When Bill Clinton came to power in 1993, among his first agenda items: Allow gays to serve openly in the armed forces.
The plan sparked a firestorm of controversy, with Clinton ultimately acquiescing to what became known as the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, a position military brass found acceptable.
Now, a new commander in chief is facing the same hot-button issue and critics from both the left and the right are already taking shots at President-elect Barack Obama’s plans to deal with the matter. Most expect Obama, who pledged during the Democratic primaries to end “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” to dispense with the rule and allow gays serving in the military to profess their homosexuality openly.
A new poll by the Military Times, however, found that a majority of active-duty service members want to keep the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in place.
Little surprise, then, that Obama appears increasingly reluctant to repeat Clinton’s disastrous decision to tackle — right out of the starting blocks — the controversial issue of how to handle openly gay men and women serving in the military. That political wariness hasn’t stopped some on the left from insisting that the new administration will give the demise of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” top priority.
In a few weeks, Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., will reopen the issue by re-introducing legislation to repeal the 1993 law stating that homosexuals are not eligible to be in the military.
Elaine Donnelly, the founder and president of the Center for Military Readiness, which favors the ban on gays, says Clinton’s effort to lift the ban was one of the most controversial agenda items of his administration — crippling his rapport with the military and contributing to the Democrats losing control of Congress in 1994.
“This time, the move to repeal the law is coming from Congress,” she says. “Anybody who thinks that Obama’s administration won’t push for it is mistaken.”
Perceptions purveyed in the media are less important than reality, and the meetings of high-level transition team members with representatives of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered left are a clear indication that Obama’s administration is fully engaged in this issue, Donnelly tells Newsmax.
“The only difference is that the meetings are taking place behind closed doors, instead of in the Oval Office with an official photograph taken and published in the Washington Post, as Clinton did in 1993,” she adds.
But not all maneuvering is behind those closed doors.
The nation’s largest gay-rights lobbying group has demanded that Obama eliminate the policy banning openly gays from the armed forces.
Last month, The Human Rights Campaign, asked the president-elect to adopt the group’s “Blueprint for Positive Change,” which includes the banishment of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
According to a Human Rights Campaign official, the specific demand is to “develop a plan within the first 100 days to eliminate the military’s … policy regarding the sexual orientation of its members.”
But Donnelly is having none of it, noting that the only change that can come about is negative and crippling rather than positive.
“The advocates of gays in the military at the Military Times spun their poll story by focusing on the 71 percent who said they would stay if the law is repealed, instead of the almost one in 10 who said they would definitely leave, plus an additional 14 percent who said they would consider leaving,” she tells Newsmax. “Losses anywhere close to these numbers would virtually destroy the volunteer force.”
Donnelly did the math: A rough estimate using Defense Department numbers for all service branches and components, totaling more than 2 million, indicates that a loss of one in ten (almost 10 percent) would cost the military approximately 228,600 people — more than the active duty Marine Corps (200,000). If an additional 14 percent decided to leave, the voluntary exodus would translate into a loss of almost 527,000 — a figure approaching the size of today’s active duty Army (more than 545,000).
“Estimates of losses in active duty forces alone would range between 141,000 (10 percent) and 323,000 (23 percent),” warns Donnelly.
The poll’s findings are not an exact prediction, but they are significant and ought to be of concern to President Obama and members of Congress who are considering a vote to repeal the 1993 law, says Donnelly.
“This potential decimation of the volunteer force eclipses the small number of discharges that occurred over a period of nine years [under ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’],” concludes Donnelly.
Meanwhile as the controversy brews, the Obama transition camp may be leaving the new chief executive some wiggle room.
According to the Washington Blade, a newspaper serving the gay community, a member of the team is downplaying media reports that the president-elect has decided to delay efforts to repeal the law popularly called “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” until 2010.
The anonymous representative said the decision on how to deal with “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would be tackled only after more experts have joined the Obama administration. “These decisions will not be made before the full national security team is in place,” the spokesperson said.
Also weighing in on the timing of the fate of the law, the Washington Times recently reported that two people who have advised Obama’s transition team said the president-elect “will not move for months, and perhaps not until 2010.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who is gay, said repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” may be further off and told the Blade that “once Iraq is over,” Congress can wipe the law off the books.
But Donnelly is not buying into Barney Frank’s delayed-decision scenario.
She tells Newsmax, “The gay activists, including Barney Frank, keep telling conservative media that nothing will happen anytime soon. But a reporter for a liberal major media organization who had been surveying the same people was told that this is the number three item on their agenda. I believe that the liberal reporter is correct.”
