Just as Republicans are beginning to realize that gay marriage may not remain a winning wedge issue forever, conservative lawmakers are reportedly setting out to use gays in the military to divide President Obama and the military. The strategy is to ask the Defense Secretary or Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff about gay troops in upcoming hearings on the Defense budget, before the president has reached out to ensure that his team members are all on the same page.
If military leaders don't answer these questions by expressing confidence that the ban can be lifted without impairing the military, we could face a repeat of the 1993 fiasco that nearly derailed Bill Clinton's entire domestic agenda. And the president's hundred days of silence could mean many more years of it for gay troops--and thousands more unaffordable discharges for our military.
This is why mounting a swift, clean campaign to end the ban should be the standard by which Obama is evaluated on this issue. It's not only a matter of impatience to get this done, but of concern that further delays could actually increase--rather than decrease--the chances of a bruising--and possibly losing--battle once we get there.
This would have both political and military costs. Politically, Obama has chosen a strategy of "wait and manage": hope the issue doesn't come up, and diffuse it when it does. This approach appears to come from taking the wrong lesson from the Clinton years. Many see Clinton's error as coming out too soon on gays in the military, guns blazing, without laying the groundwork by consulting with military brass. But it's a myth that Clinton moved too quickly and didn't consult the military. The new president met with the Joint Chiefs right after both the election and his inauguration. They just didn't like what they were hearing, so they balked. Clinton's resolve weakened. He called for a 6-month "study period" that allowed the opposition to rally and fester. Underestimating the resistance, Clinton assigned inexperienced, junior aides to manage the issue. In the end, a dressed-up gay ban was locked into place for years to come.
Already, signs show a similar story playing out. The White House will not say publicly who has been tasked to work on this sensitive issue. Obama has remained totally silent on an issue that his campaign and press secretary declared unequivocally that he planned to address--which offers the fairest way to grade him: by how he stacks up against his own professed goals. During his campaign, Obama did not say he would end the ban eventually, but that the time is now. "America is ready to get rid of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy," he said in a fall, 2007, statement to the Human Rights Campaign. "That work should have started long ago. It will start when I take office."
It hasn't. While Obama's spokesman, Robert Gibbs, declared starkly in January that the incoming president was committed to ending the ban, the White House said in February, according to the Boston Globe, that it would "have to study the implications for national security" before trying to overturn the ban and that such study might not happen until 2010.
By March, Secretary Gates said he had had only "one brief conversation" with the president about the issue, and that the dialogue had "not progressed very far." This statement flatly contradicted one by a White House spokesman earlier that same month who said the president has "begun consulting closely with Secretary Gates and Chairman Mullen" about lifting the ban. Which is it, ongoing close consultations or one short discussion?
Obama's own silence has left a leadership vacuum that's been occupied instead with these kinds of dangerous mixed messages. And opponents of equal treatment for gays are gaining ground in framing the debate: into the void have stepped over 1000 retired officers who recently signed a letter insisting that lifting the ban would "break" the armed forces. Secretary Gates, when asked about repeal by journalists, began hedging, saying he and the president would like to "push that one down the road a little bit" and suggested, according to the New York Times that it "might not happen at all." But if Obama is committed to ending the ban, why is his Defense Secretary suggesting it might not happen?
These contradictory messages say to those who are paying attention that the White House has no coordinated plan to lift the ban. And lacking a battle plan is candy to your enemies.
Obama's silence also has military costs: every day, the government adds one or two service members to the list of over 12,500 already fired just for being gay. And these ruined careers are only the half the story. By now, most of us are familiar with the fact that cables warning of an attack sat untranslated in the days leading up to 9/11 because of a shortage of the very Arabic speakers who had been drummed out under "don't ask, don't tell." Barack Obama inherited this policy. But right about now, he begins to own it.
Further delay means not only that Obama must accept responsibility for firing gay Americans whom we desperately need in uniform; it also means a bumpier ride once we do lift the ban. That's because with more time comes more venomous debate and an increasingly split military leadership, as the resentment of the old guard is fueled by further grumbling by their fellow social and religious conservatives. Divided leadership ill-serves the troops who are charged with carrying out a new policy.
Finally, Obama's silence has moral costs. Some, including those on the left who worry about the supposed fall-out of treating gays as equal citizens, think Gates is on target in pushing this down the road, and would thus give Obama high marks merely for avoiding a battle on this early in his administration. This story line has added resonance at a time when the nation's economic crisis clearly takes precedence over nearly any other issue. And so we've heard otherwise progressive Americans wax poetic about the virtues of gradualism when it comes to gays.
As a nation, our ongoing refrain of "soon" on gay rights is beginning to sound like the murmurs of a child or addict who insists that responsible, adult behavior is perpetually just around the corner. For years, Democrats have run from the "ick" factor of gay issues. And only now--not because of moral courage but because the Republican Party is imploding from its own excesses--will Dems be able to finally inch forward to do the right thing on gay rights.
For far too long, Americans have swallowed a fear narrative casting gays as a threat to national security. But since this threat has always been made up, the idea that Obama must wait until the right window to throw the fear overboard is beginning to sound stale. There is no brain surgery involved in ending the gay ban. Unlike solving the financial crisis, winning the war in Afghanistan, or curing cancer, we know perfectly well how to do it. There's no mystery involved, just will.
Barack Obama still has a good chance at succeeding where Bill Clinton failed on this issue. If he does that, his grade for the first 100 days may seem largely--but not entirely-- superfluous. Still, Obama should already have done what Clinton should also have done: issue an immediate executive order halting gay discharges. Contrary to popular belief, the current president still has that option: even though Congress has to repeal the law to get it off the books, nothing in the statute requires that findings of homosexual discharge ever be made. That wording of the law, along with the president's constitutional and statutory authority to suspend military separations when in the interest of national security still give him the power to cease firing gay troops right now. Obama's leadership vacuum has earned him a C on gays in the military. But it's not too late for a re-write.