The first of two days of hearings before a Senate panel on the future of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” unfolded like a high-school drama production, with each side speaking its memorized lines. Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican, played his role as the key opponent of allowing openly gay men and women to serve to the hilt, calling it “a transcendently important issue.”
McCain contended the Pentagon study released Tuesday is flawed because it never asked troops if the ban should end. “I am not saying this law should never change,” the one-time Navy pilot said. “I am simply saying that it may be premature to make such a change at this time and in this manner.” The study found that about a third of military personnel — but up to 60 percent of those in ground combat units — have concerns about repealing the law.
McCain also complained that Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ tight schedule would limit senators to five-minute question periods, each, which he suggested might require a second hearing. “If it would help,” Gates offered quickly, “I can do some rearranging and stay until noon.” That gave each senator a whole extra minute. Crisis averted.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chairman of the armed services committee, most of his fellow Democrats, and the Pentagon’s four witnesses all repeated their support for repealing the 17-year old ban. “Permitting them to serve, but not openly, undermines the basic values of the military: honesty, integrity and trust,” said Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb. “And when that’s undermined anywhere, it’s undermined everywhere.”
Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stunned many in the military in February when he said the law should be repealed. He went further Thursday, saying doing so would make the military better. “I believe that in the long run, repeal of this law makes us a stronger military and improves readiness,” Mullen told the committee. “It will make us more representative of the country we serve.”
Republicans expressed concern over changing the policy during wartime, but Mullen said the pressures of war make change easier. “War does not stifle change; it demands it,” Mullen said. “It does not make change harder; it facilitates it.” Added Gates: “If not now, when?”
Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., said he disagreed with the Pentagon’s conclusion that the 28 percent of the 400,000 troops who responded to the Pentagon’s polling on the topic was “statistically significant” and made the data reliable. “I have talked to people in the field who have said that `We didn’t respond because the decision was already made,’” Inhofe said.
It all unspooled pretty much as predicted. If any sparks fly, it’s going to happen Friday, when the same panel hears from the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, along with the four top officers of each of the military services. Three of the five are blood-and-mud ground-pounders, whose branches have voiced the most opposition to gays serving openly. They are Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. James Amos, commandant of the corps, and Gen. George Casey, the Army chief of staff. Amos recently told the panel: “The current law and associated policy have supported the unique requirements of the Marine Corps, and thus I do not recommend its repeal.”
If Amos and his fellow chiefs say the Pentagon report has convinced them that the ban should be lifted, Senate opponents of the change will have run out of ammo to stand in the way. But if, as expected, they are wary of repeal, it’s likely enough senators will embrace their leeriness as a reason to keep the law on the books for the foreseeable future.