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Aubrey Sarvis Headshot

For Gays in the Military, Obama's Good Intentions Not Enough

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Sunday morning on ABC's This Week, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff told George Stephanopoulos that they'd been talking about "don't ask, don't tell" in the Pentagon. Admiral Mullen said, "The President has made his strategic intent very clear. . . . I've had discussions with the Joint Chiefs about this. I've done certainly a lot of internal, immediate staff discussions about what the issues would be and . . . ."

Sounds like a plan? No, it doesn't, and without a strong push from the White House, it won't be. Nonetheless, it does show considerable progress from last Tuesday when the Pentagon's press secretary Geoff Morrell (a deputy assistant secretary of defense and Secretary Gates's personal spokesman as well as another holdover from the Bush Administration) was still spouting the old message at Tuesday's Pentagon briefing: "no internal planning efforts underway in anticipation of a change in that [DADT] law," and so on. Business as usual. As to his attitude, here's the video. You can judge for yourself. (The DADT discussion begins about eight minutes in.)

The White House changed his mind, however, and Morrell, who said Secretary Gates believed his Tuesday comments had been "mischaracterized," asked him to release a "statement of clarification," something like what Catholics might call an act of contrition. Fox News reported that Morrell gave it to a few Pentagon reporters Thursday night and to the rest of the world Friday morning.

At the White House briefing the day before (around the time Morrell first released his "clarification"), in response to a question by Ana Marie Cox, Obama's press secretary Robert Gibbs said he believed "the Pentagon did correct that statement on efforts regarding . . . 'don't ask, don't tell.'" Well, if they hadn't done it before, they got right on the case and it was done that night.

And Chairman Mullen did make it clear on This Week that he knew what the President wanted to accomplish with respect to repealing DADT. "The President has made his strategic intent very clear," he said. "That it's his intent at some point in time to ask Congress to change the law."

"At some point in time . . . " Now what do you suppose that means? Time is a pretty nebulous notion, and there are an infinite number of points in it. I'd like to know what particular point in time Admiral Mullen and the other deciders at the Pentagon have in mind. This month? This year? Next year? This term? Next term? Somehow, Admiral Mullen didn't convey a sense of urgency to it.

Stephanopoulos reminded him that one of his predecessors, General John Shalikashvili, who was chairman in the early '90s, now says he believes "if gay men and lesbians served openly in the United States military, they would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces. Our military has been stretched thin by our deployments in the Middle East, and we must welcome the service of any American who is willing and able to do the job."

George asked, "Is he right?"

"He's certainly entitled to his own personal opinion," Admiral Mullen replied, quickly adding "And certainly, I have the greatest respect for him." Hardly a ringing endorsement. In the next sentence he noted, "There are also lots of retired generals and admirals on the other side." I can see Elaine Donnelly now, exchanging high fives for the gratuitous plug with her crew of aging flag officers that Admiral Mullen referred to.

If you review Admiral Mullen's brief, it sounds like he learned a lesson from his immediate boss, Secretary Gates, who famously said, "Let's kick that one down the road a little bit." It also sounds like Admiral Mullen took a leaf from Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi. Passive resistance. That seems a bit odd coming from a Bush appointee who would like to be reappointed to another term as Chairman of the JCS when his term expires in October.

I'm all for a "measured, deliberate" path, as Admiral Mullen put it, but at some point the White House has to have a plan to get repeal through this Congress. We have to get beyond mere intent. "Intent" is not a plan and it isn't action and so far President Obama hasn't asked Congress to change the law. The President sent his Defense Department budget up to Congress a couple weeks ago and there was no repeal language in it. That budget will be working its way through Congress over the next several months. There's still time to fix it.

What we don't need is yet another study or national commission to look at repeal. We all know those commissions involve delay and more delay and "kicking it down the road" more that a little bit. I say, put together a working group within 30 days. Have them focus on implementing open service and charge them to report back to the President within 90 days with a detailed plan and a timeline and how to get it done in this Congress.

Good intentions and warm handwritten notes from the President will not carry the day. They certainly did not save the career of Lieutenant Sandy Tsao who was scheduled for discharge last week. The Arabic speaking Lieutenant Dan Choi is now at risk of being discharged. Sign his petition. Urge Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley to allow Lieutenant Colonel Victor Fehrenbach to keep flying. Sign the petition here. Hundreds more service members will be discharged over the next few months unless Congress and the President, and, yes, the Pentagon act.

Good intentions are no substitute for the change our service members are counting on, especially those who might like to be relieved from a third or fourth or fifth tour in Iraq or Afghanistan. They really don't care much if the person who relieves them is gay. Would you?

Around the Web

Obama aide: Gays in military policy under review - Boston.com

Obama seeks assessment on gays in military - The Boston Globe

Obama Avoids Test on Gays in Military - WSJ.com