Friendly fire on ‘Don’t Ask’

A report due out later today from the Palm Center, a California think tank working to end the ban on gays in the military, blames Washington gay rights activists and their allies in Congress for dropping the ball on repealing "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell."

The center has made the case for pressing President Obama for an executive order ending the ban on gays in the military, arguing that those facts on the ground — gays openly serving — would be irreversible, and could be followed later by Congressional action. But other gay rights advocates, led by the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network and Human Rights Campaign, and members of Congress like Rep. Patrick Murphy have argued that a legislative repeal should be the primary goal, as an executive order could be reversed by a new president.

The report by Palm Center director Aaron Belkin — which you can read in full here — argues that the legislative path has "stalled":

Many people seemed to agree that the two-part strategy would make political and operational sense. Once gays are allowed to serve openly and legally, it will be impossible to put the toothpaste back into the tube. Operationally, there is no way to force gays back into the closet. And given that 75 percent of the public favors open gay service, it would be unwise politically for some future Republican President to try to reverse the order.5 Indeed, when former President George Bush tried to reverse one of Bill Clinton’s executive orders mandating equal treatment for non-military gay employees of the federal government, he could not get away with it.

As the two-part strategy continued to generate real heat on the administration, however, the gay community has taken its foot off the gas pedal. The chorus of gay and gay-friendly activists, journalists and politicos calling for an exclusive emphasis on legislative repeal has grown in recent weeks, and as opponents of the two-part strategy made their case with increasing fervor, the media’s criticisms of the administration have softened, and a senior administration spokesperson has again started to use conditional language as to whether “don’t ask, don’t tell will be repealed.”

SLDN’s Kevin Nix responded in an email that Obama’s main role should be to lean on Congress.

The end goal here—the ultimate prize—is to undo current law and replace it with a non-discrimination policy. Only Congress can do this. They passed the law in 1993 and only they can end it.

But the President has a critical role in the legislative process. We encourage him to publicly endorse HR 1283, the repeal bill in the House that is being championed now by Rep. Patrick Murphy.

We hope the President and Congress understand the sense of urgency here. Service members are being fired every day because they are gay or lesbian. We should be retaining and recruiting all qualified men and women while our nation is engaged in two wars.

The split in the gay rights movement reflects similar battles across groups allied with the White House of how directly to demand action from the Obama Administration, and how much to expend energy instead pushing Congress. It an internal dymanic, however, rarely articulated in this kind of detail.

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