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Cooperation as a Tool to End Ban on Gays : Clinton should seek consensus in military, yet act quickly

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The debate in the Clinton camp on how best to lift the ban on homosexuals in the military should not be viewed as an erosion of the President-elect’s resolve to end discrimination. We presume that resolve is unyielding. The only question is how best to implement this change; for when sincere people hold conflicting views in a pluralistic democracy, implementation requires wise, and deft, maneuvering.

Clinton should not go slow--indeed, he must act soon and in a way that makes his end goal unmistakable. The military brass in considerable measure opposes Clinton’s views on this issue, but he should still find a way of involving the brass in the process so as to defuse counterproductive resistance--and to avoid making either side lose face. The goal here is a smooth transition in ending the military’s unjustified discrimination against men and women solely on the basis of sexual orientation.

In recent weeks, according to Times writer Melissa Healy, Clinton’s staffers have debated whether the President-elect should use “the stroke of a pen”--issue an executive order--to fulfill his campaign promise to end the ban or yield to the military opposition and order further study.

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The issue is not, nor can it be, whether Clinton should lift the ban. He should. The services have always had their share of homosexuals who managed to hide their sexual orientation. Yet people who want to continue the ban on service by admitted gay and lesbian soldiers insist that military life involves special circumstances and presents special challenges. Homosexuals are a possible threat to good order and morale, they contend. Partly underlying that argument is a fear that homosexuals are or may be uniquely promiscuous, and thus presumably a sexual threat to their peers. But where is the evidence to support that conclusion?

The debate should be over how to best to end an unfair policy. Should Clinton unilaterally order the military to lift the ban? Or can he gain necessary support among reluctant--or resistant--military leaders by including them at an early stage in the process of the new policy? Cooperation need not lead to co-optation; and in this case, cooperation is the wisest course.

Many leaders, such as Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Colin L. Powell and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) are, at best, reluctant supporters of the President-elect’s plan. Others are vehemently opposed. That’s why Clinton is well-advised to issue a “memorandum of instruction” during his first two weeks in office, as some aides recommend, rather than an “executive order.” The two documents have the same legal force but not the same symbolic significance.

A Clinton memorandum to the secretary of defense could require the military services to halt investigations and disciplinary action against gays and to cease routine questions about the sexual orientation of service members and enlistees.

Such a memorandum would allow Clinton to take an unequivocal first step toward lifting the longstanding ban but signal the military that he needs their ideas and cooperation to effect a complete and permanent change. In this context, a study becomes a tool for developing consensus--and a timetable for full implementation. This approach makes good sense, and good policy.

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