What the Media Missed in a Plan for Repeal

10/20/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Steve Ralls Communications Director, Public Justice Foundation

Anyone who read the headlines this week about Senator Barack Obama's support for ending the federal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on lesbian, gay and bisexual troops may have come away with an (inaccurate) impression that the Democratic presidential candidate has punted the ball back to the armed forces when it comes to deciding the fate of the law. Obama Won't Repeal 'Don't Ask' on His Own, the Associated Press said, followed by a Philadelphia Inquirer headline declaring that Obama had said Go Slower on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'

In truth, the headlines are a reflection of just how widely misunderstood the law is, and how bewildered much of the public has become about what steps must be taken to end the ban, and what steps should be included in a plan to welcome to lesbian and gay troops. Poll after poll shows that the public overwhelmingly supports ending "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," but press reports, and public statements, have left many to believe that there is an easy fix to the problem. Yet ending the ban, and ending it in the right way, requires more than one stroke of a pen, one wish of a president or one order to commanders in the field.

In contrast to what many people continue to believe, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" cannot be brought to an end by executive order. Congress codified the ban into law in 1993, and with that move, took away any ability for the commander-in-chief to single-handedly take it off the books. It was a shrewd, and sinister, action by lawmakers: In a virtually unprecedented move, Capitol Hill seized power to control military personnel policy and undermine the authority and discretion of the president, and military leaders, to make those decisions as they saw fit. In the process of doing so, they also ensured a long shelf life for a homophobic federal policy that has set the standard for how the government treats LGBT Americans.

Undoing all the damage that has been done will take much more than an easy fix.

The next commander-in-chief, if he decides to dismantle "Don't Ask," will need an astute plan that brings Congressional and military leaders to the table and gives them both a say in how the welcome mat is unfurled at the Pentagon's door.

No wonder former Army Lieutenant Steve Boeckels told the press on Wednesday that, "No matter who I talk to, whether they're Republican, Democrat, liberal, or conservative, people who are in the military, people not in the military -- people don't understand what the law is."

And so it's no wonder, too, that this week's news reports (or at least their headlines) also became a little confused.

In truth, no president can repeal the military's ban "on his own," and the AP should not have mistakenly left the impression that this was a situation or challenge unique to Senator Obama. Repeal requires a majority vote in the House and Senate, a presidential signature - and this is where the media also partially misled - a strategy by the White House, the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs to open up the forces in the most effective, efficient and sensible way they know how.

It's not a plan to go slower; it's a plan to go smarter. It's not a plan to punt the ball of responsibility; it's a plan to bring everyone with a stake in the outcome to the table, and repeal the law responsibly. And it's the right plan: one that avoids many of the pitfalls of 1993, when one side was heard, another locked out and everyone, in the end, was unhappy with the result. (Senator McCain, in a statement released in 2007, called gay service personnel an 'intolerable risk.')

Senator Obama has said repeatedly that his intention is to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." But he also understands there are no easy fixes, and that it will take more than one committed president to bring about its end. His remarks reflect that he gets it: He must have a Congressional vote, and should have a responsible plan that involves military leaders, in order to end the ban. The military, he knows, is adept at saluting and carrying out orders, but does so more easily when there is a clear strategy for how those orders are to be implemented and honored.

No commander-in-chief can carry out the repeal mission on their own, and no commander-in-chief should try to do so. But the tone set by the Oval Office - in this case, one that would be unequivocally in support of repeal - goes a long, long way in bringing other necessary players into the pro-repeal fold. And those are the (important) details the press has left untold.

The media has unfortunately attempted to consolidate a necessarily multi-step process into an 8-word headline, and along the way, missed the most important point of all: That, for the first time since its implementation, we may soon have the very first commander-in-chief who will encourage, and oversee, the ban's ultimate fall.