"We've begun to change the culture of Washington," President Obama said in his boffo remarks at the White House Correspondents' Association dinner Saturday night.
Sounds good. But the next morning on ABC's This Week, George Stephanopoulos asked the president's National Security Advisor retired Marine General James L. Jones if he thought DADT will be overturned. Jones replied, "I don't know," and then what is clearly one of the main talking points, "We have a lot on our plate right now."
Sounds like the same old Beltway blab to me. There was more of it, just the usual stuff: "preliminary discussions with the leadership of the Pentagon . . . [this] is not going to be a light switch but more of a rheostat in terms of discussing . . . a very sensitive issue and it has to be discussed over time . . . all sides have to be heard . . . We will have long discussions about this. It will be thoughtful. It will be deliberative. The president I know will reach out to fully understand both sides or all sides of the issue before he makes a decision . . . ." Surely this doesn't represent the vision and the work plan we've been hearing about from the White House and some of our allies.
In Washington we know about commissions and study groups and promise-them-anything when you're trolling for votes but after the election . . . well, memories fade. What candidate Obama said then is not what President Obama is doing now - at least in regard to "don't ask, don't tell." In October 2007, candidate Obama, responding to a question on DADT, said, "Anybody who is willing to serve our country and die on a battlefield . . . that's the criteria for whether or not they should be able to serve in our military. England doesn't have this policy. Israel doesn't have this policy. It's an outdated policy."
That same autumn he said, "America is ready to get rid of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. That work should have started long ago. It will start when I take office. America is ready to get rid of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. All that is required is leadership."
Ringing words from candidate Obama. But that was then; this is now.
President Obama has said almost nothing. Where is the leadership today? It's not coming from the president. President Obama is caving. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, General Jones, and Chief of the U.S. Central Command General David Petraeus seem to be calling the shots for their Commander-in-Chief.
What's the evidence? The president's defense team presented their department's budget to President Obama, and the president sent it to the Hill last week. This Wednesday hearings begin in the House Armed Forces Committee. Nothing in the Obama defense budget provides for the elimination of "don't ask, don't tell."
More evidence? Karen De Young wrote in the Washington Post last week, "When Obama was under pressure to review the military's 'don't ask, don't tell' policy on gay service members, Jones said he went 'to see him personally on it' and advised him not to add another controversy to his already-full plate. The president, Jones said, took his advice." Apparently so.
"Calling the shots" is not the metaphor the Defense Secretary and the officers mentioned earlier would use because in truth it is the president who calls the shots. While the president is playing basketball, a game he is pretty good at, his senior advisors are playing kick ball, as in "let's kick this ball down the road." Unfortunately, they're pretty good at kickball. The metaphors are flying all over the place. Mixing them up a bit more, "we've got a lot on our plates right now." We hear that a lot. No one could deny it. Has there even been a president who hasn't had a full to overflowing plate?
In the meantime one or two men and women are being discharged every day for who they are. This has nothing to do with national security or unit cohesion or any of the other buzz words like "full plate." Those words just cover up a crass political calculation made at the expense of the at least 13,000 men and women already discharged because of who they are.
Who they are is gay.
On March 19th, Lieutenant Daniel Choi told an audience of millions on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow Show, "I am an infantry platoon leader in the New York Army National Guard, and by saying three words to you today--I am gay--those three words are a violation of Title X of the U.S. Code."
Indeed they were. Last week the Army wrote Iraq veteran Lieutenant Choi, West Point Class of 2003, Arabic major and fluent in the language, that he was being dismissed. The letter says, in part, "this is to inform you that sufficient basis exists to initiate action for withdrawal of federal recognition in the Army National Guard for moral or professional dereliction. Specifically, you admitted publicly that you are a homosexual, which constitutes homosexual conduct. Your actions negatively affected the good order and discipline of the New York Army National Guard."
Not exactly a friendly note. President Obama may not have signed it, but what is now his policy dictated it. In fact, more than sixty translators have been discharged under "don't ask, don't tell." One of them even made headlines Saturday in Israel, where of course being gay in the military is no big deal. The big deal was that the Army fired an Arabic linguist.
A few days ago Second Lieutenant Sandy Tsao got a note quite different in tone. In January, on the Chinese New Year, she wrote President Obama, explaining that "today is also the day I inform my chain of command of who I am." Who she is, is gay. She went on to say, "I have fought and overcome many barriers to arrive at the point I am today. This is the only battle I fear I may lose." Well, she did lose. She will be out of the Army May 19th because she told her superiors that she is a lesbian. It took just four months.
But last Tuesday, in the same week she was informed she'd been fired, she received a handwritten note on White House letterhead from the President: "Sandy -- Thanks for the wonderful and thoughtful letter. It is because of outstanding Americans like you that I committed to changing our current policy. Although it will take some time to complete (partly because it needs Congressional action) I intend to fulfill my commitment."
Nice words, a nice souvenir for Lieutenant Tsao, and it's encouraging to know that President Obama intends to fulfill his commitment.
The question is, "When? How?"