Maybe the Delay in Addressing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Wasn’t Such a Bad Idea After All

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(by Diane Mazur, Palm Center Legal Co-Director)

Like many others, I was frustrated to see President Obama stand by and do nothing to stop the steady stream of discharges under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." He said the policy was harmful to national security, but his actions didn't reflect the same sense of urgency. It seems strange that a president would identify a national security problem and then pointedly choose not to correct it, but this is what happened with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

Obama has the legal authority to suspend all investigations and discharges under "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," at least until Congress has had the opportunity to debate and pass repeal legislation. His authority to stop the loss of qualified personnel, however, immediately became the "third rail" of the controversy. Few wanted to acknowledge that the President could take action while Congress hesitated, even among those who wanted to policy to end. There was something about the possibility of making a decision against military advice that made everyone queasy.

The all-volunteer force has left us with a warped sense of civilian control of the military. We actually worry about whether the president can successfully "sell" the end of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" to the military without appearing disrespectful. As much as the policy weakens the military by driving away qualified people, both straight and gay, it is far from our biggest civil-military problem. We need to remind the American people that sometimes military advice can be wrong, even disastrously wrong, and it is ultimately the responsibility of civilians to do the right thing.

A recent New York Times editorial recalled the difficult lesson President Kennedy learned when he was "overawed by professional military advice" that led to the Bay of Pigs failure. This experience left Kennedy with a healthy skepticism-and a sense of his ultimate responsibility for the final decision-as he evaluated military advice in the early years of the Vietnam War. He sometimes rejected recommendations, and in hindsight he was right.

Obama finds himself in a similar position as he weighs military advice recommending a deeper investment in Afghanistan. Senior military officers have not had a perfect track record with their advice for our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They had to be pushed to abandon counterproductive tactics of kicking down doors in Iraq and dropping bombs in civilian areas in Afghanistan because these choices were setting back strategic goals. Still, Obama has been criticized for not falling quickly in line and agreeing to everything his commanders in the field have asked for.

What does all of this have to do with "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"? I've come to believe, as much as I wanted Obama to use his executive authority to suspend the policy, he had a larger job to finish first. He had to dislodge our unhealthy assumption that presidents are unpatriotic or foolish when they act against military advice. By making clear that his decision on Afghanistan would be guided by the facts and reasoned judgments about our national security goals, he set the stage for a quieter end to "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." Once Obama has considered and overruled military advice on some operational issue, and we are reminded again what normal civil-military relations are like, it will be easier to accept the idea of civilian preference on "Don't Ask, Don't Tell."

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