Throwing Caution to the Wind

Illustration by Erin Johnson

Illustration by Erin Johnson
Starving for Attention

During the heat of his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama stated in a speech to the Human Rights Campaign in the fall of 2007 that “America is ready to get rid of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. That work should have started long ago. It will start when I take office. America is ready to get rid of the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ policy. All that is required is leadership.”

If all that is required is indeed leadership, then that quality certainly has been missing in the Obama administration, considering the lack of action on the issue of allowing gays to serve openly in the military by repealing the contentious “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy — a law implemented in 1993 that requires the military to discharge a service member who is found to be gay. While it is nothing new for a politician to backtrack on his campaign promises, it is all the more disheartening to see a new administration that has strongly advocated for a much-needed policy change easily succumb to inaction due to misguided perceptions about its political tenability. Simply put, forcefully leading the way for progress is as necessary now as it was during Obama’s campaign, especially when perfectly qualified soldiers continue to be unjustly fired.

Since the administration has established overall that it does not believe in the persistence of these discharges, it is all the more evident that leadership is lacking because this administration thus far has chosen a route that is politically safe but is, in the words of Center for American Progress fellow and writer Matthew Yglesias, contemptible in moral logic due to the policy’s inherently unjust features. Considering that Obama has the political capital to make a potentially unpopular decision – at least unpopular within the military – come to fruition through his influence, it is frustrating that to date he has failed to exert the necessary leadership skills he surely possesses.

Instead, his administration is needlessly complicating a transition that is worth its potential political ramifications, as it is not only a matter of upholding the principles of fairness and equality, but also ensuring that our military has the best personnel possible, a goal that is irrespective of sexual orientation. Thus, from a pragmatic standpoint, any perceived risks are outweighed by the benefits that our military would receive from allowing such qualified and dedicated soldiers to serve their country openly.

According to the Service Members Legal Defense Network, over 12,500 men and women have been discharged since the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy was implemented in the early 1990s. Furthermore, almost 800 of those discharges involved “mission-critical” specialists, according to a 2005 Government Accountability Office report.

Arguments against repealing the policy contend that it will affect unit cohesion and that it is not currently convenient politically or militarily. However, more than 20 nations, including American allies like Britain and Israel, allow gay soldiers to serve openly without difficulty. According to Aaron Belkin, who is the director of the Palm Center, a think tank at UC Santa Barbara that focuses on sexuality and the military, “Among the more than 20 nations that allow open gay service, each pursued its own path to implement the change. Even though the strategies varied, no foreign military has reported overall problems.”

In regard to convenience, there will arguably never be an ideal time to implement such a change. The military and the president will always have demanding issues to face. The more crucial point is that a commitment to doing what is right is not a matter of convenience. It is certainly neither convenient nor fair for gay service members to face discharges that force them to leave the lives they have dedicated themselves to in the military, especially when the discharge stems from a trait that these soldiers cannot change. What is convenient is the political capital that Obama currently holds due to the early nature of his administration — capital that could conveniently be used now to overcome legislative delay.

While Obama may claim that his hands are tied and that it is Congress that must implement the change, in reality the president has the ability to sway congressional action through a vocal defense of the repeal. Military law experts from the Palm Center argue that Obama could sign an executive order to halt such discharges, but an act of Congress would be a long-term solution, as it could not be overturned by a future administration, thereby ensuring that an outdated and unnecessary policy is finally put to an end.

The Obama on the campaign trails who strongly supported the termination of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was right in saying that Americans are ready for change; according to The New York Times, nationwide polls consistently show America’s overwhelming support of lifting the ban. Thus, it remains to be seen whether or not this administration is ready and has the leadership to exert the will to make that change happen.

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