THE BLOG

Under Obama "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Will Pass Away

01/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's all about change, and although many of the faces on the next president's national security team look familiar, it's not going to be the same old, same old when Mr. Obama assumes office on January 20th. There is one preeminent reason for that: the change, as Mr. Obama said the other day, "comes from me. The vision for change comes first and foremost from me. That's my job."

That's called leadership, and that's why we elected him. I take Mr. Obama at his word, and I am confident that as president he will begin, as promised, an orderly, responsible withdrawal from Iraq. I am also confident that Mr. Obama will work to end the ban on lesbians and gays serving openly in the military and that the last discriminatory law on the federal books, the law we call "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," will be repealed in the next Congress and replaced by a bill that permits open service without regard to sexual orientation. Why am I so confident? Because Barack Obama said so.

But it will not happen unless the White House, the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs, and the Congress forge a new working relationship to make it a reality. The president-elect has made a good start. A few days ago he met privately with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen. Admiral Mullen was not accompanied by the usual aides. He brought no briefing books, no PowerPoint presentations, just a pad and a pen - and, The Washington Post reported on Sunday, "a desire to take the measure of his incoming boss."

The two men met for a conversation, not a briefing, which speaks well for the confidence of both the president-elect and the chairman. Admiral Mullen emerged from this first meeting with "a view of the next president as a non-ideological pragmatist who was willing to both listen and lead," Karen DeYoung reported in Sunday's Washington Post. Admiral Mullen's spokesman, Captain John Kirby, told her that the chairman "felt very good, very positive" about the meeting.

We can all breathe a sigh of relief for that. For any number of reasons Mr. Obama needs the chairman of the Joint Chiefs on his side (and vice versa, of course), but for my particular cause it is absolutely essential. Sixteen years ago, when Bill Clinton was campaigning for the presidency, he said that he would sign an executive order to permit gays and lesbians to serve openly in the armed forces. But he hadn't discussed the matter with the Joint Chiefs or its chairman, Colin Powell, and that was a fatal error. The Pentagon generally took a dim view of President Clinton. Some regarded him as a draft dodger who stayed out of Vietnam by staying in college - much like Vice President Cheney, but that's another story (and Mr. Cheney won't be around much longer, anyway). The military brass were not disposed to like Bill Clinton, and his announcement - without consulting those who would have to carry out his order - that he would end the ban unilaterally ensured their continued opposition. The resulting brouhaha consumed much of President Clinton's first year in office and, instead of lifting the ban, Congress with the approval of the Pentagon handed the president the compromise known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," which satisfied no one and has never worked. The military does ask, and the discriminatory and basically un-American law encourages too many to become snitches, a role that doesn't fit anybody's honor code. The result was a very costly mess, which the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network has been trying for fifteen years to clean up.

We are not deluding ourselves at SLDN. We know that matters of extreme urgency are crying for the next president's attention. There is the economic meltdown, for example, and the prospect of a serious recession looming ahead. There is the winding down of the war in Iraq and, apparently, the stepping up of the war in Afghanistan. In the meantime, the polar ice is melting and the seas are rising as the globe gets warmer.

But these critical issues do not supplant the fact that the last discriminatory law on the books of the United States needs to be junked. Make no mistake: this law can be repealed and it can happen in the next Congress. We know that the president-elect wants to do it. As poll after poll has shown, the people are already on his side but that is not enough. He must have the Pentagon and a majority of the House and the Senate as well. The groundwork has to be laid and the votes lined up one by one by one. That's the way things get done in Washington.

And that's how the tortoise beat the hare - step by step by step. "No drama Obama" knows that very well. It has worked very well for him. That's how he won the nomination and then the election -- step by step by step.