A Theory On Repealing Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

My theory on President Obama is that he views the military as a potentially dangerous place for his Presidency. The US military is a unique institution in America and one of the great successes of this democracy have been establishing fundamental parameters on the ability of the military to act that keep it firmly under civilian control. As Commander-in-Chief, he faces a difficult route to successfully utilizing the world’s most powerful force in the conflicts abroad, particularly in Afghanistan; as a Democratic President he faces a conservative faction of the population who is not convinced of his ability to successfully protect the homeland. Not to mention his workload, which is as impressively stacked as as the cords of firewood former President Bush cut on vacation.

The objection is utterly simple: Why can’t the President just sign an executive order circumventing DADT? I suspect that the answer is that the President manages through coalition-building; as a President elected during wartime he fears that signing an executive order directing the military to disregard DADT without directly engaging the chain of command would undermine his effectiveness as Commander-in-Chief and provide his political opponents with profoundly damaging political ammunition that’s amplified by poor outcomes in Afghanistan or Iraq. Better to step slowly and surely than risk aggravating relations with the military. The evidence for this is his very careful engagement of the military and especially his retention of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense.

The endgame here is to make sure change permanent. It would be disastrous, for instance, if Sarah Palin or any number of potential other Republican presidential nominees won the 2012 elections and proceeded to re-institute DADT. The odds of that re-institution are vastly smaller with a 2012 Obama win; policies tend to be path-dependent in the sense that they create a culture invested in their own existence and the longer that a certain institutional culture has been in existence the the stronger it is. This argument allows us to flesh out the argument more fully: the President believes in transforming the institutional culture of the military with the permanent repeal of DADT as the endgame, not the catalyst.

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