Commentary Magazine


Topic: Secret Service

An Unfair Attack on the Administration

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, writing about the prostitution scandal in Colombia, where reports are that as many as 21 Secret Service agents and military personnel paid for sex before President Obama’s arrival at the Summit of the Americas on Friday, said this:

When the White House says its job is to “conduct [itself] with the utmost dignity and probity,” it seems somewhat contradictory to the culture of permissiveness this administration has created here at home. When you relentlessly attack moral principles, as this White House has done over the course of three years, it becomes increasingly difficult for the administration to call these actions wrong. …

The United States, under this administration, is a country that increasingly celebrates sexual indulgence. Is it any wonder this country is suffering from an ethical identity crisis? This is what comes of an administration that systematically destroys the moral foundations of our military, government service, and public schools. On one hand, the administration has tried to force our military to embrace homosexuality by making unnatural and immoral sex legal–and on the other, it’s outraged that its military is engaging in another form of legal but immoral sex. (Prostitution is permissible in Colombia’s “tolerated zones.”) Both behaviors are inappropriate, unhealthy, and destructive. Yet only one seems to incense government officials.

If this seems a bit muddled, that’s because it is. But this culture of moral confusion is inevitable when American leaders push a radical social policy that arbitrarily gives sexual license to some and condemns it from others.

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Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, writing about the prostitution scandal in Colombia, where reports are that as many as 21 Secret Service agents and military personnel paid for sex before President Obama’s arrival at the Summit of the Americas on Friday, said this:

When the White House says its job is to “conduct [itself] with the utmost dignity and probity,” it seems somewhat contradictory to the culture of permissiveness this administration has created here at home. When you relentlessly attack moral principles, as this White House has done over the course of three years, it becomes increasingly difficult for the administration to call these actions wrong. …

The United States, under this administration, is a country that increasingly celebrates sexual indulgence. Is it any wonder this country is suffering from an ethical identity crisis? This is what comes of an administration that systematically destroys the moral foundations of our military, government service, and public schools. On one hand, the administration has tried to force our military to embrace homosexuality by making unnatural and immoral sex legal–and on the other, it’s outraged that its military is engaging in another form of legal but immoral sex. (Prostitution is permissible in Colombia’s “tolerated zones.”) Both behaviors are inappropriate, unhealthy, and destructive. Yet only one seems to incense government officials.

If this seems a bit muddled, that’s because it is. But this culture of moral confusion is inevitable when American leaders push a radical social policy that arbitrarily gives sexual license to some and condemns it from others.

Let’s examine Perkins’s arguments in turn.

The notion that the Obama administration is “systematically destroy[ing] the moral foundation of our military” strikes me as intemperate and unfair. Most (though not all) senior members of the military, including Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and General David Petraeus, believed that the time had come to overturn “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (DADT). So did then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. Are they part of the systematic effort to destroy the moral foundation of the military as well?

The core of this debate is whether unit morale would suffer if gays were open about their sexual orientation. There is evidence that because of shifting sexual mores, including attitudes towards gays, unit morale would not suffer. (The Department of Defense’s Report of the Comprehensive Review of the Issues Associated with a Repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” indicates that there was low risk of service disruptions because of repeal of the ban.) It’s important to note that other countries that allow openly gay people to serve in the military (like Israel) haven’t experienced combat readiness, unit cohesion or morale problems. In reviewing the many countries that permit gays and lesbians to serve openly in their military, the Defense Department’s report found that, “Uniformly, these nations reported that they were aware of no units that had a degradation of cohesion or combat effectiveness, and that the presence of gay men and lesbians in combat units had not been raised as an issue by any of their units deployed in Iraq or Afghanistan.” (Page 89 of the Defense Department report shows that at the time it was issued, 35 nations permitted gays and lesbians to serve openly in their military vs. six nations that excluded gay men and lesbians from serving or serving openly in the military.) We’ll of course be able to make an informed judgment of the effects of repealing DADA soon enough, since we’re now testing the proposition.

Then there’s the argument that the Obama administration is giving “sexual license” and promoting an “ideology of unrestraint.” The logic goes like this: overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” leads to a brothel in Cartagena.

This argument is, I think, quite weak. For one thing, most of those caught up in the prostitution scandal are Secret Service agents, not members of the military. And it’s hard to believe that if “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” hadn’t been overturned all of seven months ago, then the Secret Service and the military personnel who reportedly solicited prostitution would instead have stayed on the straight and narrow. There’s a reason prostitution is referred to as the world’s oldest profession. What Perkins is engaging in is the logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc (“after this, therefore because of this”). President Obama overturned DADT. Secret Service agents and members of the military were caught up in a prostitution scandal in Cartagena. QED.

Nor does DADT have much to do with “celebrating sexual indulgence.” Military standards of conduct already prohibit fraternization and unprofessional relationships. They also address various forms of harassment and unprofessional behavior, prescribe appropriate dress and appearance, and provide guidelines on public displays of affection. Repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell doesn’t change any of that; it simply means that for the first time in America’s military history, service members would be allowed to publicly reveal their sexual orientation without fear of reprisal.

