The Death Rattle of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

Timothy Kincaid

June 12th, 2007

This past Sunday, Colin Powell, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had some comments about the military’s anti-gay “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy put in place during his term of service.

MR. RUSSERT: The only two countries from the original NATO group that do not allow openly gay people to serve in the military are the U.S. and Portugal. Is it a time to do away with “don’t ask, don’t tell” and allow openly gay people to serve in the military?

GEN. POWELL: I think the, the country has changed in its attitudes quite a bit. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” was an appropriate response to the situation back in 1993. And the country certainly has changed. I don’t know that it has changed so much that this would be the right thing to do now. My, my, my successor, General Shalikashvili has written a letter about this.

MR. RUSSERT: Yes.

GEN. POWELL: He thinks it has changed sufficiently. But he ends his letter by saying, “We’re in a war right now, and let’s not do this right now.” My own judgment is that gays and lesbians should be allowed to have maximum access to all aspects of society. In the State Department, we had a very open policy, we had gay ambassadors. I swore in gay ambassadors with their partners present. But the military is different. It is unique. It exists for one purpose and that’s to apply state violence. And in the intimate confines of military life, in barracks life, where we tell you who you’re going to live with, where we tell you who you’re going to sleep with, we have to have a different set of rules. I will not second-guess the commanders who are serving now, just as I didn’t want to be second-guessed 12 or 13 years ago. But I think the country is changing. We may eventually reach that point. I’m not sure.

MR. RUSSERT: Is it inevitable?

GEN. POWELL: I don’t know if it’s inevitable, but I think it’s certainly moving in that direction. I just don’t—I’m not convinced we have reached that point yet, and I will let the military commanders and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Congress make the judgment. Remember, it is the Congress who put this into law. It was a policy. And that’s all I wanted it to be was a policy change, but it was Congress in 1993 that made it a matter of law. And so there are some proposed pieces of legislation up there. I don’t know if all of the candidates the other night who were saying it ought to be overturned have co-signed that or introduced law. But it’s a matter of law now, not a matter of military policy.

It is comforting to hear that General Powell is not a defender of anti-gay bigotry. And it is encouraging to hear him question whether the ban should stay in place. But perhaps the most valuable result of this interview is that Powell has removed himself as a tool for others to avoid an honest discussion of the merits of the policy.

And an excuse he was. In the June 5 Republican primary debates, Rudy Guiliani shifted discussion of the policy to Powell saying:

This is not the time to deal with disruptive issues like this.

Back in 1994 we went through this. And it created a tremendous amount ofdisruption. Colin Powell, I think, was still the head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before he left at the beginning of the Clinton administration

He came to the view that this was a good policy.

But Guiliani was not alone in trying to shift the conversation off of his own beliefs. In fact, none of the Republican candidates were willing to discuss the merits of the policy or what they personally felt about it.

Ron Paul talked about “disruptive behavior” whether heterosexual or homosexual, McCain said the policy “is working, my friends”, Romney punted the conversation to some future point in which we weren’t in war, and Huckabee decided this was a good time to talk about immigration. The other also-rans rest kept their heads down and hoped they didn’t get called on.

In short, there are very few voices willing to call for continued discrimination. Very few anxious to rant about sin and immorality in the troops. And the last one to do so, no longer has his job.

This battle is over on this. The policy is dead. Congress just hasn’t voted to tell it so yet.

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