The Brass Informs the Civilians Who's in Charge

WILLIAM PFAFF

February 04, 1993|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris. -- It is seriously bad news that President Clinton does not seem to have understood the politics of his problem in ending the military services' ban on homosexuals. This is exactly the kind of issue which has kept the Democratic Party at a disadvantage since the 1960s.

Worse, Mr. Clinton has a big problem with the Pentagon on the reduction of military expenditures and the prerogatives of civilian authority. He certainly does not need at this point the distraction of a fight which pits him against not only the military but the general public.

The issue of homosexual military service, as it now is formulated, presents a controversial minority claim which, whatever its objective merits, offends that morally conservative working- and middle-class electorate which elected Bill Clinton. These voters deserted the Democrats in 1980 for Ronald Reagan and came back to the Democrats last year because Republican programs had cut their living standards or lost them their jobs.

The issue is symbolic, not practical. There have always been plenty of homosexuals, as well as the sexually insecure, in the military, including some of the best people they have. The structured military life has always attracted such people, from the Prussian Von Steuben of the American Revolutionary War to Lawrence of Arabia. (It is decidedly politically incorrect to report this, I realize, but according to Artemis Cooper's recent and splendid history of Cairo during World War II, the for midable desert RAF was at that time known -- even to its members -- as ''the Flying Fairies.'')

The problem lies in the fact that gay-activist groups have attached to the issue of military service a general claim about the equivalence of homosexuality and heterosexuality which the majority of American society simply does not accept. Ending the formal ban on homosexuals in the service is not, for the activists, simply a matter of ending an invidious formal discrimination, but is rather the assertion of a general claim about the nature of homosexuality and society.

The practical approach to homosexuality in the American services has always amounted to what Mr. Clinton says he wants: treatment of individuals according to what they do, not what they are. Homosexuals who serve in the military have ordinarily made their sexual orientation their own business while on base. Their private friendships and where they went on Saturday nights were no concern of others.

Their conduct thus was no different from that of heterosexual soldiers or sailors, some of whom go home to wives and family, some to tea dances sponsored by the USO, while some head for bars and whorehouses on Saturday night. The military's concern is no more or less than that each returns to duty on schedule, able to perform.

The fight about this, temporarily postponed by Mr. Clinton's six-month study period, has thoroughly distracted the president and public from another and genuinely serious problem.

This is the claim Gen. Colin Powell and the chiefs of staff are making to the privilege of laying down terms to civilian authority on when they are, and are not, prepared to execute the security policies of the president of the United States.

General Powell gave an interview to the New York Times last fall, stating terms on which the Pentagon would be willing to intervene in the war in Yugoslavia.

It was an interview which would have caused President Harry Truman to fire him -- just as Truman fired the great Gen. Douglas MacArthur, when he assumed to himself authority the Constitution has given to the president.

Needless to say, the general's terms virtually precluded any American ground intervention in Yugoslavia. A military which once boasted ''any time, any place,'' and ''our business is the impossible,'' under General Powell seems to be saying, ''we do deserts, not mountains,'' or ''Arabs and Panamanians, but not Serbs.''

Furthermore, the modest and sensible plan for post-Cold War reductions in military redundancies which General Powell agreed to with Sen. Sam Nunn during the summer now has been rejected by the chief of the Joint Staff under pressure from his colleagues. Last week General Powell withdrew his mid-December draft report on rationalized roles and missions for U.S. forces and told Mr. Clinton that virtually all of the services' expensive redundancies are ''complementary'' and essential.

President Clinton was elected with a popular mandate to reduce government expenditures, including those of the military, so as to rescue the American economy and American jobs and industry. General Powell's duty is to find ways to reduce military expenditures in this post-Cold War environment, so as to give the president and the public what they demand.

Mr. Clinton is going to find it necessary to say to the general, and to the Joint Chiefs, that if they are unable or unwilling to make the cuts in spending that the public has mandated, they must resign and make way for those intelligent and progressive officers who do understand what the United States needs from its military in the 1990s. There will be no problem filling the Pentagon's command posts.

But it is essential that Mr. Clinton make his fight on issues of general principle and general public interest, on which he has the country behind him. He does not need the distraction of large public fights on sectarian issues which divide the public. If he does not understand the importance of this, his administration is already in trouble.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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