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Marine Commandant Defies White House on Gay Troops

Commandant General James Conway's opposition to the president on "don't ask, don't tell" could have many underlying implications. Some would say he should be taken out to the woodshed.
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The Washington Times is reporting that Marine Corps Commandant General James Conway is opposing President Obama's pledge to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Citing a former senior Pentagon official, the Times says that General Conway, "has emerged in internal Pentagon deliberations as the most outspoken opponent of permitting gay men and women to serve openly in the U.S. military." According to the Times, the official says that "Conway has gone further than others in stating his opposition to a change in policy."

If nothing else, Conway's apparent resistance may be a warning shot to the White House by telegraphing arguments that opponents of repeal will invoke if the Senate holds hearings on "don't ask, don't tell." Given that we are fighting two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, opponents will say, we just cannot take time out to focus on civil rights issues like gays in the military.

But there could be other implications to the case, some of which have higher stakes than the gays in the military issue. On one hand, even if the White House did not coordinate the leaking of General Conway's views, there is a way in which his opposition plays into the administration's hand. The President, of course, is strongly in favor of repealing the ban. His political reality, however, is that he has to deal with a range of other crises before turning to repeal. What better way to justify going slowly than a statement by the Marine Commandant that we cannot do this now?

On the other hand, even though Conway's apparent resistance may buy some time, it could carry some risk for the White House as well. Law professor Diane Mazur, for example, worries that Conway's opposition could raise thorny questions of civilian control over the military. "The President has declared which way policy is heading," she said. "There is no faster way for a Commander-in-Chief to lose the respect of those serving under him than to allow his Service Chiefs to march in an opposite direction." Mazur should know. She is a former military officer and a top legal expert on civil-military relations.

From this point of view, service members would rather follow a leader who pursues policies that they oppose than a leader who is not forceful enough to ensure than all his subordinates are following his plan, regardless of their preferences. To the extent that Mazur is correct, then it may be important for the White House to take Conway out to the woodshed.

As retired Air Force Colonel Dick Klass said this morning, "Clinton's mistake was to call the Chiefs into the Oval Office and ask them what they thought about gays in the military. What Clinton should have done, and what Obama should do, is call the Chiefs in, explain that repealing the ban is a matter of national security, and tell them that if they are uncomfortable with that, they should resign."

The bottom line is that, as Secretary of the Army John McHugh said last week, the military has a long history of adjusting its policies, and the typical pattern is that "predictions of doom and gloom that did not play out." Most military leaders understand that repeal is inevitable. Many agree that "don't ask, don't tell" is hurting the military, and that it doesn't make sense to fire gay Arabic linguists during a time of war. The question is when, not whether, repeal will happen.