Do Tell
President Obama and Congress should let gay men and lesbians serve.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

THE SUPREME Court's decision this month not to hear Pietrangelo v. Gates saved President Obama from the uncomfortable task of defending in court a policy he says he wants ended: the ban on gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military. He has asked the Pentagon to assess the policy. And he is taking other steps (more quietly than some advocates would like) to enlist the Defense Department behind his effort to end "don't ask, don't tell." Yet gay rights activists are urging Mr. Obama to take an interim step that is a poor substitute for simply abolishing the policy.

The proposal, which came from the Palm Center of the University of California at Santa Barbara, has gained traction since it was offered last month. It argues that the president "has the authority to issue an executive order halting the operation of 'don't ask, don't tell.' " The power to do so is granted him under "Authority of the President to Suspend Certain Laws Relating to Promotion, Retirement, and Separation"; this power can be exercised only during a national emergency in which members of a reserve component are serving involuntarily on active duty.

This is known as "stop-loss," and President George W. Bush used it to extend the tours of duty of troops in Iraq. As the Palm Center report points out, "the use of stop-loss to suspend homosexual conduct discharges would . . . allow ongoing service by those who generally wish to remain in uniform." Once gay men and lesbians are serving openly in the armed forces, the Palm Center contends, "it will become clear" that their service "does not compromise unit cohesion, recruiting, retention or morale."

This provisional action would be a way to indirectly lift "don't ask, don't tell." And the political heat Mr. Obama would face for doing so without first getting the military and key congressional constituencies on board would be intense. Remember what happened to President Bill Clinton in 1993? He tried to end the ban on gays in the military and ended up saddling the nation with an indefensible compromise.

The nation's attitude toward gay men and lesbians serving openly in the military has changed since 1993. A July 2008 Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 75 percent of Americans approved of allowing gays to serve openly. In 1993, support stood at 44 percent. Even former proponents of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy are calling for change. Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, said it should be reevaluated; Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, chairman from 1993 to 1997, said it should be abolished.

So gay rights advocates shouldn't be looking for ways to get around existing policy; they should be looking to change it without evasion. And if Mr. Obama is going to expend political capital to allow gay men and lesbians to serve their country openly and with honor, he should follow through on his promise to work with Congress to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell" for good.

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