Politics & Policy

Gates, Gays, and the Boy Scouts

The soul of a bureaucrat

Robert Gates has long been surrounded by men in uniform, first as secretary of defense, now as president of the Boy Scouts of America. His time at DoD coincided with the repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on homosexual soldiers — a repeal effectively imposed by the courts — and as the leader of the Boy Scouts he is calling for a repeal of that organization’s policy banning homosexual adults from serving as troop leaders or in other leadership roles.

Gates, whose likeness appears in Webster’s with the entry for “bureaucrat,” says that the Boy Scouts’ policy on homosexuals is “unsustainable.” He warns that attempting to maintain it would mean “the end of us as a national movement.” This sentiment expresses a great deal of what is wrong with the leadership culture of the United States.

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Not because Gates is taking a friendlier attitude toward homosexuals than his predecessors have. There is, in fact, an excellent moral argument to be made for the inclusion of homosexual adults in leadership positions within scouting — but Gates is not making that argument.

Instead, he argues from organizational self-interest — never mind if it is right or wrong, the policy puts Scouting Inc. in a tough position, so best to abandon it. Duty to God and country? To heck with that — management always has its own priorities.

Depending on your point of view, Gates is either doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason or doing the right thing for the wrong reason.  

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For those among the shrinking minority of Americans adhering to something like the Scouts’ longstanding view of homosexuality — that it represents a set of choices and behaviors that constitute at the very least a bad example for children — Gates’s decision must be understood as simple moral cowardice: The gay-rights movement is energetic and totalitarian, and its demands are fortified more often than not by the dictates of judges. Faced with overwhelming cultural and political pressure, Gates did not have the mettle to lead the Boy Scouts of America as a kind of Nockian remnant, keeping the tablets until such a time as civilization once again returns to certain eternal truths.

That there are priorities above institutional self-interest is a proposition entirely alien to the bureaucratic soul.​

For those who take the more contemporary view of homosexuality, Gates’s position is arguably even more distasteful. If the Scouts have been wrong about the moral and social status of homosexuals, then they have been wrong about something important. If their exclusion of gays from leadership positions was based on error or malice, then they owe it to those they have excluded to admit as much, freely and openly. Perhaps more important, if the exclusion of homosexuals has been wrongful, then the Boy Scouts’ leadership owes it to the young men whose moral development is in part entrusted to it to be forthright about that fact.

As a moral rationale, “the end of us as a national movement” fails, and fails pitifully, regardless of one’s views on homosexuality.

That there are priorities above institutional self-interest is a proposition entirely alien to the bureaucratic soul, and Gates’s tenure at the Pentagon is testament to that. During his confirmation hearings, Gates declined even to venture an opinion as to whether the United States was winning or losing the war in Iraq, something that was of acute interest in 2006. More precisely, he took an absurd position that the United States was neither winning nor losing “at this point,” as though he were overseeing Schrödinger’s army. Concerning the position of General Peter Pace, Gates declined to support his re-nomination as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, not because he did not think he was the best man for the job but because, as he explained at the time, he thought that a contentious confirmation hearing would be bad for the organization. He urges Congress to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell” not because he came to believe the policy defective but in order to permit the military to implement changes on its own terms rather than on a judge’s schedule. The reckless withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq — which has borne poison fruit in the form of the so-called Islamic State — was overseen by Gates, whose main concern in that affair seems to have been remaining in the good graces of his masters, whether George W. Bush or Barack Obama.

In economics and politics both there exists something known as the “agent–principal problem,” in short the dilemma presented by the fact that in complex endeavors such as the running of a corporation or a cabinet agency, we must hire managers, agents who are hired to see to our business but who have interests of their own. The textbook example from corporate life is CEO pay: The CEO is supposed to work on behalf of the shareholders, but on the matter of his compensation his interests are not necessarily theirs. Government is afflicted by the same problem, much more intractably (shareholders can’t just dump Uncle Stupid’s stock) and with much more serious consequences. Take a line-by-line gander at the Pentagon’s budget and you will not see evidence of a war-making machine but of a gigantic welfare state with a sideline in submarines. Our monopoly government schools are likewise organized mainly for the benefit of those who work there rather than that of those who are taught there.

With the Marine Corps or the Boy Scouts of America, the question of what is good is not necessarily the same as the question of what is good for the organization. But you’d need a different sort of man than Robert Gates to discern that distinction, and a better sort of man to act on it.


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