Last night, during the Republican presidential debate at St. Anselm's College in New Hampshire, the candidates were asked what they thought about the current, Clinton-era policy of excluding openly gay and lesbian people from the U.S. military, the policy known as "Don't Ask Don't Tell" (a phrase that has gained wide currency in this and other contexts) or "DADT."
While I think his direct response to the question was wrong -- if, as it appears, he means that he agrees with the current policy that excludes people on the basis of identity rather than behavior -- Congressman Ron Paul's explanation about the difference between group rights and individual rights deserves wide readership.
Here is an excerpt from the transcript of the debate as published by today's New York Times. The question was posed by Scott Spradling of WMUR-TV in Manchester:
MR. SPRADLING: Congressman Paul, a question for you.
Most of our closest allies, including Great Britain and Israel, allow gays and lesbians to openly serve in the military. Is it time to end “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy and allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in the U.S. military?
REP. PAUL: I think the current policy is a decent policy. And the problem that we have with dealing with this subject is we see people as groups, as they belong to certain groups and that they derive their rights as belonging to groups. We don’t get our rights because we’re gays or women or minorities. We get our rights from our creator as individuals. So every individual should be treated the same way.
So if there is homosexual behavior in the military that is disruptive, it should be dealt with. But if there’s heterosexual sexual behavior that is disruptive, it should be dealt with. So it isn’t the issue of homosexuality, it’s the concept and the understanding of individual rights. If we understood that, we would not be dealing with this very important problem.
The point he is making is twofold:
First, human rights inhere in us as individuals, not by dint of our membership in certain groups.
Second, the policy is only legitimate insofar as it addresses behavior that is disruptive. Gay identity is not, in itself, disruptive.
The ten Republican candidates' general refusal to oppose DADT is at odds with public opinion. As USA Today reported in February:
Polls indicate growing acceptance of gay troops. A Harris Poll this month found that 55% supported allowing gays to serve openly, up from 48% in 2000.
A Pew Research Center survey last year found that 60% favored gays serving openly, up from 52% in 1994. Support ran 3-to-1 among those younger than 30. In contrast, Pew found that 39% favored same-sex marriage.
Moreover, the policy undermines military effectiveness. That same USA Today article, written by Andrea Stone, noted
A Government Accountability Office report in February 2005 found that at least 800 dismissed gay servicemembers had skills deemed "mission critical" by the Pentagon. Among them: 54 Arabic-language specialists.Even the most gay-friendly of the candidates, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, seemed unwilling to address this specific problem stemming from DADT. From the transcript:
MR. BLITZER: Mayor Giuliani, recently we’ve learned that several talented, trained linguists — Arabic speakers, Farsi speakers, Urdu speakers trained by the U.S. government to learn those languages to help us in the war on terrorism — were dismissed from the military because they announced they were gays or lesbians. Is that, in your mind, appropriate?
MR. GIULIANI: This is not the time to deal with disruptive issues like this. Back in 1994 we went through this and it created a tremendous amount of disruption. Colin Powell, I think, was still the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before he left at the beginning of the Clinton administration. He came to the view that this was a good policy. And I think in time of war, in a time where we’re trying to deal with this transition to a new kind of warfare that we have to be fighting — and we haven’t gotten all the way there yet, we need a hybrid army, we need to look at nation-building as part of what we have to teach our military — I don’t think this would be the right time to raise these issues.
Andrew Sullivan, as one might expect, has a few choice comments on the candidates' response to this question:
Then there's Romney, who once again has flip-flopped. His defense of the Clinton policy which he once opposed is that "it's working." I know of no one who once opposed the policy who now supports it, because "it's working". And I simply don't believe Romney means what he says. He's an opportunist and a liar. And, of course, as the question showed, the policy is throwing out critical servicembers in a time of war. McCain and Giuliani: they know better. The lack of any real argument in defense of the Republican candidates' position combined with the blanket refusal to revisit it is a sign of only one thing: contempt for the many servicemembers who are gay. The truth is: Giuliani and McCain do not support the troops. They want to persecute and stigmatize a minority of them. These old men are out of date and out of touch.The debate was sponsored by CNN, WMUR, and the New Hampshire Union Leader.