Monday, December 15, 2008

Don't Ask, Don't Tell, Don't Hold Your Breath

During a recent interview with CNN, Colin Powell responded to a question concerning the military's discriminatory policy against gays and lesbians. Powell said that he hoped military leaders would "review" the policy, but he refused to state whether or not he wanted the policy lifted, maintained or replaced with something else.

Powell, as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Clinton administration, had a central role, along with Senator Sam Nunn (then Chair of the Senate Committee on Armed Services), in derailing Clinton's effort to overturn the military's antigay policy. As a result, military leaders, Congress, and Clinton accepted "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" as a compromise position. Interestingly, both Powell and Nunn have recently called for a "review" of the current policy, but neither will take a public opinion on the substance of the policy. Powell and Nunn endorsed Obama, and Nunn's name appeared on some initial lists of Obama's potential running mates.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who will retain that role in the Obama administration, has also addressed Don't Ask, Don't Tell. During an interview, Gates said he was too busy conducting wars to worry about the policy (see Robert Gates as Obama's Secretary of Defense: "More of the Same" for Gay Rights?).

Obama's website, by contrast, states that the president-elect "agrees with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and other military experts that we need to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy." The website also states that Obama "will work with military leaders to repeal the current policy and ensure it helps accomplish our national defense goals." The Washington Times, however, released a story last month reporting that Obama will delay acting on the policy until 2010. An anonymous spokesperson from Obama's transition team denied this report.

Readers might find Shalikashvili's New York Times essay interesting, given Obama's endorsement of his position and the dispute over whether his administration would delay acting on the policy. Shalikashvili agreed with Don't Ask, Don't Tell in 1993 when he sat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Today, however, he has "second thoughts," but he supports a "measured" response. Like Gates, he also says that priorities such as fighting the war should preclude immediate action on the policy. He argues that "[b]y taking a measured, prudent approach to change, political and military leaders can focus on solving the nation’s most pressing problems while remaining genuinely open to the eventual and inevitable lifting of the ban" (italics added). No, Annie, this does not sound like "tomorrow."

My take: Shalikashvili's statement probably most closely represents Obama's position. "Studying" the issue will take a substantial amount of time, and dealing with the economy, Iraq, Afghanistan and healthcare will take priority in public discourse. Through it all, however, Obama will "remain genuinely open to the eventual and inevitable lifting of the ban." In other words, if this is "your" issue, take on a lot of other projects and wait and see what actually happens. Having lived through the anti-gay backlash against Clinton, I agree with a measured approach, but this does not change the fact that "measured" responses often mean footdragging and delayed justice.


Powell's Comments on Don't Ask, Don't Tell

We definitely should reevaluate it. It's been 15 years since we put in
"don't ask, don't tell," which was a policy that became a law. I didn't want it
to become a law, but it became a law. Congress felt that strongly about it.

But it's been 15 years, and attitudes have changed. And so, I think it is
time for the Congress, since it is their law, to have a full review of it. And
I'm quite sure that's what President-elect Obama will want to do.

But people have said to me, well, then, what do you think? I said, well,
what I think is, let's review it, but I'm not going to make a judgment as to
whether it should be overturned or not until I hear from the chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the commanders who are
responsible for our armed forces in a time of war.

And so, I have to hear what they think and what the secretary of defense
thinks before I would come down on one side or the other.

Because I've always felt that the military is a unique institution. It is
not like any other institution in our system. You are told who you will live
with. You are told who you will share your most intimate accommodations with.
You are told whether you will live or die.

And for that reason, the courts have always upheld the ability of the armed
forces of the United States to put in procedures and rules that would not be
acceptable in any other institution.

So, the Congress, I think, has an obligation to review the law, and I hope
that it's a very spirited review. And I hope that President-elect Obama, in one
of his first actions, will ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take a look at the
policy and the law and to get their recommendations before he makes a judgment
with respect to the administration position.

But times have changed. This is not 1993. It is 2008. And we should review
the law.


Alessandro Machi said...

I think "Don't ask, Don't Tell" was a brilliant piece of legislation. Republicans hated DADT because when you don't meddle in people's business, ya gotta meddle in their personal lives, and Don't ask, Don't Tell took away that Republican peccadillo.

The only way the Republicans were able to impeach President Clinton was by forcing the President to be ask and answered about a consensual act, proof that the Republicans cannot help themselves when it comes to meddling in people's lives.

Darren Lenard Hutchinson said...

Hi. Thanks for your comment, Alessandro. I remember the DADT compromise being worked out. I was still in law school. I had mixed feelings. I believe that Clinton really wanted to end the ban altogether, although some cynics have wondered whether he secretly agreed with opponents.

Regardless, according to a lot of studies, during the first years of DADT, discharges of glb soliders actually increased. The military forgot about the last part: "don't pursue." The reason why I disagree with DADT is that it still rests on the assumption that being gay is incompatible with military service. But as long as soliders are closeted -- on base and off base -- then they can remain in the military. That's a difficult life, I believe.

PS: I believe federal law still bans sodomy and adultery among soldiers (this is not just between soldiers either). Bizarre.

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