THE BLOG
05/13/2009 08:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Obama Needs To Find His Inner Harry Truman

The recent dismissal by the U.S. Army of West Point graduate Lt. Dan Choi, 28, on the grounds of his sexual orientation, goes beyond the contentious issue of gay and civil rights, and strikes at the very heart of America's commitment to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Choi, a New York National Guardsman, was an Arabic Languages major at West Point, and is a fluent Arab language speaker. If then-senator Obama hadn't specifically made the point on the campaign trail that discharging gay and lesbian military personnel on the basis of sexual orientation during wartime, especially Arab-language speakers, was an intolerable abuse of resources, Dan Choi's case might have been less striking. Coming as it does on the eve of the deployment of some 20,000 additional soldiers to Afghanistan, it raises disturbing questions about the human cost of political agendas.

How committed is the White House? Committed enough to be willing to marshal every available, qualified soldier, especially Arab-language speaking West Point grads with stellar military records? Apparently not.

In response to the Choi case, Bob Magninnis, a senior strategist with the U.S. Army, was unsympathetic, according to ABC News. "You have people that are throwing themselves on the mercy of public sympathy to persuade Congress to change direction," he said. "But if you want to rescind the law you need both houses to rescind it and then get the president to agree. I'm not sure we have sufficient votes to rescind the law. This is not one of the more important issues, frankly. It has little consequence to effectiveness of the organizations. A few hundred people a year isn't of any significance."

The White House apparently agrees. Following an impassioned plea from Choi directly to President Obama, the official line was that the president would not interfere in individual cases of dismissal based on sexual orientation. Choi joins the 12,000 patriotic and qualified Americans ejected from the army for not lying about their sexual orientation effectively enough. In Choi's case, he was accused of "negatively affect[ing] good order and discipline in the New York Army National Guard," an allegation that does not appear to be supported by any accompanying facts or examples.

Magginis's sneering comment is worth noting, however. If there is such a tremendous surplus of enlisted men and women that "a few hundred people a year isn't of any significance," it raises the question of why so many military personnel are being repeatedly stop-lossed, forced to return to the field for tour after tour, and pushed beyond the breaking point with frequently tragic results.

The sight of President Obama appearing to cave into conservative pressure on this issue in spite of his campaign promises to end Don't Ask, Don't Tell is extremely disturbing, especially to his many millions of supporters, and particularly painful to the LGBT voters who mobilized their own communities to help vote him into office in the hopes of a brighter and more inclusive America.

It's disturbing because it suggests that while the President says the U.S. is committed to winning in Afghanistan, the military is still prepared to place antiquated prejudices before practical exigencies, for instance expelling a popular, highly-qualified soldier, a soldier who can speak the language of America's "enemies" at a time when winning their "hearts and minds" is apparently still a priority.

One can only imagine how Lt. Choi's linguistic abilities might have been put to use last weekend, for instance, when a U.S. air strike killed 100 Afghan civilians on the ground, or in Iraq, where resentment of the U.S. military presence still seethes, endangering the lives of U.S. servicemen and women every day.

By what insane rationale does dismissing gay and lesbian military personnel who can actually speak the language of the occupied make the servicemen and women serving there safer? Or make the mission more likely to succeed?

When do campaign promises start to manifest as presidential leadership? When does the time finally arrive that the right thing is done, and not just for the gay and lesbian soldiers who are willing to give up their lives for an ideal, but for the well-being of the country itself?

There are precedents, after all, for doing the right thing, even in politics.

On July 26, 1948, nearly 51 years ago, then-president Harry Truman, considered by many to have held many of the typical racial prejudices of his day, issued Executive Order 9981, which forever ended legal racial segregation within the ranks of the U.S. Armed Forces. The order unambiguously detailed Truman's commitment to equal opportunity for all military personnel irrespective of color, race, national origin, or religion. In addition, it created a committee on equality, and empowered it examine, identify, and remove any rules impeding the goal of full integration. Most importantly, it ordered and mandated cooperation with the committee of every agency of the Federal Government.

A year earlier, addressing Annual Conference of the NAACP in a speech about "civil rights and human freedoms," he'd said, "It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in the long history of our efforts to guarantee a freedom and equality to all our citizens. And when I say all Americans, I mean all Americans."

It's difficult to picture Truman having much patience, by then, for hidebound military brass bringing their own prejudices to bear while claiming to worry about a "breakdown in unit cohesion" resulting from whites being forced to live, and serve, with blacks, or a potential recruit shortage among racists. It's hard to imagine him entertaining demands by conservative politicians for "more studies" on the topic of the "dangers" of full equality within the ranks.

He knew that soldiers obey orders, and that leadership, not "studies" were required. In effect, what Truman said was, I am the President of the United States, and this is wrong. Segregation in the military stops here. And it stops now.

Would that President Obama, instead of ducking behind boilerplate statements from his press secretary about "not intervening in "individual cases," took a page from President Truman's book. Would that he quickly fulfilled one of his most important campaign promises, recognizing one of the most important civil rights and moral imperatives of his presidency in the same way Truman did in his day.

To wit: Whatever a president's own personal or political reservations might be, legislated bigotry and segregation is not only morally wrong, it is also a counter-productive impediment to the expression of patriotism in its purest form: the willingness to die for one's country when it's needed most, in a time of war. The same way Lt. Dan Choi and 12,000 other patriotic American men and women whom the U.S. military has slapped in the face were--and are--willing to do.