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View From Washington Conway


No sooner did Larry Korb, a senior fellow at Center for American Progress and former assistant secretary of defense, tell us last week that he thought the Department of Defense was "dragging their feet" on repeal than we found out exactly what kind of consequences delay can have.

On Friday, audio was released of the head of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Conway, saying that the corps, which currently houses soldiers in double bunks, would have to build single BEQs (bachelor enlisted quarters) if "don't ask, don't tell" were repealed.

"Right now, we billets by twos, we're the only service that billets by twos," Conway told "We like that, we want to continue doing that. But I would not ask our Marines to live with someone that's homosexual if we can possibly avoid it. And to me that means that we've got to build BEQs that have single rooms."

When asked why he didn't want to house straights and gays together, he responded, "I would in this case want to preserve the right of a Marine who thinks he or she wouldn't want to do that and again, that's the overwhelming number of people that say that they wouldn't like to do so."

Conway added that the reason they house troops together is because they believe it's good for unit cohesion.

"If we believe it's going to be adverse to unit cohesion," he added, "then why wouldn't we join every other services standard and say that under the previous regulations it was conducive, under the current regulations it's got the potential to cause friction and so we're going to demand the same standards as everybody else."

Conway is a well-known detractor of repeal and has agitated more loudly against it inside the Pentagon than any other service chief. During his testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, he said his "best military advice" would be "to keep the law such as it is."

Committee hearings should be a protected forum for voicing dissent with your leadership -- in this case, Conway was directly at odds with Joint Chiefs chairman Adm. Mike Mullen, who has given his full support to repeal. And in fact, during last week's press briefing on the new regulations for discharging service members, Mullen defended the right of the service chiefs to provide their personal opinion in that context.

"It wasn't my intent to get in the way of any chief's specific view," he told reporters. "Obviously, they have responsibilities as well."

But at the same briefing, Mullen also made a pointed comment on speaking out of turn in the military when he addressed a letter published in Stars and Stripes by Lt. Gen. Benjamin Mixon, who urged people who are against repeal "to write your elected officials and chain of command and express your views."

Mullen clearly felt Mixon was out of line. "All of us in uniform are obliged to certainly follow the direction of leadership right up to the president," he said. "And in the end, if there is ... policy direction that someone in uniform disagrees with ... the answer is not advocacy; it is in fact to vote with your feet."

Mixon's letter was a glimpse of what might be on the horizon from those who oppose repeal and, in my opinion, Mullen was sending a signal that random acts of dissent are not welcome although he stopped short of asking for Mixon's resignation.

But Conway is now branching out beyond the hearings too, and the argument he is advancing publicly is in fact much more subtle and insidious. Conway's message: If gays are allowed to participate equally and openly in the Marine Corps, well then, that entirely disrupts our traditions and we will have to change the standard way of doing things for everyone.

Repeal advocates were quick to jump on Conway's remarks. The Palm Center, a California-based think tank, provided a statement from retired Marine general Carl Mundy, one of Conway's predecessors as Commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, who is actually opposed to openly gay service.

If repeal is going to happen, Mundy said, "The last thing you even want to think about is creating separate facilities or separate groups or separate meeting places or having four kinds of showers -- one of straight women, lesbians, straight men, and gay men. That would be absolutely disastrous in the armed forces. It would destroy any sense of cohesion or teamwork or good order and discipline."

But hovering over the debate of Conway's rationale are two overarching themes.

First, there will be a price to pay for slow-walking repeal. If the Obama administration thought it could just throw out a line in the State of the Union and then leave the blood and guts of the legislative battle to Congress, it's in for an eye-opening experience. And if they take a year, as they did with health reform, to fully commit to the fight, the political fallout will be much greater and much messier than if they make a concerted push right now.

Barney Frank seems to know this all too well, and over the course of the last couple months he has all but begged the White House to show some leadership -- first saying that the administration had been "muddled" in its direction to Congress, then actually calling on the White House "to make clear that it supports legislative action this year," and finally last week charging that the White House is "ducking" the issue and "letting Gates be the spokesman, which is a great mistake."

And second, the LGBT movement is at a tipping point of sorts, where as the level of acceptance starts to outweigh discrimination people who are homophobic will take their marbles and go home. In so many words, Conway's point was that if the gays ruin it for everyone, then all Marines will have to bunk alone in order to accommodate them.

It's not much different from the Mississippi high school board members who canceled the entire school's prom just to prevent two lesbians from attending, or the D.C. Catholic Charities that terminated spousal health benefits altogether so the organization would not have to provide them to same-sex spouses. And it's sadly reminiscent of the dark days in the early '60s when instead of racially integrating, some public accommodations like pools were converted to private membership while others simply shut down.

President Obama is on a roll of sorts after his health care win last week. His victory lap included the announcement of a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, 15 recess appointments on Friday, and a surprise trip to Afghanistan to greet the troops over the weekend. Now's as good a time as any for him to take a clear stand on a legislative timeline for repeal.

The White House may fear acting too boldly on "don't ask, don't tell," but the president's silence is already beginning to exact a political cost as the floodgates of dissent push open.

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