Political IQ: The ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ Wimp Out

By |2018-01-16T08:32:52-05:00June 4th, 2009|Opinions|

By Diane Silver

Aaron Belkin, Nathaniel Frank, Gregory Herek, Elizabeth Hillman, Diane Mazur and Bridget Wilson took Barack Obama’s last excuse away. The two law professors, one attorney and assorted other academics penned a study telling Obama exactly how he can end the ban on gays serving openly in the military.
Step one? Immediately suspend all investigations, separation proceedings and other personnel actions under the policy commonly known as “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” The six authors even drafted an executive order Obama can use to do it.
Issued by the Palm Center at the University of California in Santa Barbara, the study moves the DADT debate to a new level. Before now, politicians and pundits (myself included) argued that Obama didn’t have the power to unilaterally suspend the policy. A law passed by Congress and signed by President Bill Clinton stood in Obama’s way, or at least that’s what we thought.
Obama even used that excuse when he replied to a letter 2nd Lt. Sandy Tsao sent to him, explaining why she came out to her superiors. In a hand-written note, Obama said he is “committed to changing our current policy,” but added “it will take some time to complete (partly because it needs Congressional action).”
The Palm Center’s squad of experts say Obama is flat-out wrong. Existing laws governing the president’s power over military personnel give Obama the authority to temporarily suspend the policy.
A bill permanently overturning DADT would still have to pass Congress, but our overstretched military wouldn’t be losing needed soldiers like Tsao, or Lt. Dan Choi, an Iraq veteran and Arab linguist, who is being discharged after coming out on TV.
The Palm Center theorizes that DADT is caught in a Washington game of cover-your-backside. Many members of Congress worry that supporting repeal would cost them votes, so Congress is trying to shift responsibility to the Pentagon.

“Senior insiders in the Pentagon are unwilling to tackle ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ because they view the issue as a ‘hot potato’ or ‘career killer’ so they seek to shift responsibilities back to Congress,” the study notes.
The White House is ducking the issue and wishing “the impetus for change to appear to come from the Pentagon,” the study says.
Legal experts disagree every day, so it is possible that the White House is following a different legal interpretation than that proposed by the Palm Center six. (Examine their arguments for yourself at www.palmcenter.org.)
But the authors are to be applauded for shifting the DADT debate and for raising the most important question of all for our president: How can you, in good conscience, not even make the attempt to stop discharges under a policy you say you oppose?
Obama came into office with the support of most LGBT voters. We knocked on doors and opened our wallets to him. Except for his ridiculous insistence on backing civil unions over marriage equality, Obama promised he would fight for us. Repeal the Defense of Marriage Act? Absolutely! Full rights and benefits for same-couples? You bet! Push for a transgender inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act? On the agenda!
These days it seems as if Obama has embraced what author and blogger Andrew Sullivan calls “the fierce urgency of whenever.” Almost nothing, in fact, is being done to end the legal tragedies LGBT Americans suffer every day. The administration won’t even speak up for us. Officials run for rhetorical cover every time our issues are raised.
I love Sullivan’s line because it captures the adolescent disregard we’re getting from Obama. We expect a sulky “whenever,” when we insist that our teenaged children do their chores. No sane parent allows a child to get away with that kind of defiance, but we also know that if we enforce the rules, our children will someday grow out of such selfishness.
We expect more from our presidents. We expect them to understand that lives are at stake. People like Choi and Tsao only want to serve their country with honor, but now they can’t. Meanwhile, the military units that need their skills don’t have them.
What worries me is that Obama is showing signs that he may not comprehend something the much younger Tsao appears to understand well. In her letter to the president, Tsao explained that she informed her chain of command of her sexual orientation because she believes she has to live with integrity.
It’s worth repeating what she wrote, not just here, but in letters, e-mails and phone calls to The White House and Congress. What’s integrity? Tsao wrote: “It means choosing to do the right thing no matter what the consequences may be.”

{Diane Silver is a former newspaper reporter and magazine editor, whose work has appeared in The Progressive, Salon.com, Ms, and other national publications. She can be reached care of this publication or at [email protected]}

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Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.