Making haste slowly on Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Andrew Sullivan, who has been relentlessly ragging on Barack Obama for having been in office eight whole months not yet having undone Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, notes some forward movement on the issue.  The Joint Forces Quarterly, a journal published by the National Defense University, has published a paper criticizing DADT.  Before publication, the paper won the 2009 “Secretary of Defense National Security Essay Competition,” and its publication came  after the paper had been reviewed by Adm. Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

To give you some idea of the author’s slant on the topic, the paper starts with two epigraphs:  one about the close association required among soldiers, the other about the unwisdom of “experiments within the Army for the solution of social problems.”

The first paragraph of the paper itself reads:

Though the epigraphs echo arguments made against homosexuals serving openly in the Armed Forces, they are the words of Senator Richard Russell of Georgia and General Omar Bradley in opposition to President Truman’s 1948 executive order to racially integrate the U.S. military.

The equation of sexual orientation with race as a form of human difference is, of course, central to the position of advocates of DADT repeal and fiercely denounced by opponents. (Similarly, proponents of same-sex marriage insist that bans on it are like anti-miscegenation laws while opponents furiously deny it.)

So before the author has even started his argument, he has already chosen his side.  And that was the paper that won the Secretary’s essay contest and was published in JFQ after review by the Chairman.   Anyone who can read military tea-leaves – and no one makes Colonel or Navy Captain, let alone flag or star rank, without expertise in that form of divination – can see that the Battle of DADT is over, and the mopping-up operations are ready to begin.

Some of us predicted this:  not in detail, but in outline.   The President, having made his own preferences clear, left it to the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and his service secretaries to make the right decision bubble up from below.   Unlike Bill Clinton’s well-intentioned but ham-fisted attempt to integrate gays into the military “with a stroke of the pen,”* Obama’s approach respected the prerogatives of the brass and allowed the military as an institution to save face, while at the same time ensuring that the decision, once made, would face a minimum of internal resistance and sabotage.

Yes, the Fabian approach inflicted undeserved damage on those servicemembers who have been discharged in the meantime, while also depriving the country of their services.  But to have let that short-term consideration dominate the need to make the transition to an gay-friendly military as smooth as possible would have required an insanely high discount rate.  (Marc Ambinder notes that one of the victims, Arabist Lt. Daniel Choi, has been invited to teach two classes at West Point; my guess is that the eventual change of policy will be followed by a rash of reinstatements.)

Now that it’s obvious both that Obama had a strategy for getting rid of DADT and that the strategy will work, can he expect any apologies from his critics, starting with Sullivan?

No, I don’t think so, either.

I wish that Obama’s progressive critics would learn to distinguish between pressing hard for the issues they care about and attacking the character of the President when he doesn’t seem to be sufficiently supportive of those positions.  This is not just a matter of accuracy and good manners, but also one of strategic calculation.

Just as the Republicans need to be reminded that the man whose character they’re trying to assassinate is the only President the country has, and that Putin and Ahmadinejad and bin Laden and Chavez will all be delighted if he fails, some progressives need to be reminded that Barack Obama is, for better or worse, the public face of the progressive movement, and that whatever damages his public standing damages the country’s chances of emerging decisively from the era of right-wing dominance that started in 1966 and (inshallah!) concluded in 2006.

Our chances of emerging with a health insurance reform bill embodying a strong public option would be much stronger if Obama’s job-performance ratings were in the 60s rather than the 50s.   It really shouldn’t be hard for progressives to figure that out, and to shape their words to their political ends.

*Footnote This is not to say that Clinton could have succeeded using Obama’s tactics; public and military attitudes have shifted radically in the meantime, and it’s possible that success in 1993 was simply not in the cards.  I have been told that Sam Nunn turned down Clinton’s offer of Defense because it came packaged with the requirement that Nunn back gays in the military.

Comments

  1. joel hanes says

    Whenver His Catholic Majesty Ferdinand of Aragon,

    most powerful and wise prince,

    was about to embark on some new enterprise,

    or make a decision of great importance,

    he went about it in such a way that, before his intentions were known,

    the whole court and the people were already insisting and exclaiming

    that the king must do such and so.

    Then he would announce his decision, just when all hoped and clamored for it.

