How to end 'Don't ask, don't tell'

The policy that keeps gays from serving openly undermines military readiness and does not make sense practically, financially, or morally. So what is holding the administration back?

Last year, as a presidential candidate, Barack Obama pledged he would work with military leaders and Congress to repeal the law that bans openly gay men and women from serving in the military. Last week, as the nation's commander in chief, he renewed his stance, declaring that "preventing patriotic Americans from serving our country weakens our national security." Yet the law commonly known as "Don't ask, don't tell," or DADT, still remains in effect.

As a consequence, more than 275 service members have been discharged on the basis of this discriminatory, outmoded, and counterproductive policy since President Obama took office and an estimated 2,000 have left the service voluntarily this year because of the policy. In addition, DADT has deterred untold others who want to defend their country from serving.

Since its enactment more than 16 years ago, DADT has resulted in the discharge of more than 13,000 patriotic and highly qualified men and women. This not only undermines military readiness, but costs the taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars spent on training and replacing these people.

At least 1,000 of these 13,000 have held "critical occupations," such as interpreters and engineers. For example, by the end of fiscal year 2003, a few months after the fall of Baghdad, the military had forced out more than 320 service members with vital language skills such as Arabic and Farsi. Meanwhile, the Army and Marine Corps have been forced to significantly lower their moral and aptitude standards to fill their ranks, including taking in people with felony convictions.

Nevertheless, there is no sense of urgency within the Obama administration to repeal DADT. The president himself said on June 29 that he believes the best approach is to work with Congress and the Defense Department to change the law. But the Pentagon's leader, Secretary Robert Gates said, "The president and I feel like we've got a lot on our plates right now and let's push that one down the road a little bit."

Yet as President Clinton's experience in 1993 demonstrates, any delay can allow those who oppose repealing DADT to seize the momentum. As President Truman found out when he tried to integrate the armed forces, or President Nixon when he tried to end the draft, the Pentagon and their supporters on the Hill will resist these changes.

Unlike 16 years ago, the US is waging two wars and "Don't ask, don't tell" is no longer supported by the majority of the American people. The percentage of Americans that support allowing gay people to serve openly has risen from 44 percent in 1993 to 75 percent last year, according to Washington Post-ABC News polls.. While a 2006 Zogby International poll of returning Iraq and Afghanistan service members found that only 26 percent agreed that gays and lesbians should be allowed to serve in the military, 73 percent were personally comfortable around gays and lesbians.

There is also no credible evidence supporting the underlying arguments for retaining the law – namely that it would undermine unit cohesion and military effectiveness. In fact, government studies over the past 50 years demonstrate just the opposite.

Moreover, 24 other countries, including our closest allies, such as Britain, Israel, and Canada, allow openly gay people to serve. In fact, the British, whose military is most similar in design and function to our own, found that six months after they were forced to change their policy by the European Court of Human Rights, sexual orientation became a nonissue.

In other words, allowing openly gay men and women to serve proved more difficult in theory than in practice. Even an architect of "Don't ask, don't tell," Rear Adm. John Hutson, has acknowledged that the policy was "based on nothing" but "our own prejudices and our own fears."

Since this policy undermines military readiness and does not make sense practically, financially, or morally, what is holding the administration back?

This inaction appears to be due to the belief that there exists no road map for repealing and then implementing the new policy once DADT is overturned. However, this is not the case.

The president should begin by signing an executive order banning further military separations based on DADT and sending a legislative proposal on repealing DADT and changing the Uniformed Code of Military Justice to Congress. While Congress is debating the issue he should form a panel on how to implement the repeal, including what military regulations need to be changed. Once the law is changed, the administration will need to follow up to ensure that the armed forces implement the policy changes.

We expect military members to defend not only our country, but the Constitution and the individual liberties guaranteed under the Constitution, and we should not send those service members an official "mixed message" that some of the liberties they are prepared to die for are ones they shouldn't accept within their own ranks.

Lawrence J. Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, served as assistant secretary of Defense in the Reagan administration. Sean E. Duggan and Laura Conley are researchers at the center. The three are coauthors of the Center for American Progress report, "Ending 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.' "

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