By Evan Wagstaff
Special to Calbuzz
President Obama would do well politically to simply repeal the controversial “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy for gays in the military, rather than continuing his efforts to finesse the issue, the author of a new history of the policy tells Calbuzz.
As a candidate, Obama vowed he would end the Clinton-era policy, which prevents openly gay people from serving in the armed forces. As president, however, Obama has upset gay rights groups by not moving forcibly to fulfill his promise, suggesting that it is the responsibility of Congress to act first.
Nathaniel Frank, author of the recently published “Unfriendly Fire,” said the administration’s effort to “buy itself some wiggle room” merely prolongs the debate without a realistic possibility of convincing anyone who opposes Obama on the issue to change their mind. Frank is a senior research fellow at UC Santa Barbara’s Palm Center, which has produced the most authoritative studies of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.
“I think that addressing this issue will prompt opposition from a predictable cast of characters, members from socially conservative groups who have been hollering about this issue for decades and didn’t support Obama in the first place,” Frank said.
“We now have anywhere between 60 and 80 percent of the public in favor of repeal, and these polls included majorities of Republicans, conservatives, and church goers,” he added. “For a popular president like Obama, who was elected on a mandate for change and campaigned on a promise to end this policy, that would serve him better than the delay and defeat Clinton faced.”
Since its establishment in 1998, UCSB’s Palm Center has been regarded as a key source of information and research about the DADT policy and its effects, delivering briefings for several military organizations cited on the center’s website. Most recently, the center released a study in May which said the president could end the policy with an executive order.
Since then, however, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said that the Pentagon would attempt through administrative action to make DADT “more flexible until the law is changed,” throwing the onus of overturning the policy on the Congress. Obama echoed that view in a recent interview on CNN.
The history of DADT extends back to 1981 when a full ban on homosexual service personnel was instituted by the Department of Defense. In 1993, President Clinton commissioned a six-month study to investigate the effects of a potential repeal of the 1981 directive, but met with criticism from his Joint Chiefs of Staff and members of Congress, among other groups. What emerged was the compromise: “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Pursue” aimed at allowing closeted homosexuals to serve, but requiring dismissal if evidence of homosexual conduct surfaced. This 1993 White House briefing shows that even top administration officials had difficulty describing the policy they were implementing.
Since then, nearly 13,000 gay service members have been dismissed under DADT, including a handful of invaluable Arabic translators. These factors have prompted a reexamination of the issue. Frank said that he believes the wording Secretary Gates chose in his statement could only indicate an eventual repeal of the 16 year old policy.
“It is interesting wording,” Frank said. “Most people know that the White House changed its website from ‘repeal the policy’ to ‘change to policy.’ It’s trying to buy itself some wiggle room, but I don’t know what change would mean in any long term way other than repeal. Gates and Obama are looking for a way to change the way the law is applied. In the case of the gay ban, any cracks in Humpty Dumpty are the beginning of the end.”
How other nation’s militaries handle it: The Associated Press recently published an article detailing the policies for openly gay personnel in comparable militaries around the world. It shows that some of our most prominent Western allies have maintained a policy of open service for at least a decade and have suffered no detriment either politically or logistically.
Britain, the only major partner in George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing,” lifted their gay service ban in 1999, a decision embraced by then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. Australia’s servicemen and women marched beside peers and even a general in Sydney’s Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras Parade, after nearly 17 years of being allowed to serve in their country’s military. Even Israel, protected by one of the most embattled militaries in the world, has allowed openly gay service since 1993.
Calbuzz asked Frank what was behind the difference between these and U.S. policies:
“The Christian right was the single most important variable in ensuring in 1993 that we didn’t have reform,” Frank said. “I don’t think there’s a comparable political constituency in any other westernized country. Israel has a conservative right but it hasn’t made homosexuality its cause célèbre.
“The Christian right advised their political advisors to say [openly gay service] would undermine the military because the national security frame would sell better. In addition to the moral and religious concerns which are unique to us, there is a large population here which is uncomfortable with homosexuality.”
Calbuzz intern Evan Wagstaff is Opinion Editor of The Daily Nexus newspaper at UCSB.