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The realist case against "don't ask, don't tell"

The Clinton administration's policy of "don't ask, don't tell" is back in the news, mostly because the Obama administration is dragging its feet about abandoning it. One indirect consequence of the decision not to reverse the policy immediately was the forced resignation of Daniel Choi, a West Point graduate, Iraq veteran, and Arabic translator who came out on national television. Having violated the "don't tell" part, Choi was informed that he would have to resign from his National Guard unit. Not surprisingly, Obama's vacillation and the Choi incident have a number of gay rights advocates up in arms.

I can understand the short-term politics (read: timidity) behind Obama's decision (i.e., he doesn't want to annoy the armed services when he's got two wars to wage, especially when both are going badly). But from a realist perspective, not allowing gay men and women to serve openly in the armed forces is a bad policy. Realism sees world politics as a competitive realm, where states face real enemies and where military power is an important element of state’s overall capabilities. In a competitive environment, you want the very best people working (and fighting) for you, and you wouldn’t want to do anything that limited your access to talented, patriotic, and highly motivated personnel. And it's not as though the U.S. army has got a surplus of trained Arabic speakers these days.

In the past, plenty of organizations (and some countries) hurt themselves by excluding talented people on the basis of this sort of prejudice. Ivy League schools used to have quotas on Jews and other minorities, which meant that both their faculties and their student bodies were weaker than they would have been otherwise. That was good news for universities that didn’t have these restrictions (like MIT, the University of Chicago, or CCNY), because they were able to recruit on the basis of merit and frequently outdid their hidebound rivals. Major league baseball teams excluded blacks until Branch Rickey was smart and courageous enough to hire Jackie Robinson, and team owners who didn't follow suit were soon stuck with less talented athletes. Would any serious NBA club try to mount an all-white squad today? But by the same logic, would any general manager exclude white players if it meant passing up on a Larry Bird, Steve Nash, or Manu Ginobili? Would Google or Apple be better off if they refused to hire a talented programmer because she happened to be black, or gay, or Catholic, or Mormon, or Republican? Not only would it be illegal, it would be stupid.

The point is that in any competitive endeavor, you want to be able to recruit and employ the most talented and highly motivated people you can find, and you don't want to limit the talent pool from which you can draw unless there is something about them (such as a physical disability) that makes them obviously unfit for military service. By not allowing gay Americans to serve openly, we are imposing an artificial limit on the number of loyal Americans that our military can draw upon to fill its ranks. Some gay Americans would undoubtedly not be very good soldiers or sailors, but the same is true of plenty of straight people too. Many others undoubtedly would serve with distinction, however, and we know that because many already have, like Dan Choi.

For realists who appreciate the international politics is a rough business, therefore, the only possible argument against allowing gays to serve openly in the armed services is to claim that this policy would have a detrimental effect on actual military performance. The problem with this line of argument is that there is no good evidence to support that claim, and considerable evidence against it. For an excellent examination of the issue, see Elizabeth Kier's "Homosexuals in the American Military: Open Integration and Combat Effectiveness," from the Fall 1998 issue of International Security. Or check out a series of recent reports from the Palm Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which offer survey evidence from the U.S. military and comparative studies of foreign armies (including Britain and Israel), where gay people serve openly, bravely, and effectively.

If international politics were easy and essentially harmonious, then one could in theory maintain prejudicial policies like "don't ask, don't tell" without worrying about the strategic consequences. It might be objectionable on grounds of fairness but it wouldn’t be undermining our security. But in a world that is as dangerous as we are often told, we want to make it easy and attractive for the ablest people to serve. Some of those men and women are going to be gay, and we are making ourselves weaker by excluding them.

The argument I'm sketching here has broader implications about the evolving nature of the nation-state, I think, and I'll elaborate on them in a subsequent post.

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