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Next steps toward a repeal of 'Don't ask, don't tell'

After 17 years of waiting and more than 13,000 discharges of gay troops, the repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" finally seems to be within reach. President Obama said in his State of the Union address that repealing the law is an administration priority, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mulllen called recently for open gay service, a historic first for an active Joint Chiefs Chair. House and Senate leaders reportedly are planning to take up the issue in late May during consideration of the defense authorization bill.

Even though repeal seems to be just around the corner, and even though the House may vote to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell," there will be no progress in the foreseeable future. This is a hard thing to say, because victory would require just a couple of senators to shift their positions. But close is not the same thing as crossing the finish line. And there is simply nothing that can be done to compel conservative Democrats like Jim Webb to support full repeal at this time.

What this means is that, given the likely outcome of the midterm elections this fall, 2013 will probably be the next window of opportunity for repeal, assuming that the Democrats do well in the 2012 elections. I hope I am wrong about this. But if I had to bet a dollar, I would wager that full repeal will not be possible in the next couple of years.

All that said, there is a lot that can be done between now and then, but progress would require the pro-repeal community to line up behind a paradoxical dynamic. In particular, the best way to get rid of "don't ask, don't tell" is to take an incremental approach, and to tear it apart one piece at a time. This is a case in which asking for less is asking for more. I first realized this several years ago when some strategists cleverly proposed to start by lifting the ban for Arabic linguists only. Who could oppose that?

While it is impossible to put together a winning coalition in favor of full repeal at this time, it would be possible to take a number of partial- or half-steps which would, cumulatively, do the trick. But in order for Congress or the administration to pursue any of those half-steps, the gay rights community needs to show liberal politicians as well as the White House that they will not be bashed as sell-outs for achieving partial victories. Thus far, the gay rights community has demanded variants of full repeal or nothing, which, given the political reality, is about as effective as demanding that the moon become a cube. It is just not realistic.

So, what are the achievable steps that the community could demand? There are many. We could demand an executive order suspending discharges. Speaker Nancy Pelosi called for an executive moratorium two weeks ago, and pro-repeal groups failed to back her up. We could demand a repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law but bless a transfer of authority for the new non-discrimination language to be deferred to the White House in keeping with the forthcoming recommendations of a Pentagon study group. We could demand a cut in funding for the implementation of the policy. Or we could get really creative, as blogger Paula Brooks has done, and call on Congress to refuse to promote any more General and Flag Officers until the policy is repealed.

I once heard an analysis of why the Israelis ended up with a state before the Palestinians. Each time the British offered a crumb to the Jews and the Palestinians, the Jews said yes and the Palestinians said no. Then the Jews would continue to push, but from a slightly more advantaged position. Over time, the Jews amassed enough crumbs to achieve their goal. The Palestinians ended up with nothing. The "don't ask, don't tell" repeal movement is in almost exactly the same place.

Aaron Belkin is Director of the Palm Center and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

By Aaron Belkin  |  May 12, 2010; 8:30 AM ET
 
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Comments

"But in order for Congress or the administration to pursue any of those half-steps, the gay rights community needs to show liberal politicians as well as the White House that they will not be bashed as sell-outs for achieving partial victories. Thus far, the gay rights community has demanded variants of full repeal or nothing, which, given the political reality, is about as effective as demanding that the moon become a cube. It is just not realistic."

Sorry, I'm just not going to let these sell outs sell us out. I get really annoyed people who through around the word "realistic". How realistic is it to expect self-respecting people to accept second class treatment? Many of us aren't going to be shut up about this, and as much as incrementalists complain, it's not realistic to expect us to change.

Also, look at the realistic alternatives offered. Having congress not promote flag officers until the policy is lifted? How is that any more realistic than just lifting the ban?

Posted by: DCCharles | May 12, 2010 9:31 AM | Report abuse

I cannot agree. First, the Defense Appropriations fight isn't over till the votes are cast. I'm shocked that Aaaron Belkin, of all people, would be the first to publically declare surrender on that front.

Second, opponents of repeal will seize on incrementalism as an excuse to keep the ban on combat MOSs. Thousands of brave gay troops on the front lines will be left out.

Unless I'm missing something, this column is a strategic blunder.

Posted by: fccg65 | May 14, 2010 10:53 AM | Report abuse

And: "call on Congress to refuse to promote any more General and Flag Officers until the policy is repealed"?!?

Good luck with that.

Posted by: fccg65 | May 14, 2010 11:01 AM | Report abuse

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