Why am I troubled by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen at his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday? Not because he got only one question on "don't ask, don't tell" and to that one, from Senator Mark Udall (D-Colo.), he eagerly gave the standard quick response: I'll provide that to you in writing. No, what troubles me are the written responses he gave the Senate Armed Services Committee to their questions on gays in the military. They were released at Admiral Mullen's confirmation hearing after spending weeks on his desk. In a dense fog of words, the Chairman's noncommittal responses signify, well, nothing.
OK, not quite nothing. They did indicate a desire to kick this old can down the road yet again. Was it Napoleon who said if you want to bury something, appoint a commission to study it? No matter, that seems to be what the Pentagon wants to do here. Brush it under the table, kick it down the road, study it a little bit more. Someone over there seems to think that out of sight, out of mind applies to gays in the military. It doesn't.
No matter how much the admiral deflects or obfuscates, this is an issue that is not going away.
Admiral Mullen spoke of the sacrifices made by the 2.2 million families of our service members. He spoke of the 35,000 wounded, the 5,100 American dead -- not to mention our allies' casualties, which he didn't, and the countless thousands of nameless Iraqis and Afghanistans brought down by war. Does he suppose none of these men and women who sacrificed a limb or a life were gay? What about the 13,500 service members already forcibly discharged under "don't ask, don't tell"? Didn't they -- and their families -- sacrifice something, too? Are they not part of the "wounds of war" the admiral spoke of? Of course they are, but you'd never know it from his responses. Those responses are neither helpful nor clear; instead they are wobbly, but delivered with impeccable presence, like the admiral himself, the very model of a model Navy admiral, straight and true.
I am among those who believe it is a smart and sound strategy for the White House to work closely with Defense Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen on repeal, to persuade them that the president's vision for open service is in the best interests of our military and our country. (We already know our strong allies in Congress support this approach.) I believe the White House is continuing to work this. But we need to see more evidence that this is in fact taking place, and we need to see clear signs of progress soon.
It was clear at his confirmation hearing that Admiral Mullen enjoys the enormous support and political good will of the entire Senate Armed Services Committee -- and yet he didn't use one chit to help advance his Commander in Chief's objective of open service. Why not?
If Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates are asked towards the end of the year, when the drafting of the next Defense Department budget bill begins in earnest, whether they are prepared to sign off on repeal language, what will their answers be? The written responses that Chairman Mullen dropped on the committee this week clearly show that he is not there yet. How long can we and the White House wait for him and Secretary Gates to get with President Obama's program? Will they be there in the next 30 to 45 days, when another Senate hearing could be taking place? We need to know whose team Admiral Mullen and Secretary Gates are playing on. Is it President Obama's White House team, or is it some other team that's playing against their Commander in Chief?
We need an answer to that, and well before that Senate DADT hearing takes place.