    Francesco Guicciardini

    _Maxims_and_Reflections_ Series C 77.

  2. Freeman says

    Just after singling out Sullivan by name for the second time, you say: I wish that Obama’s progressive critics would learn to distinguish between pressing hard for the issues they care about and attacking the character of the President when he doesn’t seem to be sufficiently supportive of those positions.

    I've been reading Sullivan and I've never gotten the impression that he is "attacking the character of the President". Can you provide an example?

    BTW: about an hour before your post, Sullivan acknowledges this development. He's optimistic, but not as certain as you seem to be that there is an organized strategy behind it.
    http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_d

  3. Barry says

    "Our chances of emerging with a health insurance reform bill embodying a strong public option would be much stronger if Obama’s job-performance ratings were in the 60s rather than the 50s. It really shouldn’t be hard for progressives to figure that out, and to shape their words to their political ends."

    Not really, unless there is public pressure for that public option. Obama has certainly shown no signs of giving a rat's *ss about it – although this may be due to the fact that he's handled healthcare reform pretty f*cking badly.

    "*Footnote This is not to say that Clinton could have succeeded using Obama’s tactics; public and military attitudes have shifted radically in the meantime, and it’s possible that success in 1993 was simply not in the cards. I have been told that Sam Nunn turned down Clinton’s offer of Defense because it came packaged with the requirement that Nunn back gays in the military."

    Which pretty much invalidates your argument; as an analogy, integrating the US Armed Forces would have required much less Trumanesque buck-stops-hereness in, say, the 1970's.

  4. Joe S. says

    If people like Sullivan weren't single-minded mules who put abstract justice over reasonable means, we would not be where we are today. To change things, you need some Sullivans and some Obamas. The Sullivans are most needed at the beginning when the social goal is way outside the Overton Window. The Obamas are needed near the end, where you have to get something done with minimal disruption to the social fabric. I'm not going to blame Sullivan for not turning into an Obama at the precise moment when Sullivans are no longer needed. (fwiw, I am not a generic Andrew Sullivan fan. I've never read somebody as smart with judgment as bad.)

    The original Civil Rights movement is the exception. It seemed to combine grandiose goals and incremental means in the same group of people. But most other movements (e.g., labor, feminism, antiwar) relied on a division of labor, with different personalities contributing different things at different times.

  5. Andy says

    Mr. Kleinman, I believe you underestimate the reasons for some progressives' impatience with the White House on this issue. I personally had no doubt about the intentions or plans of this White House until the Justice Department put out a brief supporting DOMA which unnecessarily repeated many of bigoted canards and unreasoning prejudices so often employed by the last administration. Perhaps that brief was written by hold-overs at Justice, or people who hadn't gotten the message, but it made many progressives, including myself, question the basic integrity of this administration. That brief caused a great deal of hurt and outrage that still has not dissipated.

  6. Don K says

    Well, I'll start out by observing that Obama is the single most talented politician I've seen in my life, so maybe on that basis one can conclude he's got this covered. I really believe his heart is in the right place on gay issues, and maybe this is part of a plan to get DADT repealed in this Congress.

    Having said that, I believe his advisors (I'm thinking Rahm, primarily) are convinced that gay issues are purely bad news for Dems, and want to slow-walk anything gay as much as possible, and under no circumstances should Obama spend any political capital on DADT repeal, ENDA, UAFA, or DOMA modification. It will take persuasion to get 218 votes in the House and 60 in the Senate for any of these, given that every Red Dog (or Senate equivalent) is absolutely terrified of the fag-bashing ads his or her opponent could run, and given that there will be no Rep votes for any of these in the Senate, and probably not more than a handful in the House.

    Now I believe the Dems will lose a couple of seats in the Senate next year, and a few in the House (but not enough to lose their majority), so conditions right now probably are as favorable as they will be for a while (remember the Dems will be defending their big Senate gains from '06 and '08 in '12 and '14). On that basis I believe we have to push right now, and yeah we need some mules to keep things going. Doesn't mean I'm anti-Obama (especially given the alternative).

    Now taking the long view, I recognize it took ten years to get from Brown v Board to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and thirteen years to get to Loving v Virginia. If I can equate the decision in Lawrence v Texas as being my community's Brown, then in terms of that timeline we're only up to about 1960. Remember, though, that all during that time blacks were working to push things forward.

