Is US Ready To Ditch 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'?

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San Francisco Chronicle

Is US Ready To Ditch 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'?

by
Carolyn Lochhead

Washington -  Democrats are preparing next year to lift the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on open gays in the military, an uneasy culture-war compromise instituted under the last Democratic administration, should Sen. Barack Obama win the presidency.0723 07 1 2

Rep. Ellen Tauscher, the Walnut Creek Democrat, said a hearing today by a House Armed Services subcommittee is aimed at educating Congress and the public in preparation for a full-scale push to end the policy, first imposed in 1993 under President Bill Clinton, in the next Congress. By then, Democrats expect to have won the White House and to have expanded their House and Senate majorities.

Tauscher introduced the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which would repeal the ban and allow gays to serve openly in the military, along with 121 co-sponsors in 2006. But Democrats have not moved it forward under President Bush because they are certain of his veto. An additional 11 co-sponsors have since signed on to her bill, but so far only five Republicans have done so.

Obama supports repeal.

Should Republican Sen. John McCain, who opposes repeal, become president, Tauscher said Democrats might force the issue.

Polls show solid public support for lifting the ban, which passed its 15-year anniversary July 19. An ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that 75 percent favor repeal, a number that has climbed steadily since the start of the Iraq war.

Still, many Democrats are wary.

"Politicians are well known for not wanting to take a position until they have to," Tauscher said. "But I'm confident that under the right political environment, with the right president ... we'll have all conditions that will be right for us to pass the repeal and have the president sign it."

Memories of how the issue consumed the first months of Bill Clinton's presidency remain seared in many minds on Capitol Hill. Having faced campaign accusations of draft dodging and Pentagon skepticism about his suitability as commander in chief, Clinton was hit by an intense backlash when he inadvertently made ending the military's outright ban on homosexuals one of his first projects upon taking office.

The uproar led to the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" compromise between then-chairman of Senate Armed Services Committee, Sam Nunn, D-Ga, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Colin Powell and Clinton. It allowed men and women to serve in the military without being asked about their homosexuality, so long as they kept it secret.

Unlike the earlier ban that was formalized as a service-wide policy during World War II, "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" was enacted into law, requiring that any changes be made by Congress.

Since 1994, 12,342 service men and women have been discharged, according to Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a gay rights group. Discharges peaked at 1,273 in 2001, then dropped by about half after the terrorist attacks of 2001.

"A lot of lawmakers seem scarred by Clinton's war wounds in early 1990s," said Nathaniel Frank, a senior researcher at the Palm Center policy research institute, an affiliate of UC Santa Barbara and author of a forthcoming book on the ban.

"It was a combination of the fact that it was poorly handled by (Clinton), they underestimated the resistance, and by allowing the country to pause and 'study' the issue, that allowed opposition to fester," Frank said.

Of all gay rights issues, lifting the military ban receives among the widest public support. Public opinion has nearly reversed since 1993, when only 44 percent believed homosexuals should serve.

Large majorities of active-duty military, however, oppose repeal, according to a survey by Military Times, which found 31 percent supporting repeal and 57 percent opposed.

"Public opinion in favor of allowing gays to serve in the military has risen steadily in the Bush years, in part because people feel in times of war anyone who wants to serve ought to be able to serve," said Nathaniel Persily, a legal policy expert at Columbia University who follows gay issues.

At the same time, he said, "opposition to expansion of gay rights is often more intense than is support. That's true of same-sex marriage, where most proponents are tepidly in favor, while those who oppose it strongly oppose."

The Pentagon itself is deferring to Congress. No Pentagon officials will testify at today's hearing, which will feature mainly retired officers on both sides.

Tauscher said Pentagon officials were not invited because, "They always have the same answer: It's the law, and we do what the law says. It's not informative."

Retired officers have been more outspoken, including Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who reversed himself to support repeal last year. More than 50 high-ranking retired officers have signed a statement urging that the ban be lifted. Former Sen. Sam Nunn said last month that he was open to revisiting it.

The ban on homosexuals is based on the idea that they damage discipline, morale and trust, complicate assignments of personnel who work in close quarters and hinder recruitment.

Frank contends that studies have produced "no evidence that gays undermine military effectiveness" and that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy itself has caused "enormous talent losses in occupational categories where the military is badly stretched," including Arabic linguists. A General Accountability Office study in 2005 showed the military lost 800 service members in 161 occupations deemed mission critical.

The British and Israeli militaries do not ban homosexuals, he said, and studies have shown the ban "requires service members to be dishonest with one another and makes it difficult for them to bond with one another and makes it tough, in many documented cases, for gays and lesbians to access military support services that are taken for granted by straights, because you can't speak openly with a military chaplain, psychologist or even a physician in many cases without risking their jobs."

Given Clinton's experience, Tauscher conceded that the gay ban might not be the first thing Obama would tackle, facing two wars and economic problems. "I would say that President Obama is going to be enormously busy the first few months," Tauscher said. "This is important, and it's going to be brought up in the first year, but the president makes these decisions in consultation with Congress."

Obama suggested he would go slowly in an interview with Military Times this month in which he was asked if he could stand the political heat on the issue.

"Precisely because I have not served in uniform, I am somebody who strongly believes that I have to earn the trust of the men and women in uniform," Obama said.

The candidates on 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell'

Democrats promise to push for repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy for gays in the military next year under a new president. Republican Sen. John McCain opposes repeal. Sen. Barack Obama supports it.

McCain

" 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' unambiguously maintains that open homosexuality within the military services presents an intolerable risk to morale, cohesion, and discipline...I believe the polarization of personnel and breakdown of unit effectiveness is too high a price to pay for well-intentioned but misguided efforts to elevate the interests of a minority of homosexual service members above those of their units. Most importantly, the national security of the United States, not to mention the lives of our men and women in uniform, are put at grave risk by policies detrimental to the good order and discipline which so distinguish America's Armed Services. For these reasons, which have nothing to do with my personal judgments about homosexual behavior, I remain opposed to the open expression of homosexuality in the U.S. military."

Source: Letter to Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, April 16, 2007, links.sfgate.com/ZEGQ

Obama

"There are equity issues involved, but there are also effectiveness issues involved. And I think that at a time when we are pressed, we should have an attitude of 'all hands on deck.' If we can't field enough Arab linguists, we shouldn't be preventing an Arab linguist from serving his or her country because of what they do in private. I think [retired Army] Gen. John Shalikashvili's assessment is right, that people's attitudes have evolved. You've got our British counterparts and Israeli counterparts without this policy, and nobody would suggest that they have had problems on the ground.

"I want to make sure that we are doing it in a thoughtful and principled way. But I do believe that at a time when we are shorthanded, that everybody who is willing to lay down their lives on behalf of the United States, and can do so effectively, can perform critical functions, should have the opportunity to do so."

Source: July 8 interview with Military Times, full transcript at links.sfgate.com/ZEGR

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