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Profile in cowardice.

Is it courage that Bill Clinton lacks, or conviction - or both? That's the only question left hanging after his disgraceful and pusillanimous retreat on the issue of gays and lesbians in the military.

He has reneged on yet another campaign promise, he has betrayed a core constituency that counted on and supported him, and he has done something much worse: He has sold out a fundamental democratic principle.

And for what? Simply to appease the bigots in Congress and the Neanderthals on the staff of the Joint Chiefs? Or to heed the misbegotten advice of turncoat counselor David Gergen and the pack of pundits who push Clinton away from what they consider to be "fringe" issues?

Equality under the law for lesbians and gay men is not a "fringe" issue. It is basic to a fair, humane, and democratic society. The Pentagon's new policy makes a mockery of this equality, as anyone who reads the fine print will quickly see.

The new policy says gays and lesbians can be in the military - as long as they don't acknowledge that they are gays and lesbians, or human beings for that matter.

The Pentagon has drawn an Alice-in-Wonderland distinction between homosexual orientation (OK) and homosexual conduct (not OK). Here is the language of the policy: "Sexual orientation will not be a bar to service unless manifested by homosexual conduct. The military will discharge members who engage in homosexual conduct, which is defined as a homosexual act, a statement that the member is homosexual or bisexual, or a marriage or attempted marriage to someone of the same gender."

With bureaucratic prurience, the Pentagon outlines homosexual "activities" that will be proscribed. "Bodily contact between service members of the same sex that a reasonable person would understand to demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts (e.g., hand-holding or kissing in most circumstances) will be sufficient" grounds to initiate proceedings.

Lesbians and gays in the military are prohibited from any affectionate or sexual expression not only on duty, but off duty as well, the Pentagon policy states. "No distinction will be made between off-base and on-base conduct. From the time a member joins the service until discharge, the service member's duty and commitment to the unit is a twenty-four-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week obligation. Military members are required to comply with both the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is Federal law, and military regulations at all times and at all places. Unacceptable conduct, homosexual or heterosexual, is not excused because the service member is not |at work.'"

Let's be clear. The Pentagon is not concerned about heterosexual misconduct at the moment. It is not even concerned about homosexual misconduct, for by its own definition, that's redundant: Any homosexual conduct is homosexual misconduct.

The Pentagon is demanding of lesbians and gay men something it wouldn't dare demand of anyone else in our society: to show no affection, and to have no sex, for the entire term of enlistment. Try imposing such a sex ban on straights in the military, and you'd have a mutiny (though you'd also greatly depress the prostitution industry that thrives around U.S. military bases).

Clinton had the chutzpah to call this "a substantial advance" over the old policy. He said his new policy struck a "sensible balance between the rights of the individual and the needs of the military," but the policy does neither. It tramples on the rights of gay and lesbian individuals and leaves unquestioned the bigoted assumptions about how gay and lesbian servicepeople might affect the "needs" of the military.

No wonder Colin Powell said he and the Joint Chiefs "fully, fully support" the new policy.

Clinton also said the persecution of gays and lesbians would come to a halt, but the witch-hunting will undoubtedly continue; indeed, it is part of the policy. In classic Clinton fashion, the policy appears to protect gays and lesbians from witch-hunts, but those protections are quickly rendered all but meaningless.

On the one hand, the policy states that "a mere allegation or statement by another that a service member is a homosexual is not grounds for official action. Commanders will not take official action against members based on rumor, suspicion, or capricious allegation."

But on the other hand, "if a third party provides credible information that a member has committed a crime or act that warrants discharge, e.g., engages in homosexual conduct," the policy states, then the commanding officer can launch an investigation.

Note that homosexual conduct is equated with a crime, and that tattling on homosexuals is not only condoned but encouraged.

Far from lifting the ban on lesbians and gays in the military, Clinton's new policy actually recodifies it.

He didn't have to capitulate. First of all, Clinton could have taken the high road six months ago and lifted the ban by executive order. As commander-in-chief, he has the authority to issue a directive to the armed forces. They have a duty to obey and enforce it. Such an order would have put the military - and the nation - on notice that homophobia would no longer be tolerated.

But Clinton didn't have the guts to do that. Instead, he let the issue dangle for half a year, bowing before Congress, kneeling before the Joint Chiefs. Even when Sam Nunn (if Nunn is a Democrat, why would anyone want to be a Democrat?) and Colin Powell raised a stench, Clinton could have stood up for principle instead of lying down for compromise - but that's the posture he prefers. It's not dignified.

He could have leaned on Congressional allies, rallied public support, and elevated the national discourse if he had spoken publicly about why lifting the ban was in keeping with the loftiest goals of our Constitution. Instead, he backed away without a fight.

Even if he had lost the fight in Congress, he would have won the respect of millions of Americans - gay and straight - who oppose bigotry, believe in equality, and respect a politician who keeps his word. And it seems at least possible that he would have been vindicated in the courts, whose dockets are already filling with cases challenging the new policy.

But Clinton is a congenital compromiser - and proud of it. What's worse, he has the annoying habit, first noted in a different context by Christopher Hitchens in The Nation, of wallowing in self-pity when he is criticized for selling out. "Every time Clinton betrays a friend, or abandons a cause, or rats on a principle, it's him we are supposed to feel sorry for," Hitchens wrote.

So it was with the issue of gays and lesbians in the military. Clinton became hyper-defensive when reporters challenged him for being weak and compromising too readily. "I think we need to get our heads on straight about what is strong and what is weak," he bridled.

What is weak is a President who caves in on principle. Bill Clinton fits that bill. Is there any principle he believes in strongly enough to fight for it?
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Title Annotation:Bill Clinton on gays in the military
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Previous Article:Violence at the top.
Next Article:Open it up.

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