continue into the foreseeable future. A national debate on changing [the military's policy] with the accompanying divisiveness and turbulence across our country, will compound the burden of the war.

Gates expressed similar views during an interview on CBS's Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer. Schieffer asked Gates whether he is "satisfied" with Don't Ask, Don't Tell or whether he thought the policy "should be reviewed." Gates used the ongoing wars to excuse inaction on the policy: "I’ve got a war in Iraq, a war in Afghanistan, challenges in Iran and North Korea and elsewhere, global war on terror, three budget bills totaling $715 billion. I think I’ve got quite a lot on my plate."

Because Obama has promised to increase the size of the military and the escalate the war in Afghanistan, the "Global War on Terrorism" (curiously elevated to a proper noun by Gates) is indeed here to stay. Besides, I cannot recall a four-year stretch when the United States was not involved in some type of military action. But this fact cannot give the military a free pass to discriminate on the basis of sexual identity and to evade public discourse over the legitimacy of its policies. These types of scare tactics helped elect Bush twice. But now, voters have selected a self-proclaimed agent of "change." I hope that Gates has to explain his controversial and distorted views on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" during the vetting process. Otherwise, blatant discrimination might remain unscathed in a "changed" political landscape.

GLBT Movement Actors Must Hold Democrats Accountable
To his credit, Obama has said he opposes Don't Ask, Don't Tell and has promised to seek its repeal. And Gates would answer to Obama instead of Bush. But Obama has also said that he would take a safe route and meet with military leaders to learn the best way to accomplish the repeal (as if it is really difficult to ban discrimination). Military leaders, however, do not want to repeal the anti-gay policy, and they were instrumental in blocking Bill Clinton's reform effort. Although Democrats salivated after Colin Powell endorsed Obama, only a few people (myself included) recalled that Powell orchestrated the defeat of Clinton's attempt to repeal the anti-gay policy. Powell's opposition led to the hideous Don't Ask, Don't Tell compromise. Having folks like Gates, Powell and Sam Nunn close to the Obama administration does not inspire confidence that the new president will extend strong or visible support to pro-gay causes unless Congress or activists push him to do so.

Accordingly, gay rights advocates must make sure that the change movement does not ignore glbt people. This will require gay equality advocates to wake up (like they are finally doing in California) and force Democrats to live up to their silky words regarding justice and progress. Otherwise, all of the lofty talk about the "diversity" of the Democrats versus the homogeneity of the GOP means absolutely nothing -- except that the Democrats tolerate hypocrisy, while the Republicans do not believe in equality through window-dressing.


Page W.H. Brousseau IV said...

Prof. Hutchinson,

I recently found your outstanding site, I'm more conservative in nature than you are, however, if all liberals and Democrats were as reasonable as you, I'd still count myself umong their number.

I've served nearly my entire adult life in the military and I cannot see a way which repealing the "DADT" policy wouldn't adversly affect the armed forces.

This could be a leanthly discussion on it but I'll just raise a couple objections:

1: We would never house hetro soldiers in the same open bay or room. Not only would this lead to sexual harassment and fraternization but a very discomfortable climate. We know not all gay men are attracted to all men, but we also know not all hetro men are attracted to every female, but we guard against it. This would lead to a need to massively enlarge our base housing. To add, I really wouldn't know how to initially train all recruits in such a way.

2. It is true many, if not most, of our allies do allow open homosexuals to serve. But the key for them is some of those largest militaries are the size of the Michigan National Guard. It is easy to be accomidating with a military in limited size that neither deploys or if does so for limited duration.

I know I'm not changing any minds on this, just thought I'd put out one side of the arguement.

Like I said, love your site.


Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hello, Page WH Brousseau, IV (quite the name!). I appreciate your thoughtful reply.

I have thought about the accommodations issue for some time now -- starting in 1992 when Colin Powell defeated Clinton's attempt to end the ban. Most of us have been same-sex accommodations (summer camp, public restrooms, health clubs, etc). Having spent your entire adult life in the military, it's probably safe to assume that you have been in a bathroom or shared lodging with a gay person. The ban does not protect you from sexual harassment; it just keeps you from having honest knowledge of your reality (by silencing gay people).

And while heterosexual men harass women, gay men have been conditioned against doing this -- for obvious reasons. Regardless, banning ALL gay people is dramatic overkill. A better answer would simply enforce anti-fraternization/harassment laws evenly, regardless of sexual orientation or gender. Currently, enforcement is uneven: gays are banned from participating, whether they are harassers or not.

Furthermore, I think you downplay the significance of our allies who have openly gay and lesbian solidiers. Courtries as large and important as the UK, Germany, France, Australia, and Canada permit gays and lesbians to participate in their armed forces. I am not saying that discrimination does not occur, but they have repealed outright bans. Also, isn't the US military regimented? How often does the ENTIRE military meet? Most of the activity takes place in smaller units and bases -- perhaps even on the same scale as the Michigan National Guard (lol).

Thanks for participating. I enjoyed reading your post. I hope you clicked the subscriber link!

erikwm said...

Brousseau IV - The current DADT policy does not prevent gays from serving in the military. It simply prevents them from self-identifying while in the service. There are gay soldiers in our armed forces, there always have been gay soldiers in our armed forces and there will continue to be. Thus, it would seem your concern with regard to housing is more a personal one, than a policy one. Some military personnel, like yourself, may prefer to not have to acknowledge the reality of their situation, that they are in fact serving alongside a gay man or woman. But since when is the military about accommodating one's own personnel preferences? Conduct can and must be disciplined evenly with regard to both heterosexual and homosexual soldiers. That threat, not to mention the societal atmosphere that automatically precludes the sort of aggression you raise concerns over, will keep the vast majority of self-identifying gay soldiers in good stead when the DADT policy is repealed. And obviously, we thank you for your service. But if, as you suggest, you seriously don't know how you would train a self-identifying gay soldier, if you're that socially and culturally tone deaf that you believe there would even be a difference, I have one suggestion: Retirement. Because the world has changed around you and evidentaly, you've been left standing still.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Erikwm - the policy does more than get people who "self-identify" while in service. It bans people whom the military discovers (due to them coming out or otherwise) are indeed gay or lesbian.

Also, I resist the dichotomy of "out" and "being" gay or lesbian. For many people, outness is just as much a part of gay experience as anything else. I do understand that the "closet" exists, but the distinction is not as clean as people make usually assume.

John said...

As you note, Mr. Chu (who is not Secretary Gates) was expressing the official policy of the Bush administration on gays in the military. Neither the Under-Secretary of Defense nor the Secretary of Defense gets to set policy in that matter - that's something that has to be decided at the presidential level.

Now obviously this means that Gates was willing to accept the DADT policy as part of the terms of getting the job, but I don't think it tells us at all that he's not willing to support a revision of the policy should the president decide that that's in order.

All we know from this is that Gates probably doesn't care much about gay rights in the military. We have no reason as yet to think that he is actively opposed to them.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

I am not optimistic on this one. The Sec. of Defense has a large role in formulating DOD policy. When I said the statement represented the DOD's position, I was using that to say it was not Chu - but Gates. Besides, even gay rights groups that deal with this issue exclusively are not admitting that it won't receive priority:

Obama barely ran on a gay rights platform. Glbt people should not expect much.

Anonymous said...

John - when a Senator writes th head of an Executive agency, and that person has his/her assistant respond, the assistant is expressing the view of his/her boss. Think of it in terms of agency.

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