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Whos in Charge Here?


During a June appearance on NBC's Meet the Press, former Georgia senator Sam Nunn told NBC's David Gregory that "it's probably time" to reconsider "don't ask, don't tell"--so long as any subsequent repeal is implemented "carefully and prudently."

Prudence and all its synonyms are commonplace in the debate. Nunn, once a principal adversary of lifting the ban on openly gay soldiers (and infamous for leading President Bill Clinton, with press photographers in tow, through the cramped private quarters of the USS Roosevelt, deftly playing into the heterosexual man's base fears of bunking with gays), previously stated in an Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that any move for policy change "must move very cautiously. This caution, in my view, is not prejudice; it is prudence." The year was 1993.

President Obama, who has stated his support for a repeal but has demurred on both issuing an executive order on the policy and, by all accounts, advising Congress on an appropriate legislative timetable, wasn't finding many quick Capitol Hill allies to pick up the slack as of press time. "You need to have the uniform military speak about this issue to the political process--rather than the other way around," Virginia senator and former Navy secretary Jim Webb told Politico, while in the same article Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin of Michigan cautioned that any repeal needs to take into account "the feelings of the men and women in uniform and their leaders."

Repeal advocates react to politicians' "go slow" approach with consternation--and not much surprise. Most politicians look for leadership and cooperation from the military. To do otherwise risks the perception the lawmakers are undermining the Pentagon and national security, and that's potential political suicide.

But the Pentagon doesn't need an olive branch from across the Potomac. It needs to face the conductor's baton. Especially, DADT critics say, now that the atmosphere inside the Pentagon and the sentiments of many retired senior officers have evolved from defiance about changing the policy to tacit acceptance of its inevitable demise. For each member of the top brass adamant about keeping openly gay soldiers out of the military, there are equally high-ranking officials whose concerns are not whether to repeal but how to effect its implementation. And since military leaders are loath to openly criticize existing law, all are looking to the commander in chief for guidance.

"People in uniform of any rank need to have political direction," says retired lieutenant general Claudia J. Kennedy, the Army's first female three-star general. "I have a lot of respect for President Obama, and it's true he can't afford at the beginning to be painted as a social liberal, because it will be used to undermine him. But the military is controlled by civil authority, and there will not be a major change until our political leadership directs it. I don't think everyone should be standing back and saying, 'You go first.' "

Over the summer the administration, hounded by the White House press corps with DADT questions, tasked Defense secretary Robert Gates to evaluate how the policy could be applied selectively to make it "more humane." A token to buy more time, perhaps--and one that hasn't been followed with vigor by a press briefing room now consumed with health care reform. "There hasn't been much--or any--movement on Gates's pledge to 'reevaluate' the policy," one military source says. "As far as a level of priority goes, I would characterize it over the past couple of months as pretty low. I think there is more pressure these days to appear like you're doing something. They're not interested in seriously looking at this because there hasn't been that much pressure from the administration to do so. They will pay it lip service to the extent that they have to."

Prudence in implementation of a repeal is, of course, crucial--even if some politicians prefer it as a stall tactic rather than a first step in a solution. "We sometimes dismiss military personnel as overly conservative," says Nathaniel Frank, author of Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America. "But many know that [a DADT repeal] is coming down the pike, and they are looking into this issue so they can be prepared. They know that, as in war, those who excel in the military are the ones who have done their homework."

Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United and a former Arabic linguist who was discharged in 2002 because he is gay, says implementing a repeal at the unit level could take one of two routes: "Commanders could come to the unit and say, 'There's a new rule coming down from above. I can't control it; don't give me any problems.' Or they can say, 'This is what's best, and this is the way it's going to be. If you have a problem with it, see me in my office. If you defy it, I'm happy to court-martial you.' Managing an implementation is directly related to its hard-line enforcement."

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