Donnelly concludes, “Keep in mind that Frank has threatened to cut the defense budget by 25 percent. All the pressure will be on the Joint Chiefs to go along with him in the ‘best interests of the military.’”
Rep. Tauscher doesn’t believe the wait will be long either, telling CNN recently that, in her opinion, the administration would approve of such a bill in 2009.
But whether sooner or later, the issue is one of the most charged the new president will have to confront.
Adding to the rising temperature in the pressure cooker is the recent 2008 annual Military Times poll of active duty personnel that reveals most active-duty service members continue to oppose Obama’s campaign pledge to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to allow gays to serve openly in the military.
According to that poll, approximately 58 percent of respondents are opposed to efforts to repeal the 1993 law. This level of solid support for the law has remained virtually unchanged in similar annual surveys dating back to January 2005.
According to a report in the Military Times, Army Capt. Steven J. Lacy, a logistician assigned to the 71st Transportation Battalion at Fort Eustis, Va., said he is very concerned about the policy being repealed.
“I think a lot of people are,” Lacy said. “In the field environment, you’re in very close proximity to one another. The fact that someone could be openly gay could exacerbate stress on teams and small units when you’re already at a high stress level.”
If Congress repeals the 1993 statute stating that homosexuals are not eligible to serve in uniform, and the military is ordered to accommodate professed (not discreet) homosexuals, the culture of the military will be radically changed, she argues.
“Recruiters will be directed to accept and even seek out professed homosexuals for induction in all branches of the military, including direct ground combat communities.
“This means that heterosexuals — the majority of men and women who volunteer to serve — will be required to live in forced cohabitation with professed, not discreet, homosexuals, on all military bases and ships at sea, on a 24/7 basis.
“Such a policy would impose new, unneeded burdens of sexual tension on men and women serving in high-pressure working conditions, far from home, that are unlike any occupation in the civilian world.
“The real-world issue here is not superficial. Nor is it a Hollywood fantasy portrayed for laughs in a television sitcom. We are talking about human sexuality and the normal, human desire for personal privacy and modesty in sexual matters.
“Repealing the 1993 law would be tantamount to forcing female soldiers to cohabit with men in intimate quarters, on all military bases and ships at sea, on a 24/7 basis,” she concludes.
But Donnelly may be bucking a strong current for change.
That same Military Times poll highlighted above indicates that 71 percent of respondents said they would continue to serve if the policy was overturned.
Sgt. 1st Class Joseph Pfau, of the 284th Engineer Company in Seagoville, Texas, told the Times he isn’t concerned about the issue.
“That policy does not bother me whatsoever,” Pfau said. “I don’t judge people by their sexual orientation. I judge them by the kind of person they are. As long as they do their job, it does not bother me.”
But it’s not just the lower ranks that are getting more comfortable with gays openly in the military.
Retired Admiral Charles Larson, former Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, heads a list of 104 retired generals and admirals calling for an end to the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the Associated Press reported.
In a petition, Larson and the others respectfully call for the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy:
“Those of us endorsing this letter have dedicated our lives to defending the rights of our citizens to believe whatever they wish. Scholarly data shows there are approximately one million gay and lesbian veterans in the United States today, as well as 65,000 gays and lesbians currently serving in our armed forces.
“They have served our nation honorably. We support the recent comments of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General John Shalikashvili, who has concluded that repealing the…policy would not harm and would indeed help our armed forces.”
For her part, Donnelly admits the battle may be uphill.
Activists for gays in the military are not letting up in their drive to impose their agenda on the military, she says.
Joe Solmonese, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said transition leaders were “very receptive” to requests from gay activists. “I think they went to great lengths to explain their vision for how [policy initiatives] would work and how our community would be a part of that,” he told the Washington Blade.
According to a Military Times report, the DoD has discharged nearly 12,500 service members since the law was first enforced in 1994, including critically needed service members such as Arabic linguists, medics, pilots and intelligence analysts.
Donnelly opines that the number of such discharges under “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” could be nearly wiped out if induction forms asked a question about sexual preference right up front.
Interestingly, if that question was allowed to be asked and other key features of the old law stayed in effect, a “yes” answer might not result in a kneejerk tossing of the application.
Donnelly notes to Newsmax: “It’s technical, but there is the ‘rebuttable presumption’ language, which applies only if someone said they were gay under unusual circumstances; i.e., while drunk, trying to get out of the military, etc. It’s a long story, but it is not the loophole that it appears to be.”
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