The most curious thing about outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta’s decision this week to allow women to assume combat roles in the military was the timing. It was announced just as departing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was testifying on Capitol Hill about the Benghazi attack–and came without any advance notification to Congress, much to the annoyance of Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
It is not clear whether the administration wanted to bury the news–or highlight it, in the event that Clinton’s testimony had gone poorly. Perhaps it is it one more tough assignment the administration would rather hand off to Panetta’s likely replacement, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), along with massive defense cuts. Perhaps the administration’s enthusiasm for executive fiat is not limited to immigration, guns, and recess appointments.
Whatever the reason, one thing is clear: the primary motivation for the decision is to make it easier for women to ascend to the highest ranks, which is very difficult to do without a combat background. Whether the policy makes the military more effective is unclear at best. Most of the military’s elite units will ask for, and will be granted, exemption from the policy; women who volunteer will be concentrated in specific, specialized roles.
Women already serve with valor in every branch of the armed forces, and have fought the enemy at close quarters. But the basic fact of biological dimorphism is not subject to Department of Defense review or political correctness. The soldiers sent to seek out and kill the enemy with ruthless determination will continue to be men. Placing women in those roles would likely create new risks to the safety and cohesion of front-line units.
As Stephanie Gutman observed at National Review Online yesterday, this might be just the latest in the Obama administration’s “gestural” politics–supporting gay marriage but not proposing new legislation to allow it, proposing gun control laws that have nothing to do with preventing mass shootings, etc. If so, there is no harm done–and perhaps some good, in that it will allow certain combat roles to be opened passively for women by leaving them off the list of exemptions, rather than specifically designating them as such, which could effectively stigmatize women (and men) placed in those positions.
Yet there is the danger that pressure to increase the participation of women could result in lower standards across combat units. If that happens, then the Obama administration will have sacrificed security for equity. Congress needs to take the White House to task.