Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Don’t Hold Your Breath

Why it could take years to repeal the military’s anti-gay policy.

In late 2006, John McCain told a live audience that he supported “don’t ask, don’t tell,” the policy that allows gays and lesbians to serve in the military as long as they keep their sexuality a secret. “But the day that the leadership of the military comes to me and says, ‘Senator, we ought to change the policy,’ then I think we ought to consider seriously changing it, because those leaders in the military are the ones we give the responsibility to.”

That day came on Tuesday, and McCain did not budge—just one reason a full repeal of the DADT policy may be further off than you think.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made history Tuesday afternoon when he told the Senate Armed Services Committee that not only does the president support the repeal of the policy but that Mullen himself supports it as well. “No matter how I look at this issue, I cannot help but be troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” Mullen said. “For me, personally, it comes down to integrity—theirs as individuals and ours as an institution.” Defense Secretary Robert Gates, testifying alongside Mullen, didn’t get quite so personal, but agreed that the law should be repealed.

McCain was not amused. “I’m deeply disappointed in your statement,” he told Mullen. Congress took up this issue in 1993, McCain said, and reached a compromise between “the desires of a minority and the interests of a volunteer force.” (He also brandished a letter signed by more than 1,000 officers opposing repeal.) “I’m eager to hear from our distinguished witnesses what has changed,” he said.

What’s changed, Gates said, is attitudes. Most Americans support repealing the law. Members of the military have grown up around openly gay people. And there is now a president who is willing to take the leap and allow gays to serve openly—itself a testament to how politically acceptable the idea has become.

Gates and Mullen’s testimony is a huge step toward repeal, according to activists assembled in the hearing room. “I was shocked—pleasantly surprised,” said Jon Soltz of VoteVets.org, a veterans’ group in favor of repeal. He rejected the suggestion by Mullen that repealing the law is going to cause some “disruption” among the troops. “This is not a hard thing to do institutionally,” he said. “They could do this in four months if they wanted.”

Instead, the military is taking its time. First, Gates is appointing a study group to figure out how best to implement the repeal if it’s passed. That means examining potential changes in Pentagon policies on benefits (say, if two men are married), base housing (can they live together?), fraternization (can they, er, hang out?), and misconduct. The study will also examine questions of whether or not gays in the military hurt “unit cohesion”—a phrase that became a rallying cry for DADT supporters when it was passed in 1993. That could take as long as a year. The military would then have another year actually to put the policy in place.

And this is assuming Congress actually passes the law repealing the policy. Which may be the trickiest part. Neither chamber has taken up a bill that would lead to repeal. But there are two main options on the table. One is to attach the repeal to the annual defense appropriations bill, which comes up for a vote in the spring. That would give skittish members of Congress an excuse to support it—we were just voting to fund the military, we swear!—while putting its opponents into the awkward position of voting against money for troops. Another option is to pass a stand-alone bill. Sen. Joe Lieberman was considered an early candidate to lead that crusade in the Senate, but Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has lately taken up the torch. In the House, a bill sponsored by Rep. Patrick Murphy already has 183 cosponsors. This option might be faster, but it risks making members of Congress who vote for repeal more vulnerable. (Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin is on the record as being dubious.)

That’s not to mention potentially massive roadblocks if Congress doesn’t like the results of Gates’s study. The odds of the study concluding that gays in the military hurt unit cohesion are next to nil, because, well, no study ever has. Even the 1993 study the military commissioned from the RAND Corp. concluded that “the presence of known homosexuals on the force is not likely to undermine military performance.” But that didn’t prevent opponents of gays in the military from demagoguing the issue. If the new study reveals even a shred of doubt that gays serving openly could affect their ability to win in battle, Congress will flee. As Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., put it, the primary purpose of the military is “not to promote civil rights or individual justice, but to prevail in combat.”

This process might sound belabored. But it’s probably the only way it can work. The reason: cover. Both the White House and Congress are cautious about doing anything that would be perceived as harmful to the military. Gates and Mullen, meanwhile, don’t want to be seen as making policy. The study buys both sides not just time but deniability. Congress can say it’s merely carrying out the wishes of the military leaders. Military leaders can say they’re merely carrying out the orders of the president. Both can say they’re being careful not to damage the military’s effectiveness. Meanwhile, gays who want to serve will experience for themselves one of the military’s unofficial mottos: Hurry up and wait.