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As Bill Clinton sits down to turkey dinner and tries not to gag on the question of gays in the military, the answer -- given a bloated armed forces and a budget crisis -- may be easier than he thinks.

That's particularly true given what the controversy says about the structure of the armed forces.

If Clinton and other Americans are beginning to wonder just how disciplined and well-managed their vaunted military really is -- and the Tailhook scandal certainly should have raised some questions -- they have good reason.

After all, it's more than a little unsettling to hear the expressed fears that violence will break out -- and no-nonsense commanders won't be able to prevent it -- if the military stops discriminating against gays.

It's one thing for neandertholic generals to come out of mothballs -- as a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff did recently -- to condemn the "filthy, disease-ridden practices" of homosexuals and predict that soldiers "kissing and hugging" is just an executive order away.

It's quite another when respected experts like Sen. Sam Nunn, influential chairman of the Armed Services Committee, say they "fear for the lives of people in the military" if the ban is lifted too quickly. At that point, one really has to step back and ponder what kind of armed forces the country has built.

Discipline? Following orders? Those are supposed to be the hallmarks of the military establishment.

But if Nunn is right, the only orders soldiers will follow are the ones they like and feel comfortable with. That hardly sounds like the foundation for a well-oiled fighting machine to which the nation should entrust its defense.

Rather, it sounds like the U.S. military -- though bigger and better-funded -- is hardly as disciplined as its counterparts elsewhere.

In fact, the U.S. effort to discriminate against gays runs counter to the thinking in at least a dozen other countries, including militarily respected Israel. At least 11 nations already let gays serve; and Australia joined their ranks this week, dismissing the same "morale" arguments that American homophobes hold dear.

That argument now replaces the absurd notion that gays can't serve because they would be blackmail targets. It's just one more strained attempt to defend the indefensible. Nunn has even gone so far as to talk about protecting the "rights of those who are not homosexual."

The right to what? Protection from what? It's not clear what he expect gays to do, or what rights have been violated by the gays currently serving in the military while hiding their homosexuality. Nor is it clear what rights have been violated by gays currently in countless high school, college and professional sports locker rooms -- including, no doubt, at the Army-Navy game.

Clinton already has put his finger on the crux of the matter: the distinction between conduct and what he clumsily called "condition in life." If there is conduct injurious to military readiness, punish those -- and only those -- who are guilty of that conduct.

Of course, the notion that gays are somehow incapable of controlling their conduct is almost laughable coming from a military establishment still reeling from the drunken sexual escapades of its best and brightest -- and presumably straight -- pilots during Tailhook.

Still, the fight rages, threatening to consume the new president as he tries to deal with the economy, the deficit and other pressing matters. But in adversity comes opportunity.

Here's what the new president can do: Forget about selling the notion of gays in the military on the basis of fairness, equity or some other national ideal. Just sell it on the basis of shrinking the military budget.

Take advantage of the notion that letting gays serve openly in the military might prompt mass resignations. Everyone knows the military is too big. If the country can voluntarily pare the ranks and get rid of bigots at the same time, that's a pretty good deal for taxpayers.

In fact, Clinton could market it as a new form of early-retirement incentive program. But whereas local governments have to pay a bonus to get workers to quit early, Clinton wouldn't have to pay anything. Just sign the executive order. Hatred would be the incentive -- and that's free.

And if a bunch of those resignations come from the upper ranks, where signals are sent and a workplace tone established, so much the better.

No holding a lot of meetings. No waiting for consensus. Just sign the papers, and let the homophobes go out and try to find a real job.

ROD WATSON is a News editorial writer.

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