Sen. Udall is right to seek repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ military policy
It comes as welcome news that Sen. Mark Udall is supporting efforts to amend the 2010 Senate Defense Authorization Bill to include a provision to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that keeps gay and lesbian soldiers, sailors and Marines from serving openly in the military.
Given the overwhelming support, both in the military and civilian spheres, for repealing this costly and destructive policy, perhaps the greatest surprise in Udall’s announcement is that it has taken so long for Congress to reach this point.
President Barack Obama pledged in his State of the Union address in January: “This year, I will work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”
Despite this pledge, however, until now there has been little actual effort from Congress to repeal the Clinton-era law that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military only so long as their sexual orientation is kept secret.
Rather than push for an immediate repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the Obama administration has backed a Defense Department plan to study the issue.
“The review that I am launching,” Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates said when the study was announced last winter, “is to help inform the legislative process of some facts about the attitudes of our men and women in uniform, what they think about a change in the law, [and] what their families think. The truth is, we don’t have any facts.”
As recently as last month, according to retired Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gates wrote a letter urging Congress to delay any legislation to end the policy until after the study is completed on Dec. 1. But, “while the request is reasonable,” Shalikashvili wrote, “it is the military that will pay the highest cost if Congress does not act now.”
In a similar vein, Udall told his constituents in a recent appeal for support that, after “handicapping our military for sixteen years,” the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy “no longer makes sense ... At a time of two wars, when we can use all the brave patriots who want to protect our country, this argument (against gays in the military) doesn’t hold water.”
The catch-22 of the current situation is that, as Shalikashvili points out, unless Congress repeals “don’t ask, don’t tell” now, “the Pentagon’s study process will be compromised because the Defense Department will not have the authority to implement its own recommendations.”
For this reason, he said, “acting now to remove the constraints imposed by that law is the most faithful response that Congress can offer.” The rule will be written by the Pentagon, acting under authority granted by Congress.
For their part, civil libertarians are willing to give up their demands for a law that would replace “don’t ask, don’t tell” with a policy requiring equal treatment of gay, lesbian and bisexual troops. “This is a tougher sell to moderates in Congress,” Shalikashvili said, “and has the downside of perpetuating congressional meddling in military policy.”
While the proposed new policy does not include a non-discriminatory clause, neither is one excluded by the proposed legislation. What is ensured is that the Pentagon, not Congress, will be responsible for the final rule-making for a new military policy.
As one source close to the talks told Newsweek, “In a perfect world, we would have unconditional repeal with non-discrimination protections built-in. But this is very, very good, this is definitely a clear path forward.”
Given the long history of discrimination against gays in the military, the optimism expressed by this speaker is a testament to the faith of gay service members that justice will prevail. To deny them once again, when recognition seems so close, would be a cruel blow to these brave men and women.
While the fate of the present amendment, which must pass both the Senate and the House, is still uncertain, the fate of gays in the military should not be. Sen. Udall and his colleagues should pledge not to rest until the restrictions of “don’t ask, don’t” tell are lifted. Anything less will simply continue the present record of injustice based on prejudice.