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. …

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.