POLITICS
05/23/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

'Don't Ask Don't Tell' Repeal Falling Victim To Foot-Dragging

Why is it taking so long to repeal "Don't Ask Don't Tell"?

President Obama has repeatedly vowed to end the policy; the Democratic leadership of Congress claims to want it gone; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently declared that "allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly would be the right thing to do"; and even top Republicans, at least until recently, have said that if military leaders were OK with repealing it, they would be too.

Republican leaders have now changed their tune, not surprisingly, but they're not the ones responsible for the delay -- at least not directly.

Neither the Obama White House nor the congressional leadership appears to view allowing gays to serve openly in the armed forces as a political winner, so they're happy to drag their feet. And the Pentagon, despite the public endorsement, has sent the proposal to the Washington equivalent of purgatory: a working group.

And not just any working group; One with a long deadline (a year) and members who don't seem too keen on their assigned task.

During a panel discussion at the Center for American Progress on Tuesday, Lawrence J. Korb, a fellow at CAP and a former assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, accused the working group of having a bad attitude.

"It's not a group with a can-do attitude," he said. Korb said he recently met with several members of the working group, which is being led by Pentagon General Counsel Jeh Johnson and Army Gen. Carter Ham.

Part of the problem is its December deadline, he explains. "You need to do it quickly. The longer you drag it out, the more it's going to cause problems," Korb said.

But fundamentally, he said, the people he's been talking to "don't think it's their job to have it repealed."

Korb said members of the group raised all sorts of arguments against repeal. For example: "Well, you've got to understand, where we recruit from, a lot of people think this is immoral." And then there's the idea that openly gay troops will further infuriate our more fundamentalist enemies. "This has come up in the building," Korb said of the Pentagon.

By contrast, when Korb brought up the issue of the alarming number of women soldiers raped by their comrades-in-arms, Korb said, "they got very defensive about that issue."

Members of the panel agreed that there's a huge generational component to the opposition within the military, with many of the senior officers still uncomfortable with the idea.

"It's just possible that we're going to have to let these people take their concerns to wherever they go after they depart this earth," said former Virginia governor and senator Chuck Robb.

"This is a policy that was put together by people, most of them men, who were born in the '40s and grew up in the '50s and its being imposed on people who were born in the '80s and grew up in the '90s," said Rear Admiral John Hutson, the former judge advocate general of the Navy.

Congress could act before the working group finalizes its findings: Several Democratic senators introduced a bill to that effect earlier this month.

But none of the panelists sensed any urgency from congressional leaders or the White House. "I think that there may be some hesitancy based on the experience the Clinton administration had when they dealt with the issue early on," said Robb. "The feeling is that there are a lot of folks out there who are uncomfortable with this" and that a strong negative reaction could bring more prized parts of their agenda " crashing down," he said.

A major argument of the foot-draggers is that implementation of the repeal would be complicated. But a new report co-authored by Korb and released by CAP on Tuesday argues that it would actually be quite simple:

[O]nce the law is repealed there are a number of fairly limited and manageable administrative,bureaucratic, and legal changes that must be made to the military's internal regulations dealing with benefits, housing, conduct, and other relevant topics.

And once the repeal has been implemented, Hutson said, "the country is going to realize it's a big yawn. It's just not going to be a big deal... The country and the military, I would say, are so ready for this."

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