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View From Washington: McChrystal's Moment

View From Washington: McChrystal's Moment


Gen. Stanley McChrystal likely spent the week wishing he hadn't been asked and he hadn't told, and so did I. As McChrystal's disastrous Rolling Stone interview ripped through the Beltway, all I kept thinking is that the outcome for him -- stay or go -- had nothing but negative implications for the relationship between the White House and the Department of Defense on "don't ask, don't tell."

In truth, there were a couple upsides to President Barack Obama nominating Gen. David Petraeus to take command in Afghanistan. First, the president looked impressively in command while making the announcement that he had removed McChrystal from the post -- more so than the nation has seen him look in months. McChrystal's irreverence and sheer hubris had left him no choice, and that's when Obama is at his best.

Second, Petraeus seems relatively open to DADT repeal, testifying in March that it's time for the military to consider changing the policy in a careful and "thoughtful manner" and telling CNN that he's worked with gay and lesbian CIA officers.

"After the 10 seconds of awareness wore off, the focus was on the professional attributes," he said.

Now, by all accounts, General Petraeus is highly regarded by rank-and-file troops, and having a commander who prizes work ethic and skill level could be a great model for service members if/when repeal commences.

So far, check, check.

Unfortunately, I have come to a somewhat jaded conclusion in Washington that if a constituency's priority is not one of a politician's top two or three priorities, then it simply becomes a bargaining chip -- a hypothesis that works to the detriment of ending DADT.

The president's number 1 priority is maintaining a noncombative, genial relationship with the military, even at the expense of sometimes appearing deferential to them. That relationship is critical to his ability to negotiate issues like troop levels, withdrawal timelines, etc. So even as Obama reclaimed his power on Wednesday when he called on the military and administration officials to fall in lockstep with the Afghanistan mission, the last thing he will want to do is unnecessarily agitate the Pentagon and military leadership.

And those leaders are consistently reminding the White House and Capitol Hill that repealing "don't ask, don't tell" is both a thorn in their side and not particularly high on their priority list.

This Thursday, Adm. Mike Mullen -- who is arguably the strongest repeal ally of the top brass -- told a group of reporters that he and the service chiefs still wish Congress would "wait until the review was through" before passing repeal, according to Talking Points Memo.

And last Sunday
, Defense secretary Robert Gates gave an eerily familiar response when Fox's Chris Wallace asked him whether the president would follow through with a veto threat of the defense authorization bill even if it includes the DADT repeal measure.

"It would be a serious mistake to believe that the president would not veto a bill that had the C-17 or the alternative engine in it just because it had other provisions that the president and the administration want," Gates said.

Wallace inquired further about whether Gates had been given "an assurance" by the White House on the veto.

"I would also just say that I don't go way out on a limb without looking back to make sure nobody's back there with a saw," Gates answered.

His delivery displayed the same striking confidence that he showed in March when asked if the White House concurred with his assertion that Congress should delay a vote on repeal until the Pentagon's study was completed in December.

"You would have to ask them, but I would tell you that my impression is that the president is very comfortable with the process that we've laid out," he told reporters at the Pentagon briefing.

Back at the White House, Robert Gibbs showed the exact same reluctance to push a vote before the DOD review had been completed.

But while Gates certainly chilled the White House on taking a vote this year, he couldn't ice Congress, which is what has put repeal in position for potential passage (the final hurdle remains that upcoming Senate floor vote).

Still, Gates's message on Sunday was that DADT is expendable while other DOD priorities -- like cutting unnecessary spending - are not. And while I am at pains to see how a Democratic Congress would put a Democratic president in the position of vetoing a defense spending bill, Gates's certitude certainly suggests that DOD is still calling the shots where DADT is concerned.

If repeal is approved on the Senate floor and signed into law this year, it will be left up to DOD and the White House to finally certify the policy's demise -- a process with an indefinite timeline. And if the present power dynamic persists, don't count on the White House to press the issue, at least not without the prodding of a McChrystal moment.
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