02/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

When the President Orders, the Military Follows

Less than 48 hours after the President had taken the (bungled) oath from the Chief Justice of the United States, the Washington Post's jittery media columnist, Howard Kurtz, asked what will probably remain the most preposterous question of the week: "It is well past time to ask the question: What has Barack Obama really accomplished as President anyway?" He appeared to be serious, as his colleague Dan Froomkin noted in "White House Watch."

"The economy is still in the deep freeze," Kurtz wrote, "we've still got troops in Iraq and global warming continues apace. How long are we supposed to wait for the change we've been waiting for?"

Oh, maybe another week or two? By then he'll have changed water into wine. Raising Lazarus will take a little longer.

Well, Howie writes an awful lot. Perhaps he needs a rest. The column, notable for its incoherence, was posted on line; it didn't make the print edition for reasons one can only imagine.

While he may not have reversed global warming, etc., the day of his inauguration the President did order more open access to governmental records, including presidential papers, and suspended all judicial proceedings at Guantánamo Bay pending review. The next day -- the President's first full day in office -- he signed two executive orders and three presidential memoranda. On Thursday he signed orders that would close Guantánamo Bay within a year, shut down the CIA's network of secret prisons, and end "enhanced interrogations," i.e. torture, by the United States Government. He also had time for a meal or two.

What was really interesting to me about these decisions was not the improbable reaction of Howie Kurtz but the response of Defense Secretary Robert Gates to what the President actually did. From the transcript of Thursday"s news briefing with the Secretary and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen:

Q     Mr. Secretary, among the executive orders signed by President Obama today is one which would -- the intent appears to be to put all national security/military/intelligence interrogation processes under the Army Field Manual. There are some in the intelligence community that will say one size doesn't fit all, that there's a gray area and there may have to be exceptions made. Given your experience at both the CIA and now at DOD, do you think that all interrogations can be conducted under the rules and regulations of the Army Field Manual? 
SEC. GATES: I haven't read the latest -- I haven't read the version of the executive order that the President signed. But if that's what he said, that's what will be done. [Italics mine.]

The President issues an order and the Secretary salutes with the military following into line behind him. Later that day the Secretary stood in the White House with a distinguished group of flag officers as the President signed the executive order closing Guantánamo. Secretary Gates said the orderly closing of the prison would be a challenge but that it would be done and done right.

The briefing ended with a question about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell":

Q     Have there been communications with the new administration during the transition about repealing don't ask, don't tell? And can I ask both of you whether -- what your attitudes are for calls to repeal don't ask, don't tell, and whether attitudes have changed within the military and DOD about -- that will make the policy not necessary anymore? 
SEC. GATES:  . . .   Don't ask, don't tell is law. It is a political decision. And if the law chains -- changes, we will comply with the law. [Italics mine.]
ADM. MULLEN: The President has been very clear in his -- I mean, as he was coming in to take over as President that it was his intent to do this. So the intent clearly is there.  . . .
Q     Do you sense a change in attitudes within the military, within the armed forces, that would make this viable? 
ADM. MULLEN: Part of -- part of my responsibility as a senior military officer is to go out and do that kind of assessment, should -- should -- we get direction or when we get direction to do that. And I certainly look forward to the opportunity to make that assessment, and give the President my best military advice with respect to this and the impact of what a potential change could be. 

Unfortunately, the President can't issue an executive order to make DADT go away. That takes an act of Congress. It will take some time to get key players on the same page, though it's clear they are a lot closer than they have been at any time since the discriminatory law went into effect in 1993. The White House will want a few months to hear out the Secretary and the Pentagon's senior military leadership. The President will also seek the input of Senators and Representatives, and the President will listen. But at the end of the day I believe they will all be in lockstep with the President on repeal. And at the end of this year, the law that bars qualified gay men and women from serving openly in the military can be gone.

There. I've said it again. This can be done.

Secretary Gates will be testifying next Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee. The question of Don't Ask, Don't Tell will surely come up. Here is an excellent opportunity for the Secretary to lay out what the Pentagon and the White House will be doing over the next six months to bring the United States in line with the rest of the developed world. Let's hope the White House will have their legislative recommendation for repeal ready for Congress by midsummer when they present the defense budget. We'll be waiting eagerly to see if the White House seizes this timely opportunity, and leads on it.