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MAY 22, 2009

Obama may be backing away from ‘don’t ask’ repeal

Washington, D.C.--The firing of gay Army Lt. Dan Choi on May 5 has revealed a new ambivalence of the Obama administration toward repealing the military’s ban on gay servicemembers, and advocates worry that the White House may be trying to craft an unacceptable compromise.

Choi, who announced he is gay March 19 on MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow show, is a West Point graduate, a veteran of the Iraq occupation, and a founding member of Knights Out, the organization of gay West Point graduates. He is also an Arabic linguist--the 54th gay Arabic linguist kicked out of the armed services since September 11, 2001.

A bill to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell”--itself a compromise from 1993--was introduced in the House by Rep. Ellen Tauscher of California in March, but has not moved since.

There is growing consensus that repealing the ban on openly gay and lesbian servicemembers was never a high priority of Congress nor the administration, despite Barack Obama’s call for its repeal as a candidate.

Obama told reporters in August, 2007, that he would enlist the help of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to call for an end to “don’t ask don’t tell,” echoing a pledge he had made during a televised Democratic primary candidate debate that evening.

“It doesn’t make sense when we have lost Arabic linguists, when we need them so desperately,” Obama said then. He repeated his pledge to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell” throughout the campaign.

Polls show overwhelming support for repealing the policy, some as high as three-quarters of Americans.

But Obama now shows signs of backing away from the pledge.

“Why is he [Obama] becoming so conservative now that he’s got the job?” House Judiciary Chair John Conyers asked during an interview with the Michigan Messenger at a May 16 gathering of progressive activists. “I think he is getting a lot of pressure put on him from the right, from conservatives. And he is trying to prove to the Republicans that he is bipartisan.”

Conyers’ comments were in response to a question about repealing the ban, one day after White House press secretary Robert Gibbs equivocated when asked a similar question by a reporter.

“The president supports ‘changing’ that,” Gibbs said, with hesitation. Gibbs and Obama had previously used absolute terms like “repeal” and “get rid of.”

In January, before Obama was inaugurated, Gibbs answered a question from a Michigander who asked, “Is the new administration going to get rid of the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy?

Gibbs replied with confidence, “You don’t hear a politician give a one-word answer much, but it is ‘yes.’ ”

The president also seems unwilling to issue an executive order to halt the firings of gay servicemembers until Congress takes action. This is within his right as commander-in-chief.

Asked by the same reporter about this, Gibbs said, “The president has determined that is not the way to seek a lasting or durable solution.”

This reporter asked the White House if the president would be willing to issue such an order as a temporary solution.

Spokesperson Shin Inouye answered that Gibbs already addressed that with the first reporter.

As to whether Gibbs misspoke using the word "change," Inouye said, "As has been said many times, the president remains committed to repealing don’t ask, don’t tell."

John Aravosis, a gay blogger who writes on the subject, said of Gibbs’ changes and the lack of clarity from the administration: “I think the senior political people, with the help of the national security folks, have concocted a cute little scheme whereby the president does ‘something’ on DADT in the next year or so--just enough to claim he didn’t break his repeated promises. He will ‘change’ the policy, not repeal it, in some way that cuts the baby of bigotry in half, and gives half to the gays and half to the bigots. And we’ll be told, take it or leave it.”

A few weeks ago, the civil rights section of the White House website was changed, including the promise to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell.”

The change led to a number of comments in the community questioning the commitment to repeal the law. The White House immediately called these “false.”

“I fear that this is why Robert Gibbs has lost his voice,” wrote Aravosis. “Because he secretly knows that we’re on the path to getting screwed.”

“What other explanation is there for the ongoing weirdness coming out of a once-resolute White House and its senior representatives on this repeated, and clear, promise by our president?”

At a Pentagon news briefing on May 19, spokesperson Geoff Morrell said that the military’s top leaders have only had initial discussions with the White House about whether gay troops should be open about their sexuality, and said that the White House has not asked for the law to be repealed.

Morrell said Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Joint Chiefs Chair Adm. Mike Mullen both have discussed the issue with Obama.

“They’re aware of where the president wants to go on this issue, but I don’t think that there is any sense of any immediate developments in the offing on efforts to repeal don’t ask-don’t tell,” Morrell said.

However, Inouye said, "The Joint Chiefs are a major stakeholder and it is entirely appropriate that they should be included in discussions on this topic.

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