The United States military is a huge organization with critical responsibilities. When it undertakes big changes, they need to be thoroughly assessed in advance and carefully formulated to minimize unwanted effects. President Donald Trump’s decision to ban transgender individuals, which he announced without waiting for a Pentagon review in an abrupt series of tweets last summer, is a case study in how not to change course. On Monday, unsurprisingly, a federal court blocked his policy from being carried out.
His ban overturned a policy announced by President Barack Obama’s defense secretary, Ash Carter, in June 2016 after a yearlong review. At the time, Carter noted that transgender personnel have “deployed all over the world, serving on aircraft, submarines, forward operating bases and right here in the Pentagon.” But they had been forced to keep their gender identification secret to avoid being discharged — much as gay men and women had to stay in the closet when open homosexuality was forbidden.
Carter said the change was needed in the interest of fairness and, more important, of military capability: “Our mission is to defend this country, and we don’t want barriers unrelated to a person’s qualification to serve preventing us from recruiting or retaining the soldier, sailor, airman or Marine who can best accomplish the mission.”
Whether allowing transgender members would help or hurt the overall mission was a crucial question. Some critics in and out of the ranks depicted the lifting of the ban as an irresponsible social experiment that would hurt morale and readiness and waste money. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, accused the Obama White House of “prioritizing politics over policy.”
Carter, however, cited evaluations showing the fears were misplaced. A study by the RAND Corp. said the evidence from foreign militaries that allow transgender members indicated “little or no impact on unit cohesion, operational effectiveness, or readiness.” The cost of gender-transition medical treatments, it estimated, wouldn’t exceed $8.4 million per year — which, as supporters of the change noted, is about a tenth of what the military spends on Viagra and other erectile dysfunction remedies.
The Obama administration’s conclusions might be subject to debate. But if you’re going to overturn a policy based on its allegedly destructive consequences, you need to take the trouble to document them. Trump’s decision came without such deliberation, and — in an echo of his first two travel bans, which were withdrawn after court rulings against them — its haste and sloppiness have been a big liability.
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly said “it appears that the rights of a class of individuals were summarily and abruptly revoked for reasons contrary to the only then-available studies.” Had the president ordered additional research “and then decided that banning all transgender individuals from serving in the military was beneficial to the various military objectives cited, this would be a different case.”
The evidence before her, the judge said, indicated that the real damage to the military would come from rejecting these members. She blocked implementation of Trump’s ban and, barring a reversal on appeal, the military will be obligated to accept transgender individuals beginning Jan. 1.
In trying to discredit and dismantle this policy, Trump didn’t have the best of hands. And so far, he’s played it badly.
— Chicago Tribune