Stephen M. Walt

Obama keeps a promise

Obama keeps a promise

I see from today’s news that the Obama administration is apparently going to reverse the "don’t ask don’t tell" policy that has prevented openly gay Americans from serving their country in the armed forces. I can only applaud this decision; not only does it eliminate an obvious source of discrimination, but it makes it easier for the military to get the best people to fill the ranks.  Realists should support this move, because the name of the game in international politics is to maintain national power at the least cost and risk. Anytime you restrict the pool from which you are recruiting on arbitrary grounds that are unrelated to the task at hand (i.e., on grounds of race, religion, sexual orientation, etc.) you end up excluding some outstanding people whose presence would improve an organization’s performance.  Baseball got better after it integrated, the Ivy League improved once it dropped barriers to Jews and other minorities, and the same basic principle applies to gays in the military. As I wrote earlier this year:

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."

This is not to say that abandoning this policy won’t create a few temporary disruptions, but the U.S. military has generally been quite successful at managing this sort of change in the past. As a senior officer commented during my visit to the Truman last week, it is a good thing for the U.S. military to be a fairly accurate reflection of American society rather than an artificial caste, and repealing "don’t ask, don’t tell" is a positive step in that direction.  And contrary to what narrow-minded bigots might think, we’ll get a better fighting force out of it too.