Obama Opposes Gay Military Ban, but Repealing It Could Take a Year or Two

The president-elect wants to end “don’t ask, don’t tell,” but with the support of military leaders.

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When it comes to President-elect Barack Obama making good on his campaign promise to repeal "don't ask, don't tell," gays and lesbians—70 percent of whom voted for him—may have to be patient. Advocates of the repeal are warning that any action might take a year or more.

Given the host of issues on Obama's plate, they say that some delay is understandable. But it may not simply be a fiscal crisis and two wars that could put off reversing the military policy, which mandates discharge of gays or lesbians if they speak about their sexual orientation or engage in homosexual conduct.

Instead, the delay could be a result of the repeal strategy that many advocates are encouraging Obama to pursue—one that would focus on consensus building and securing the military's support.

"At the end of the day, it's not about getting it done in the first 180 days. It's not about the calendar. It's about getting the right results," says Aubrey Sarvis, executive director of the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, a nonprofit dedicated to overturning the ban.

The president-elect stated his opposition to "don't ask, don't tell" during the long campaign, and he included its repeal on the transition website's agenda of issues. The fastest way to make good on his promise would be tacking a signing order onto a military appropriations bill, which President Bush has done in the past.

But Obama isn't planning on taking that route. "I want to make sure that when we revert 'don't ask, don't tell,' it has gone through a process and we've built a consensus or at least a clarity of that, of what my expectations are, so that it works," he said in a September interview. Such a process, he said, would include "getting the Joint Chiefs of Staff clear in terms of what our priorities are going to be."

A spokesperson for Obama's transition team, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said only that decisions would not be made until the national security team is in place.

A slow approach to change, however, worries Aaron Belkin, a leading expert on the issue of gays in the military, who says it likely will prolong the process without ensuring success. In the 24 foreign countries that overturned similar bans, he says, not once was the process initiated by the military. An early Obama supporter, Gen. Merrill McPeak, has even cautioned against repeal in remarks that Obama declined to repudiate publicly.

"Even the most hardcore opponents in the military understand that repeal is inevitable," Belkin says. "But if you give them the option to weigh in, they will kick and scream for 50 years. Unless they are told what to do, the change will not happen."

In fact, he warns, giving the opposition time to mobilize could hurt the repeal's chances. That's what happened when President Clinton attempted to make good on his campaign promise to allow gays into the military, sparking the fight that led to the passage of "don't ask, don't tell" as a compromise bill.

Most advocates of repeal, however, downplay the probability of a strong opposition. They point out that an ABC poll this summer found 78 percent of Americans in favor of gays serving openly in the military. More than 100 retired admirals and generals signed a letter as of last week calling for repeal, while a bill seeking to overturn the ban in Congress has accumulated 149 cosponsors.

Plus, say experts, the negative effects of "don't ask, don't tell" are well understood by military authorities. Since 1994, the policy has forced the discharge of nearly 12,500 servicemembers, including, since 2003, at least 59 Arabic speakers. A Government Accountability Office report estimated that it cost $180 million to recruit and train replacements for those discharged through 2003 alone.

Even so, establishing consensus will take time, and repeal supporters say that overturning the ban might not happen until the end of 2009 or 2010.