Military as subordinate is core of debate on gays ON POLITICS



WASHINGTON -- In danger of being obscured in the current controversy over gays in the military is the critical matter of civilian control of the country's fighting arm.

While President Clinton may be legitimately criticized for not adequately consulting with Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other ranking military officers, he alone has the authority to decide, not Powell or the others.

Among the president's clear responsibilities is upholding the rights of all Americans, a superior obligation to Powell's defense of the interests of a majority of those who serve under him. And while it is proper for Powell to make the most forceful case he can for those interests, he remains in a military command structure with the commander-in-chief over him.

From all indications, Powell is determined to do his best to blunt a decision already taken by his commander-in-chief. It is one thing for civilian members of Congress such as Senate Armed Services Chairman Sam Nunn, as a leader of a co-equal branch of the government, to go to the mat with the president even after a decision is made. It is quite another for a military man to buck a decision once made by his superior.

The same is true regarding a reported generals' and admirals' revolt against a plan by the new secretary of defense, Les Aspin, to install some basic changes in the military structure to reduce duplication of missions, functions and manpower. A basic foundation of the American society is civilian control of the military. Internal consultation and debate are proper before a zTC policy is laid down, but once it is, the military is rightly expected to fall in behind it.

The controversy over gays in the military is a particularly emotional one with admittedly special problems of implementation, which Clinton has acknowledged from the start. long as Powell and the others concentrate on how to solve those problems, rather than to sabotage the decision, there can be no legitimate quarrel.

Unfortunately, the dialogue of the late campaign is intruding on that simple axiom. Much was made by Clinton's opponents of his resistance and failure to serve in the military during the Vietnam War. On several occasions he was asked whether that failure should disqualify him or would make it difficult for him to serve effectively as commander-in-chief. Now critics are suggesting that if only he had been forced to live in a barracks or aboard ship he would have a different point of view.

Maybe that is so, but it would not change the fact that a president is sworn to defend the constitutional rights of all Americans. One circumstance that adds tension to the situation is that Powell has become a popular political figure in his own right.

He achieved hero status during the Persian Gulf War, and through all of former Vice President Dan Quayle's tribulations in office, Powell's name always surfaced as a likely replacement as President Bush's running mate for 1992. After Clinton's election, Powell was mentioned as a possible secretary of state.

While Powell has conducted himself with all proper deference to his civilian bosses, at least until his very visible and vocal opposition to lifting the ban on gays in the military, he has come to occupy a stature that risks blurring his subordinate military role in a democratic society.

He is, to be sure, no Douglas MacArthur, the military genius whose giant ego led him to defy President Harry Truman on how to pursue the Korean War and resulted in his firing. MacArthur, too, became bigger than the position he held and obliged Truman to pull rank on him -- a rank that MacArthur seemed to have lost sight of in his very public defiance of Truman's statements of official American policy in that war.

But the principle remains the same: The commander-in-chief makes the basic decisions and all military subordinates are required to carry them out -- even famous generals. It is particularly important that the non-military man now occupying the Oval Office make the point and make it early, especially if he is to be successful in implementing other policies relating to the military, such as downsizing it.

Clinton already is under fire for breaking campaign promises. This is one he clearly intends to keep, and in doing so he has an opportunity to send a strong, necessary signal to the military about who's in charge.

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