When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates sent a letter to Congressman Ike Skelton today urging Congress not to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" in 2010, he wasn't just kicking the can down the road a little. He was announcing a de facto White House decision to delay action on the gays-in-the-military issue for a very long time.
According to Gates, Congress must await the results of a Pentagon study group which is looking into "don't ask, don't tell," and which is slated to finish its work in December, 2010. On its face, the request sounds fair enough. Why, after all, should civilian politicians meddle in military personnel policy before the Pentagon determines which policy makes most sense?
To answer this question, two factors must be considered. First, the letter must be understood as a signal from the White House, not just the military. As my colleague Christopher Neff has said, "the Department of Defense is not its own branch of government. The Secretary of Defense serves the President." The letter, in other words, reflects a decision by the Obama Administration to abandon repeal efforts in 2010.
Second, the Administration knows full well that if "don't ask, don't tell" is not eliminated now, repeal likely will have to wait until the next presidential term if not later. The political environment in Congress soon will become much more challenging than it is now, and the opportunity to repeal the law probably will diminish if not disappear as a result.
One of the saddest aspects of the current situation is that, surprisingly, gay rights groups may block the one, remaining politically viable solution that would improve national security, deliver a victory to the White House, and honor the letter and spirit of Secretary Gates's request. According to this scenario, Congress would repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" law in 2010 while providing discretion to the Secretary of Defense regarding implementation.
Some groups believe that when Congress repeals the law, it must simultaneously mandate an affirmative requirement for the Pentagon to implement a non-discrimination standard. This is not, however, necessary. By eliminating the "don't ask, don't tell" law but refraining from insisting on a non-discrimination standard, Congress would allow Secretary Gates to formulate new regulations over time, after the Pentagon completes its study. There are now enough votes in the Senate to pass this option.
Some gay rights groups oppose it, however, because they fear that a legislative option that does not include a specific, statutory implementation plan would allow a future administrations to reinstate the gay ban.
This is, frankly, hogwash. Once the law is off the books, and after the Pentagon completes its study, the administration would work with military brass to reformulate personnel regulations. Once those regulations are reformulated, gay discharges would cease. And once gay discharges ceased, it would be almost impossible for a future administration to reinstate them. Neither the military nor the public would have any appetite for a new gay ban. When George Bush tried to reverse a Clinton-era executive order mandating nondiscrimination of gays and lesbians in non-military federal agencies, he was unable to get away with it.
The gay rights community should adjust its goals immediately and work with Congress to repeal "don't ask, don't tell" while allowing the Pentagon the flexibility to manage implementation as it sees fit. Otherwise, we are going to be waiting for repeal for a long, long time.