Ending 'don't ask, don't tell' seems inevitable. But not soon.

US society and the Pentagon are moving toward ending the ban on gays serving openly in the military. But powerful lawmakers want to keep the 1993 law, and it may be other conservatives who convince them that times have changed.

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
CodePink's Medea Benjamin demonstrates on Capitol Hill in Washington Tuesday as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing related to the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy.

The end of “don’t ask, don’t tell” in the US military seems inevitable. US society – especially among younger Americans – is moving in that direction. And almost all US allies accept soldiers without discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

But ending the policy of forcing openly gay men and women out of the armed services won’t come soon, and it won’t come without a major political fight. That was clear in the recent Senate hearing where Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen – both of whom favor ending DADT – took heat from Republican Senators.

With 41 Senators now, the GOP could block any legislative effort to overturn the policy, which became law in 1993 and therefore would take congressional action to change. And President Obama – focused on jobs and the economy, and with his congressional clout likely to wane even further with this fall’s elections – is unlikely to spend any more political capital on the issue.

The push from gay rights activists and liberal organizations is to be expected. But more relevant to ending DADT may be the respected voices on the right now speaking out.

General Powell changed his mind

Retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was instrumental in crafting what was seen as a compromise in 1993, now says lifting the ban is “the right thing to do.”

"If the chiefs and commanders are comfortable with moving to change the policy," Powell told the Washington Post, "then I support it."

Opponents to ending DADT say such a move would harm military morale and recruiting – especially dangerous at a time when the country is engaged in two wars.

"Nothing can or should be done that could harm military readiness in wartime," says Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, which favors continuing the ban on openly gay service members.

But Lawrence Korb, a retired Naval Reserve captain who served in the Reagan administration as assistant secretary of defense, says, “There is … no credible evidence supporting the underlying arguments for retaining the law – namely that it would undermine unit cohesion and military effectiveness”

“In fact,” he continues, “government studies over the past 50 years demonstrate just the opposite.”

“The British, Australian and Israeli militaries all now have solid experience with open gays in uniform,” writes Ken Adelman, a Reagan-era ambassador and arms control director, in the Washington Post . “Their forces don't suffer in performance; the gay service members there don't seem to upset the straight members much. And U.S. forces, though far greater in numbers, don't differ culturally or functionally too much from their colleagues in these militaries.”

Public attitudes shifting

Meanwhile, public attitudes continue to shift in the direction of ending DADT.

Seventy-five percent of Americans in a 2008 Washington Post-ABC News poll said gay people who are open about their sexual orientation should be allowed to serve in the U.S. military, up from 62 percent in early 2001 and 44 percent in 1993. That included majorities of Republicans as well as Democrats and independents.

Still, powerful voices on Capitol Hill are speaking out forcefully against any change regarding military service and sexual orientation.

Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, who once said he’d follow the Pentagon’s lead in ending DADT now seems to have flip-flopped.

McCain seems not to have remembered that it was his political mentor – Barry Goldwater, the former Arizona senator and major general in the US Air Force Reserve who was known as “Mr. Conservative” – who once said, "Everyone knows that gays have served honorably in the military since at least the time of Julius Caesar. … You don't have to be straight to be in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight."


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