The Pentagon's Awkward "If" Problem

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Aubrey Sarvis Former Executive Director, Servicemembers Legal Defense Network

We are almost 10 months into the Obama Presidency, and Pentagon officials are still speaking conditionally about whether DADT will be repealed.  Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, a holdover from the Bush Administration, used the word "if" twice yesterday, referring to if the law is repealed or changed.   

But in the same press conference, Morrell said, "There is no doubt among any of them [senior military officials] what the president's marching orders on -- are on this subject. I mean, he has made that abundantly clear to this department.  So there's no ambiguity there."  As a former journalist and now high-level spokesperson, Morrell understands the power of words and is choosing them carefully.  Why is he casting doubt in one breath and reaffirming the president's directive in the other?  

Mr. Morrell's performance underscores that some of the men and women around the President are either not with him on repeal or are entirely off message.  Mr. Morrell is a seasoned professional. Why is the DADT repeal subject so awkward and difficult for him to navigate in a press conference? Does his stumbling and Janus-like contradictions in fact mirror what is going on inside the Pentagon?  We know his job is to reflect where Gates and Mullen stand on repeal.  So why don't we have a clear message coming out of the Pentagon?

Let's take issue with another exchange yesterday about timing of DADT repeal. 

REPORTER:     [Ending "don't ask, don't tell"] is something that he's [the President] laid out as a priority from the start, and we haven't really seen any movement. You haven't offered us much clarity today. I'm -- you seemed to suggest that it's going to be difficult to change this policy in wartime.  I wonder if the president is sympathetic to that viewpoint.

MR. MORRELL:  I think he is.  I think if you go back and look at the statements coming from the president and the White House on this issue, that he is fully cognizant this is a force that is under considerable strain, that has been, you know, at an -- working at an extremely high operational tempo since -- late 2001, and that the course he sets on this issue will be mindful of that. Now, that doesn't make him any less determined to overturn or change the law, but I think he and the secretary and the chairman are all very cognizant of the fact that we've got a force that we have -- that we have asked more of, probably, than any force in history.

Morrell is assuming lifting the ban is going to cause some kind of significant disruption in the ranks.  Sixty-five thousand gays are already there serving, some out (without reported incident) and others not.  And lifting the gay ban in Israel and England did not result in disruption.  I would like to ask Mr. Morrell on what he has to base his argument.  

That we can or should allow gays to serve openly only after we end one or both wars is the most obvious of red herrings.  It will take years for the wars to "end."  It's crystal clear some in the Pentagon don't want to deal with gays serving openly, no matter how patriotic, committed and skilled gays and lesbians are or were in Iraq and Afghanistan.   

Fortunately, it looks like a 2010 repeal is on the table.  Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) has announced a likely January hearing before his Senate Armed Services Committee that will include the Secretary of Defense and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both of whom are expected to provide clear and precise recommendations on when and how to implement a new policy of nondiscrimination.  Military buy-in is critical and necessary, and we look forward to this White House working with DoD and Congress to include repeal in the next defense budget.  We got "don't ask don't tell" in a defense  budget bill in 1993 and we should get rid of it next year in the President's defense bill.