No rush to end ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’


President Obama’s campaign vow to end the ban on gays in the military -- and the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that forces thousands of military personnel to stay in the closet -- appears to be driven now by a strategy of “don’t rush.”

The recent coming-out by dozens of gay West Point graduates, including Arabic language specialist Lt. Daniel Choi of Tustin, has spotlighted the conflicting policies and put pressure on Congress and the White House to make good on promises to repeal them.

A report issued last week by UC Santa Barbara’s Palm Center research institute said Obama had the power to thwart the discharging of military personnel for their sexual orientation. Under the “stop-loss” provision, Obama can issue executive orders to retain any soldier deemed necessary to the service in a time of national emergency, the report said.


The president also could halt the work of Pentagon review panels that brand troops as gay and thus excluded from service, the report said. And Obama and his Defense secretary could revise discharge procedures, as allowed under the 1993 law banning gays in the military.

Choi, who received a notice of discharge this month for publicly disclosing his homosexuality, doesn’t want Obama to intercede on his behalf. He wants officials to eliminate obstacles to gays serving their country.

“Why would I be comfortable with him making a special case for me when so many others are getting kicked out?” asked Choi, 28, whose Korean immigrant parents have not accepted his homosexuality.

Those who support openly gay troops point to the loss of important skills, such as Choi’s fluency in Arabic and independent study of Persian, as unacceptable costs of an outdated and unfair policy.

But neither Congress nor the White House appears eager to reopen the bitter debate over gays in the military that rocked the early months of the Clinton administration.

“They’re caught in a political double bind. If they move too quickly, they will expend political capital with the military and Congress. Yet if they move too slowly, they will alienate a core constituency and fail to deliver on a very clear campaign promise,” said Aaron Belkin, director of the UC Santa Barbara institute.


Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said recently that if the ban were lifted, it would be difficult for the military to restructure its units to accommodate homosexuals. National security advisor James L. Jones Jr. also has reacted coolly to the prospect of lifting the ban.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said Obama recognized that banning gays from the military -- leaving an estimated 65,000 people to serve as long as they don’t disclose their homosexuality -- “isn’t working for our national interests.”

But Gibbs said change required “more than the snapping of one’s fingers.” He said Obama considered congressional action the best way to ensure real change. He said the president would refrain from issuing executive orders to halt discharges.

Legal analysts differ about whether Obama’s intervention would help the cause of integrating gays or hurt it by taking the pressure off Congress to repeal the ban.

“It’s better to address the statute itself rather than issue an executive order that would temporarily suspend discharges” and leave lawmakers to think there is no urgency to amend the law, said Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, which lobbies to end the ban.

Others, like Nathaniel Frank, author of “Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America,” see the latest musings on how and when to let gays openly serve as reflecting a fear of tackling a tough issue.

“The military has been passing the buck to Congress by saying, ‘This is a congressional issue; we’re simply following the law.’ But the military was instrumental in insisting that this ban is necessary,” Frank said.

He said the policy “is not just a social issue, it’s a national security issue in that we are losing people we can’t afford to lose.”

Since 1994, when “don’t ask, don’t tell” went into effect, more than 12,500 men and women have been discharged from the armed forces for being gay, including nearly 800 “mission-critical specialists” such as Choi.

In the first decade after the ban was imposed, the Pentagon was forced to spend an estimated $364 million to train replacements for those discharged for sexual orientation, a 2005 Government Accountability Office report said.

At the very least, Sarvis said, Congress should cut the Pentagon budget item for rooting out gays from the military and training replacements.

Obama has said he wants the ban lifted during the current congressional term, but even the most motivated lawmakers see little prospect of swift action.

Democratic U.S. Reps. Barney Frank of Massachusetts and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, co-chairs of the newly formed Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus, have said they need to be sure there is majority support for repealing the ban before beginning debate.

Opponents of gays in the military applaud the back-burner treatment being accorded the issue and warn against any end-runs around the ban.

“The latest strategy of the opposition is to say that if they don’t have the votes to change the law, they’ll just ignore it. But that would be a breach of faith between the commander in chief and the troops he leads,” said Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness.

She concedes the world has changed since the ban was passed, but says “military culture hasn’t changed.” Men and women are separated in the services to ensure privacy and dignity, she said, and to try to integrate gays would “cause a lot of disruption.”

Flag and General Officers for the Military, a nonprofit group of senior officers, has written a letter urging Congress to retain the ban, with at least 50 four-star generals and admirals expressing their concern about “the impact of repeal on morale, discipline, unit cohesion and overall military readiness.”