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Aubrey Sarvis Headshot

Time for Courage and Leadership, Mr. President

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Put yourself back in the Sixties, aging boomers, and you kids listen up, too. Remember Pete Seeger's famous song, "Where have all the flowers gone?" You boomers may even have sung it a few times. Now flash forward four decades. We're going to adapt the lyrics to fit the new circumstances. It's spring and we know where the flowers are. Today the question is, where have all the leaders gone?

Yes, yes, we all know the frighteningly serious threats we face -- to our national security, to our financial security, to our future. There's no need to list them but there is a pressing need to do something about them, and to do something about them requires what I've been writing about for weeks now: leadership, my friends, leadership.

We can argue about whether our leaders are going the right way or the wrong way in Iraq and Afghanistan, in rescuing the American economy which is no longer ours alone but global, and in any number of other fronts. But we cannot argue that we're not going anywhere -- except on one front.

Where is the leadership on repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell? This morning Defense Secretary Gates was asked about repeal on Fox News Sunday. He said what no one would deny, that "we have a lot on our plates right now." But he went on. "Let's push that one down the road a bit."

We've been pushing Don't Ask, Don't Tell "down the road a bit" for almost 16 years! Sixteen years! Ever since Congress passed the miserable law in response to President Clinton's efforts to open military service to all qualified men and women regardless of sexual orientation. (The idea was to teach Clinton a lesson and show him who's boss, which at that time was not one boss but several: the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff whose chairman was Colin Powell, and Senator Samm Nunn and other members of both houses of Congress who fretted about "tight quarters" on submarines.)

But when the American people elected Barack Obama last November, we thought all that would soon be behind us. No more "let's push that one down the road a bit." It's right there on the White House web site clear as spring water and it's worth quoting in its entirety: "Repeal Don't Ask-Don't Tell [boldface theirs]: President Obama agrees with former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili and other military experts that we need to repeal the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. The key test for military service should be patriotism, a sense of duty, and a willingness to serve. Discrimination should be prohibited. The U.S. government has spent millions of dollars replacing troops kicked out of the military because of their sexual orientation. Additionally, more than 300 language experts have been fired under this policy, including more than 50 who are fluent in Arabic. The President will work with military leaders to repeal the current policy and ensure it helps accomplish our national defense goals."

You can't get much more clear than that. So why isn't the administration doing it? What's going on here? Did I see the secretary sending up a trial balloon this morning? Repealing "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" is not rocket science. It doesn't require a Nobel Prize-winning economist who can disentangle all those numbers and come up with the right workable plan that even non-economists can understand with a little effort. It doesn't require a brilliant geo-strategist like Admiral Mahan who changed the course of modern warfare.

No, what repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell requires is very simple but seems to be in short supply, as David Rothkopf writes in Sunday's Washington Post. It requires leadership. No punts, no waffling: just straightforward repeal language in Obama's Defense Department budget -- as in H.R. 1283, as in the statement on the White House web site -- declaring the administration's opposition to this counterproductive, expensive, discriminatory law which is wrong on every front and a failure besides. Anyone who thinks gay men and women aren't serving in the military now, today, is living on another planet.

The American people are solidly behind repeal. Most service members don't care who is serving next to them, just that they be able to do their jobs well. The Congress, the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs, and White House know this. What are they afraid of? Why don't they show some spine and act like serious men and women? Surely the answer cannot be that they don't have spine, that they're just blowing whichever way the wind is blowing that day, that they're not serious.

But if that's the wrong answer, please President Obama, Secretary Gates, and Admiral Mullen, please tell us what the correct answer is. Because right now a lot of people are confused as to where this administration really stands on repeal.

This does not send reassuring signals about the president's ability to deal with the really serious problems that we face. And Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a serious problem, especially to the thousands of service members who must pretend to be something they're not if they want to keep their jobs, to the thousands of often highly skilled men and women who have been discharged when they would rather have continued to serve, and to the military readiness of the United States which is directly and adversely affected by this law.

Don't Ask, Don't Tell is a wrong that can be made right. Just say what you said in your campaign, Mr. Obama, and what's on your White House web site. Do what you said you'd do. Keep your word.