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'Don't ask, don't tell': Retreating from a mistake

Momentum is building against the military policy. Obama should lead the charge.

August 15, 2009

'Don't ask, don't tell," the policy delusion that acknowledges that gays and lesbians serve in the military but pretends they aren't there, is in its final days. Sooner rather than later, this discriminatory law is going to be overturned.

The momentum is unmistakable. For the first time since the policy's implementation in 1993, the Senate Armed Services Committee has agreed to hold public hearings. The lone member of Congress who is a veteran of the Iraq war, Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), is pushing the Military Readiness Enhancement Act and has launched a national road show to discuss the implications of a genuinely integrated military. Colin L. Powell, who helped craft the policy as chairman of the Joints Chiefs of Staff, has acknowledged that "times have changed" and that it should "definitely" be reviewed. Last month, Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, the current Joint Chiefs chairman, said he would begin working to determine how a repeal would be implemented. Although Mullen's statement falls short of support for revoking the ban, it acknowledges the inevitable.

Lifting the ban has been likened by civil rights advocates to the racial desegregation of the military or the expansion of the role of women in the service, both deeply controversial in their day. But there is a significant difference: Gays already serve in integrated units. Twenty countries, including our allies Canada, Britain and Israel, allow gays to serve openly, and at times their troops serve with ours in integrated units. Nor is there a ban on openly gay contractors working with the military. Today, the U.S. stands embarrassingly alone in maintaining this costly fiction.

Nearly 13,000 servicemen and servicewomen have been discharged under the policy -- 287 since President Obama took office. The armed forces have spent more than $1.3 billion to kick them out and to pay for the investigations that justify their expulsions. Among those who have been discharged are almost 60 Arabic linguists, weakening our national security in order to pursue a policy of exclusion.

Obama maintains that Congress should overturn the law rather than his doing so by executive order, and he's right. That way, a President Romney or, say, President Palin could not reinstate "don't ask, don't tell" with his or her own stroke of the pen. Right now, Obama is moving cautiously, apparently aiming to avoid the experience of President Clinton, who wrestled clumsily with this issue early in his first term. But this is not 1993. Then, about 44% of Americans favored allowing gays to serve openly; last year, a Washington Post/ABC News poll put that number at 75%. And support is bipartisan: 64% of Republicans support a repeal.

The public is ready. The president should lead, and Congress should act.

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