As for the “culture of permissiveness,” here Perkins is (inadvertently) making the case of same-sex advocates, who argue that gays should be allowed to marry in order to place them within an institution (marriage) that encourages fidelity. The argument is that same-sex marriage would weaken the “culture of permissiveness” since marriage discourages it. Same-sex marriage would, according to its proponents, be a profoundly traditionalizing act. Again, we shall see (a handful of states now recognize same-sex unions and more will soon follow).

There are certainly grounds on which to criticize the Obama administration, including on social policy (see the Obama administration’s decision to require Catholic hospitals, charities and universities to provide insurance coverage that includes contraceptives and abortifacients, in violation of their conscience and creed). And intelligent and honest people will disagree on issues like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and legalizing gay marriage. But the idea that the prostitution scandal in Colombia points to “the significant erosion of ethical standards in the Obama administration” is simply wrong. Everybody’s interests, including the interests of social conservatives, would be better served by engaging these issues in a serious, sober, and empirically rigorous manner.

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The Killer Bow?

Jimmy Carter’s presidency was not going well by the spring of 1979, but when on a fishing trip near his home Carter was forced to fend off what later became known as the “killer rabbit,” the fateful rodent rendezvous became a metaphor for his presidency. This report reminds us:

The Associated Press told it this way: “A ‘killer rabbit’ attacked President Carter on a recent trip to Plains, Ga., penetrating Secret Service security and forcing the chief executive to beat back the beast with a canoe paddle. The rabbit, which the president later guessed was fleeing in panic from some predator, actually swam toward a canoe from which Carter was fishing in a pond. It was hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared, and making straight for the president.”

Mr. Carter escaped uninjured, but the same could not be said for his reputation. Two months after surviving the killer rabbit, the president made what came to be known as his “malaise speech,” in which he spoke about Americans’ “crisis of confidence.” A connection between those two events was never proved.

But the killer rabbit had taken its toll. Here was Carter under siege, inept and just plain ridiculous — and trying to smash a rabbit with a canoe paddle. Soon this incident was a punch line in many a late-night comic’s routine.

So, is “the bow” Obama’s “killer rabbit” moment — a silly and seemingly small event that comes to encapsulate growing unease with a president who hasn’t quite figured out that the world is a dangerous place and that it is his job to perceive dangers and act decisively to protect American interests? Time will tell. But “the bow” has all the makings of the sort of iconic event that can ensnare a president and come to crystallize his shortcomings. The dig on Obama, which is now gaining increasing credence beyond conservative pundits, is that he is insufficiently resolute, too deferential and naive about the ways in which adversaries perceive us.

You would be hard pressed to come up with a better encapsulation of this sense than “the bow.” And unlike Carter’s case, Obama’s faux pas happened in a real-world diplomatic context. In that regard, the bow may have topped the rabbit (and even the last most embarrassing encounter between a Japanese official and a U.S. president, which, to be fair, was involuntary) in the annals of presidential embarrassments.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency was not going well by the spring of 1979, but when on a fishing trip near his home Carter was forced to fend off what later became known as the “killer rabbit,” the fateful rodent rendezvous became a metaphor for his presidency. This report reminds us:

The Associated Press told it this way: “A ‘killer rabbit’ attacked President Carter on a recent trip to Plains, Ga., penetrating Secret Service security and forcing the chief executive to beat back the beast with a canoe paddle. The rabbit, which the president later guessed was fleeing in panic from some predator, actually swam toward a canoe from which Carter was fishing in a pond. It was hissing menacingly, its teeth flashing and nostrils flared, and making straight for the president.”

Mr. Carter escaped uninjured, but the same could not be said for his reputation. Two months after surviving the killer rabbit, the president made what came to be known as his “malaise speech,” in which he spoke about Americans’ “crisis of confidence.” A connection between those two events was never proved.

But the killer rabbit had taken its toll. Here was Carter under siege, inept and just plain ridiculous — and trying to smash a rabbit with a canoe paddle. Soon this incident was a punch line in many a late-night comic’s routine.

So, is “the bow” Obama’s “killer rabbit” moment — a silly and seemingly small event that comes to encapsulate growing unease with a president who hasn’t quite figured out that the world is a dangerous place and that it is his job to perceive dangers and act decisively to protect American interests? Time will tell. But “the bow” has all the makings of the sort of iconic event that can ensnare a president and come to crystallize his shortcomings. The dig on Obama, which is now gaining increasing credence beyond conservative pundits, is that he is insufficiently resolute, too deferential and naive about the ways in which adversaries perceive us.

You would be hard pressed to come up with a better encapsulation of this sense than “the bow.” And unlike Carter’s case, Obama’s faux pas happened in a real-world diplomatic context. In that regard, the bow may have topped the rabbit (and even the last most embarrassing encounter between a Japanese official and a U.S. president, which, to be fair, was involuntary) in the annals of presidential embarrassments.

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