05.10.09

Obama's 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' Hypocrisy

Another gay officer was dismissed last week because of a policy Obama says he opposes. So why is the president too timid to do anything about it?

Back in January, Second Lieutenant Sandy Tsao, a U.S. Army officer based out of St. Louis, came out to her superiors as gay resulting, under current policy, in a dishonorable discharge. At the same time, she wrote a letter to Barack Obama congratulating him on his election and explaining her decision and asking Obama to "help us to win the war against prejudice so that future generations will continue to work together and fight for our freedoms regardless of race, color, gender, religion, national origin, or sexual orientation."

“Gay soliders are being dismissed not because the president of the United States feels they should be discriminated against, which would be bad enough. Instead, they’re being dismissed because the president doesn’t feel like doing anything about it.”

On the campaign trail, Obama was clearly committed to ending discrimination in the military. "We’re spending large sums of money to kick highly qualified gays or lesbians out of our military," he observed, "some of whom possess specialties like Arab-language capabilities that we desperately need." Ever since the New Year, however, Obama and his team have been slow-walking the implementation of their promise. On January 14, Robert Gibbs equivocated, saying "there are many challenges facing our nation now and the president-elect is focused first and foremost on jump-starting this economy... so not everything will get done in the beginning, but he's committed to following through." In late March, Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed his desire to push the issue "down the road a little bit." And in late April, the White House altered language on its Web site in a way that appeared to soften the administration's commitment to changing the policy. On May 5, Tsao got a handrwritten note from Obama reiterating that he is "committed to changing our current policy." Then on May 7, Dan Choi, a National Guard officer who, ironically, is fluent in Arabic, got word that he would be dismissed from the military for being too gay.

The game being played here is easy enough to understand. Obama's decision on a variety of fronts has been guided by a clear desire to avoid some of the early missteps made by Bill Clinton. And conventional accounts of Clinton’s early presidency put the way he got into an early dispute with the military brass over treatment of gay and lesbian servicemembers high on the list of missteps to be avoided.

But while the political logic behind the administration's thinking is understandable enough, the moral logic is contemptible. The dismissal of gay and lesbian soldiers was unjust when undertaken by administrations that believed in the policy. But disagreement about policy is inevitable in a democracy and sometimes injustice reigns. What we have today, however, is an absurdity—an administration that clearly does not believe in the policy, that is on record as opposing the policy, that campaigned explicitly on changing the policy, and that nevertheless declines to change the policy.

Tsao and Choi are being dismissed, in other words, not because the president of the United States feels they should be discriminated against, which would be bad enough. Instead, they're being dismissed because the president doesn't feel like doing anything about it.

Indeed, at this point sure laziness and indifference seems to be the best the defenders of "don't ask don't tell" can even come up with on their merits. "In all due respect," John McCain told George Stephanopoulos on Sunday's episode of This Week, "right now the military is functioning extremely well in very difficult conditions so we should leave well enough alone."

As a defense of discrimination, this is pretty weak tea. The military performed pretty damn well in World War II but that didn't stop Harry Truman from ordering the desegregation of the military in the late 1940s.

The problem with the arguments for inaction isn't that they're wrong, it's that they prove too much. The military is always doing important work under difficult conditions. And the president is always dealing with a variety of hugely important issues. No day is ever going to be a convenient day for the brass to stop doing what they're doing, and start dealing with the difficulties involved in getting soldiers accustomed to serving alongside openly gay and lesbian crew members. And no day is ever going to be a convenient day for the White House political team to pick a fight with the military. But that's a reason to avoid delay, not to embrace it. The current policy is as wrong as it was during the campaign, and firing skilled and patriotic linguists is as insane today as it was during the campaign.

In his letter to Lieutenant Tsao, Obama suggested that the need for congressional approval is the source of the delay. But there's some dispute as to whether or not congressional action is needed at all. And there's no doubting that the president has the power to influence the implementation. But more to the point, the White House has much ability to influence the pace of congressional action. Legislation to end discrimination in military service has been introduced, and the president could be strongly and vocally backing it rather than using the purported need for such a bill as an excuse for delay. And ultimately delay does no one any favors. The change will have to come sooner or later. In political terms, the White House may as well act decisively, take whatever hits they're going to take, and be done with it rather than letting this fester like a sore. And substantively, if the military is going to have to adjust they may as well do it sooner rather than later rather than lose more valuable personnel.

Instead of writing more letters to patriotic men and women in uniform who are tired of living a lie, it's time for Obama to start writing letters to members of Congress urging them to change the rules.

Matthew Yglesias is a fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund. He is the author of Heads in the Sand: How the Republicans Screw Up Foreign Policy and Foreign Policy Screws Up the Democrats.