For the military the debate on gay rights is over, Gen. Colin Powell says with the crisp finality of a commander accustomed to having his predictions hardened into fact on the double. "It will drop off the screen quickly." An "or else" hangs in the air.

Powell does not put a comma wrong when he intends to communicate what he wants to the sergeants, warrant officers and unit commanders who make up the central nervous system of the military. Four words he spoke in a recent conversation strip away the protective cover that has existed until now for inquisitions and harassment of gays in the military, even those who play by the rules.

Powell's words of support for President Clinton's policy are a concession to a young president who pushed the general to come up with a better deal for gays in the military. It is a concession that should not be underestimated, either in impact or cost. It touches a vital point for Powell: the military's ability to control its own self-image. That is what he has fought hard to protect.

Speaking at a breakfast meeting with reporters the day after President Clinton announced his "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff sounded like a man eager to get back to the less politically exposed ground of nuclear strategy, force structure and NATO readiness. You could hardly blame him.

But Powell and Defense Secretary Les Aspin loyally disputed a questioner's premise that following up on and modifying Clinton's campaign pledge had been a terrible distraction from more important tasks.

The debate, Powell said, had made him, the Joint Chiefs and the military at large think through their attitudes not only about gays but also about the military and society. That had been a valuable exercise in itself, he suggested.

"I come out with a more tolerant view and perhaps more open to what is happening in our society," he said. Powell summed up the balanced compromise he, Aspin and Clinton have struck in four words: "Live and let live." Powell believes his successor (he retires Oct. 1) and unit commanders can enforce that balance of civility between the military establishment and gays accepting the restriction of openly asserting their homosexuality.

Unless, I must add, Congress mucks it up.

Congress should let the compromise stand rather than subject it to a cross-fire between liberals who fault it for not going far enough and conservatives who threaten to enact the previous ban on homosexuals into law. The Clinton-Aspin-Powell plan is not perfect, but it strikes, as Aspin says, "the right balance, right now."

The plan is a working arrangement that combines the reasonable needs of the military and the fairness that should be shown to gay military personnel who do not intrude their sexual preferences, orientation or behavior into the workplace.

Public opinion polls taken since the compromise was announced suggest it fairly reflects majority opinion. Most Americans do not view homosexuality as being criminal or depraved. But neither do they accept it as a status deserving rewards and compensation, or even special recognition from fellow citizens. Like heterosexual orientation or behavior, it should be a non-subject in the workplace, which in the armed forces is not simply the office.

Clinton and Aspin were not able to get Powell to bless a policy that went that far, one closer to the president's desire for a "don't ask, don't shout" approach. "Don't ask, don't shout" would have let military gays "quietly acknowledge their homosexuality without flaunting it," Aspin said.

At the heart of Clinton's 1992 pledge to eliminate the ban on homosexuality in the military is the implicit notion that the professional military is increasingly a career like any other. It should be subject to the standards and demands of civilian society.

The end of the Cold War and the military's shift to an all-volunteer force continue the shrinkage of the central place that the armed forces once occupied in American life. This involves a loss for American society: Communication has become more of a one-way street than at any time since the beginning of World War II. The military no longer automatically transmits its values into civilian institutions through the constant rotation of citizens and soldiers. But civil society increasingly attempts to remake the military to reflect its broader, more diverse values.

Powell resolutely resists the outside grab for control of the self-image of the military. "We are unique," Powell counters. "We are not like the fire department or the police department." Commanders who are required to send units into harm's way and fight wars must have a great deal of latitude in forming those units.

But the general goes on to say it is that latitude that will make "don't tell, don't ask" work. He has added an important codicil to the language of the proposal unveiled by Clinton. The Powell codicil should be respected by Congress, reaffirmed by his successor and observed both by unit commanders and gays in the military. It is the simple admonition to "live and let live."