  7. Lenny says

    Using the term "ragging" with respect to Andrew Sullivan, pretty much says all that needs to be said about your overt or subconscious homophobia. Which makes a lot of sense since your essay makes nary a reference to how many times this very argument has been used ad infinitum with the gay community "just shut up, we'll take care of you," only to be lied to time and again. So excuse Andrew for not being a nice little boy and keeping his mouth shut while Obama says exactly the same thing everyone else has said for the last two decades.

  8. Dio Genes says

    And the brave servicemen and women who lost their careers while Obama dithers; should they apologize too? Real people are losing their jobs unjustly while Obama holds the power to freeze that idiotic policy in it's tracks. The only apologies owed are from him and his sycophants and apologists.

  9. Josh says

    As someone who has actually spent time on active duty in the military, and seen how DADT has actually been implemented, I find that most people's knowledge of DADT is incomplete. I had quite a few gay friends who were also on active duty. Although the level of openness about sexual orientation varied somewhat between commands and service communities, I witnessed no witch hunts, and in fact, to the contrary, saw quite a few instances in which pretty open homosexuality was tolerated by the chain of command. In those instances, performance was the only thing that mattered. I do not mean to diminish the injustice of each and every DADT discharge (because yes, they happen), but only to suggest that: 1) the military has – in many ways – been far less intolerant than outsiders might think; and 2) DADT was aimed far more at civilian voters than at military personnel. Because of this, it is somewhat less surprising to me that the military would support its repeal.

  10. tmaxPA says

    A wonderfully written (except for the bits of straw here and there) and profoundly provocative piece, Mr. Kleiman. I hope to make it the center-piece of a diary on Daily Kos, examining the 'chess metaphor' and the 'soft support' the President has been getting from the left since even before the inauguration. First I'm going to have to read the whole journal article (plus a bit for context.)

  11. John says

    I'd highly recommend people check out the opening of SNL from yesterday. A very nice, cut and dried satire of all that Obama has accomplished since being elected. (dripping sarcasm)

  12. Rob says

    The Obama Administration has given lots of signals that gay rights issues are a low priority: the choice of Rick Warren as an inauguration speaker, very slow action on lifting the HIV travel ban, the shockingly offensive DOMA brief, noncommittal answers about the timing of DADT repeal. We're a low priority for Congress, too. With an overwhelmingly Democratic House and sixty Democrats in the Senate, you'd think we'd have had at least one piece of gay rights legislation by now. I'd love to believe that Obama and the Democrats in Congress have a plan to take action on gay rights, but I'm skeptical, because so many of the public signs suggest that they're throwing us under the bus.

    I hope that the Administration's plans don't involve waiting until 2011 or 2013. The Republicans are undoubtedly going to pick up seats, as the minority party usually does in a midterm election. It will be much harder to get gay rights bills passed if Congress waits until the next session.

    If DADT is still on the books in 2012, Obama will not receive my vote, no matter what else he accomplishes as President.

  13. Geoff says

    Josh, I actually served on active duty in the Army and I was discharged under DADT (and as an aside to Mr. Kleiman, I have absolutely no intention whatsoever for apologizing to anyone over the way my career was taken away from me or anyone like me, so you can shove that particular suggestion where the sun don't shine; so far Obama has done absolutely nothing at all aside from spout some pretty words and continue kicking gays and lesbians out of the service left, right and center).

    Yes, there is a pretty wide range of responses that varies depending on your chain of command and the environment that you serve in. Some people are fortunate enough to have leadership that values performance over bigotry. But as it stands right now, the bigots, particularly those in the officer corps, have the freedom to indulge their prejudices at will. And the President and his administration apparently have no problems with that.

  14. says

    The continuing inability to repeal DADT when we have a Democratic President, a filibuster-proof Democratic majority in the Senate and a Democratic majority in the House means that LGBT voters might as well stop giving money to politicians of either party. I think John Aravosis has it right when he points out that Obama was certainly "aware that we were fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan when he promised to lift the gay ban during the campaign in exchange for our votes" (http://gay.americablog.com/2009/10/national-security-adviser-obama-wont.html).

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