Jewish World Review July 20, 2004 / 2 Menachem-Av, 5764

Peter A. Brown

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If Kerry doesn't tell, voters should ask | Same-sex marriage has become a defining presidential campaign issue. Surprisingly, though, a related and equally emotional matter - gays in the military - has not surfaced at all. Yet.

Given the vast differences between John Kerry, who favors opening military service to practicing homosexuals, and George W. Bush who backs Bill Clinton's "don't ask, don't tell" policy, the current silence is unlikely to last, nor should it.

Moreover, unlike marriage, which has been historically a state matter, the armed forces are solely a federal question.

Their composition is a presidential and congressional decision that requires a policy choice between competing governmental priorities:

Should the rights of the few take precedence over the best interests of the many, as perceived by the Pentagon, which sees changing the status quo as endangering national security?

To be candid, it is another one of those value-laden issues that Bush backers will use to argue that Kerry is out of step with middle America and unfit to be commander in chief.

There are partisan overtones to public discussion of the question, but that doesn't make it any less germane.

In 1992, the issue was not discussed when Clinton, who backed allowing homosexuals to serve in the military openly, defeated George H.W. Bush.

After Clinton's election, his effort to change the Pentagon policy led to a dispute that consumed the country for a time. He eventually backed down and offered a solution that satisfied neither side.

The resulting "don't ask, don't tell" standard prevents military commanders from asking about sexual preference, but it allows the discharge of those found to be having gay sex or who publicly proclaim they are doing so.

Clinton's executive order, codified by Congress, ended the practice of actively investigating soldiers suspected of homosexuality, but failed to satisfy gay-rights advocates.

That brouhaha occurred during peacetime, although when public support for policies that limited the rights of homosexuals was probably stronger than today. These days, hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops are under fire overseas.

Advocates of military service by gays argue the Pentagon's recent decision to extend service tours is proof that the policy needs revision. They contend gays could meet those manpower needs, although that is by no means clear.

Kerry wants gays to be able to serve openly. He calls it a civil-rights issue, which was Clinton's initial position, and parrots the argument of gay-advocacy groups, who are big Kerry supporters.

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Kerry's Web site lists "lifting the ban on gays in the military" as one of his "priorities." It continues: "John Kerry opposed the Clinton Administration's Don't Ask Don't Tell Policy. He was one of the few senators to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee and call on the president to rescind the ban on gay and lesbian service members."

But Kerry doesn't discuss the issue in appearances before mostly heterosexual audiences, and so far the news media have not pursued the matter.

Bush backs the Pentagon, which believes that the presence of openly homosexual soldiers would interfere with military cohesion and, therefore, the national defense.

Military leaders mostly believe that integrating gays into the military would be viewed unfavorably by the vast majority of soldiers and, therefore, would be a drag on the Pentagon's prime objective, fighting wars as efficiently as possible.

Kerry argues that inviting open homosexuals into the military is no different than allowing blacks and women to serve their country. However, the opposition of black military leaders like Colin Powell, in 1993 the nation's highest ranking officer and now secretary of state, made that a difficult sell for Clinton politically, as it might for Kerry today.

Gay-rights advocates may argue that the thousands (no one has a hard figure) of soldiers and sailors who have been discharged in the decade since under "don't ask, don't tell" could be helping the war effort in Iraq and Afghanistan.


But, this line of thinking might be an argument fraught with peril for Kerry, who has done everything but wear red, white and blue to his campaign events to argue he is not the kind of anti-military Democrat the nation generally expects coming from Massachusetts.

Discussing his desire to open up the military to openly gay personnel might reinforce the stereotype that Kerry wants to avoid. However, he owes it to the country to air the issue, so that, if he's elected, we don't repeat the fiasco of a decade ago.

Peter A. Brown is an editorial page columnist for the Orlando Sentinel. Comment by clicking here.


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