How has "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" suddenly become one of Obama's central legislative initiatives? To quote the tough, heroic sailor played by Steve McQueen in "The Sand Pebbles" (the character's outsider air always made me think he might be gay): "What the hell happened?"
If anyone had told you this time last year that one year later, instead of celebrating new health-care legislation and toasting the passage of a second economic stimulus bill (remember when people were still discussing that as a possibility?), we would be talking about Obama’s reincarnation as a “Yes-We-Can-Balance-the-Budget” reformer of big government, would you even have understood what he was saying? Yet here we are, 12 months on, with defense spending eating up every last one of Obama’s promises as he brings it soaring above $700 billion in 2011, and the president backing off from humane health-care legislation and planning to cut extended unemployment benefits next year. And now, in an attempt to pander to his alienated liberal base, Obama is going to bravely hurl himself against the Pentagon’s prohibition against openly gay service members.
A cultural issue like gays in the military doesn’t seem to matter so much now, under the shadow of two wars’ death and mutilation.
The genius of this move is almost too dazzling to grasp. Even as Obama is alienating the Chinese with a wholly unnecessary arms sale to Taiwan—which at this point is about as strategically important an ally as Luxembourg—even as he is sinking us deeper into Afghanistan as the axis of terror revolves around Pakistan and Yemen, Obama is going to make it possible for homosexuals to die with fully disclosed sexual identities overseas.
Pardon the sarcasm, but repealing the Pentagon’s prohibition against openly gay soldiers is so 1993. Perhaps Obama is still so busy searching for hints about his destiny in books about Lincoln and FDR that he has forgotten about a president named Bill Clinton, whose decision to take on the Pentagon’s notorious ban on sexual honesty inflamed the culture wars that would engulf Clinton's presidency.
• Ken Allard: ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ Not Now The fact is that things have utterly changed since Clinton’s ill-fated, if good-hearted, initiative. That attempt at a liberal expansion of individual rights was, to a great extent, retaliation against the new force of moralizing right-wing Christianity that Reagan had brought into American politics. The early 1990s were roiling with Moral Majority screeds in the countryside, and PC putsches at the universities, and the whole country screaming at the top of its lungs for or against diversity and multiculturalism.
Nearly 20 years, a deep recession, a still-precarious economy and a blight of joblessness later, and the cause of pushing the Pentagon to allow gay men and women to proudly be themselves doesn’t seem to have the symbolic value for progressives that it once did. It’s mind-boggling that Obama thinks it does. The most consequential difference between 1993 and now is simple: We are fighting two wars. In 1993, advocating the dismantling of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” distinguished you as a boldly tolerant person with sterling cosmopolitan credentials. And, indeed, forcing the military to accept the harmless fact of homosexuality would have had a salutary effect on American attitudes toward gay people.
But a cultural issue like gays in the military doesn’t seem to matter so much now, under the shadow of two wars’ death and mutilation. Gay marriage is far more important; the ban on it is the last social barrier for gay people in America. Getting the Pentagon to abandon “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” isn’t going to help the cause of same-sex marriage. It might even incite a conservative backlash against gays and set it back further.
What makes Obama's flaunted resolve to take on the Pentagon's policy so puzzling is that one of his triumphs of reason as a politician and statesman has been precisely to avoid such causes, cultural controversies that have divided the Democrats—and driven Democratic voters into Republican arms—for a generation. And why he is raising the issue now, just at the moment when he claims to be trying to build new bridges with the GOP, is unfathomable. In his passion to have it both ways with everyone—alienate liberals with the budget, yet please them with gays in the military; please the GOP with military spending, yet appear to stand firm on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"—he is once again infuriating everyone. Maybe instead of dreaming of his father, Obama should have been working on his own character.
At a moment when dozens of American soldiers are being killed and maimed every month, the president's assault on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is a horrible case of not just bad, but insensitive timing. It will only provide more fodder for the right wing, which will present it as a case of elitist social engineering. In the sense that elitism implies a disengagement from the more pressing aspects of everyday life, such an accusation will be correct. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” is not in any way comparable to the inhumanity and illogic of the everyday prohibition against gay marriage. Taking it on now is strictly Obama's sop to liberals appalled by his spineless obsession with managing public perceptions.
One thing is almost certain. Obama’s $700 billion-plus for defense is not the kind of money laid out by a president who is going to bring the troops home from Afghanistan any time soon. Straight and gay men and women will keep marching into the savage machinery of an unfocused war for years to come. And since our newly budget-balancing First Hope-ster lacks the will to stand up for any type of substantial protections against an increasingly merciless economy, our soldiers—straight and gay—won’t have much to return home to, either.
Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.