In choosing to overlook the adulterous affair 13 years ago of a leading candidate for the military's top job, Defense Secretary William Cohen insists he is bringing balance to how the armed forces deal with sexual misconduct.
But by refusing to exclude Air Force Gen. Joseph Ralston from consideration as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mr. Cohen is fueling charges that the military has double standards on adultery, fraternization, and sexual harassment.
With the services already embroiled in a flurry of sexual misconduct cases that stand in stark contrast to the treatment of General Ralston, even some officers agree Cohen's decision lends credence to such contentions.
"It sounds like the double standard to me," one junior officer says on condition of anonymity. "It's a little bit bewildering. Something that we have learned in our whole careers is that there are higher standards and that the military needs to adhere to them."
Such sentiments within the military, and protests by women's groups and some members of Congress may well doom Ralston's chances of succeeding Army Gen. John Shalikashvilli, who retires as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in September. Cohen is expected to submit to President Clinton his choice for General Shalikashvilli's replacement next week.
Despite professions of support by Cohen and Shalikashvilli and Ralston's sterling 32-year record, members of the Senate would risk joining Cohen on the hot seat of public scrutiny by confirming Ralston should he be nominated.
"There is a clear perception of a lack of fairness," says Prof. Michael Noone, a former Air Force judge-advocate who teaches at Catholic University Law School in Washington.
But some observers agree with Cohen's reasoning.
"It seems to me like a Greek tragedy," says Charles Moskos, a military sociologist at Northwestern University, in Chicago. "I think the secretary did the right thing. You have to do it on a case by case basis."
In defending his move, Cohen said he was "drawing a line," because controversy over sexual misconduct risked spiraling out of control and ruining careers of officers whose records outweigh their mistakes. Given Ralston's "distinguished" record, including a stint as a combat pilot in Vietnam, Cohen said he wouldn't disqualify him from consideration for the top job.
Other critical observers say the issue exposes the military's failure to deal adequately with deeper problems that have grown with the influx of women into the armed services in the 1980s.
"This is serving as a distraction from the larger issues of sexual abuse and abuse of power that are pervasive throughout the military," asserts Chris Lombardi, co-founder of Survivors Take Action Against Abuse by Military Personnel, an advocacy group.
Ralston has admitted to a year-long affair with a civilian woman while both attended the National War College in Washington. He was then a colonel and separated from his wife. They later attempted to reconcile but then divorced.
In contrast to Cohen's position on Ralston, who is currently the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the military has tried to be aggressive in pursuing recent sexual misconduct cases.
Three Army sergeants were given prison terms for raping female recruits, and their commander, Maj. Gen. John Longhouser, resigned this week after admitting to having an adulterous affair years ago. Last week, in unrelated cases, an Army general and a Navy admiral were stripped of their commands during investigations for alleged adultery and sexual harassment respectively.
Those incidents followed sexual-harassment allegations against the Army's top noncommissioned officer, who is reportedly seeking to retire early to avoid a high-profile trial, and the prosecution on adultery charges of 1st Lt. Kelly Flinn, the Air Force's first B-52 pilot. Lieutenant Flinn, who was also accused of lying, accepted a general discharge last month in place of a high-profile court-martial that could have sent her to jail.
Amid all the cases, the military has insisted there is little sexual misconduct in its ranks and that violators are treated equally.
The day before disclosing his decision on Ralston, Cohen implied the military should set a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct, including adultery, which is a crime under military laws. "If we start to tolerate a breach of standards, or if we start to lower the standards, then that will have a vast and pervasive impact upon the military," Cohen said.
In trying to explain a move that seems to contradict those words, Cohen said Ralston's early-1980s affair wouldn't have discredited the military or affected discipline.
But the mid-level officer says he believes the military must be held to higher standards. Says he: "If we are going to have standards, we need to live up to them."