Obama taps alum. for top Air Force position
By Daniel Bornstein , The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Tuesday, August 7, 2012
On Aug. 1, United States President Barack Obama nominated Eric Fanning ’90 to be the next undersecretary of the Air Force. If confirmed, Fanning will be the highest ranking openly gay member of the Department of Defense, which would be a “sign of progress” in the military’s tolerance of gay Americans, Ken Yalowitz, the former director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding, said.
Fanning is currently the deputy undersecretary of the Navy, and this new post would be a promotion from his current role.
His nomination comes one year after Obama repealed the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, a move that won him praise from liberals who had been intently anticipating his support for gay rights.
“This means not only more tolerance in the uniformed services, but in the policy direction at the Pentagon,” Yalowitz said.
The U.S. foreign policy establishment has made significant strides overall in its receptiveness toward the gay community in recent years, and Yalowitz said that acceptance was much lower during his own time in the State Department. Yalowitz was formerly the U.S. ambassador to the Republic of Belarus from 1994 to 1997 and the ambassador to Georgia from 1998 to 2001.
Fanning is the former deputy director of the Commission for the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism, chaired by former Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Jim Talent, R-Mo. Among the commission’s most noteworthy conclusions, issued in 2008, was its warning of a 50 percent probability that a terrorist group would release a weapon of mass destruction by the end of 2013, according to government professor William Wohlforth.
The fact that Fanning is openly gay should not be blown out of proportion, however, Tad Oelstrom, the director of the National Security Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and a retired Air Force lieutenant general, said.
“The recent appointment of Eric Fanning as the undersecretary of the Air Force is significant not because he is an openly gay person,” Oelstrom said. “It is significant because he brings a strong record of performance from his time in the Navy and as a Congressional staff member. His credentials and performance history should serve the Air Force well. In these trying times of budget concerns, every ounce of Mr. Fanning’s expertise and leadership will be well used.”
Despite criticism of the military for its discrimination against gay Americans, the armed forces have historically facilitated greater acceptance of minority groups, Yalowitz said. For example, Harry Truman’s desegregation of the military in 1948 — 16 years before the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act — helped contribute to a shift in attitudes toward African-Americans.
If confirmed, Fanning will be operating in a context in which even top defense officials have begun to question the limits of American military power, Yalowitz said.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates suggested during his tenure that U.S. foreign policy should focus more on diplomacy than on troop deployment, Yalowitz said. In the context of tight budgets, current Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has warned about the financial implications of expensive military operations.
“The days of unlimited defense budgets are over,” Yalowitz said.
During the Senate hearings to determine Fanning’s confirmation, members of Congress will likely ask questions pertaining to his qualifications, his positions on various issues and his new responsibilities, Yalowitz said. They will certainly not allude to him being openly gay, however, he said.