In 2007, then-candidate Barack Obama made a proclamation: "America is ready to get rid of the 'don't ask, don't tell' policy. That work should have started long ago. It will start when I take office. All that is required is leadership."
Indeed, leadership is what is needed—and soon. By our count at the Servicemembers Legal Defense Network, more than 250 men and women have been discharged since the president took office. The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan recently reminded President Obama that he was not elected to allow gay service members to be fired.
One of those fired was Lt. Col. Victor Fehrenbach. Inspired by the noble service of Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Fehrenbach joined the Air Force almost two decades ago and became a distinguished F-15E aviator. He was handpicked to protect the airspace above Washington the day after 9/11 and has flown numerous missions against Taliban and al Qaeda targets, including the longest combat mission in his squadron's history. He has racked up 400 combat hours and nine air medals, one for heroism.
Despite this record, Fehrenbach is losing a career he loves and a pension worth more than $2 million. This is a much steeper punishment than that handed down to Col. Michael Murphy, a soldier who lied for 20 years about holding a law license. As the Air Force Times points out, "All Murphy faces is perhaps—perhaps—retiring at a lower paygrade." Never mind, too, that the government spent $25 million training Fehrenbach and that millions more will be spent on replacing him.
Some political operatives inside the beltway argue that this is not the time—during two wars—to repeal the law. Actually, quite the opposite is true: This is exactly the time. We need to be recruiting and retaining the best and brightest during our unconventional war on terrorism, which will take years to win.
Those same operatives also argue that don't ask, don't tell is still a political hot potato, as it was in 1993. Not anymore. Polling consistently shows overwhelming support (69 percent) for allowing gays and lesbians to serve openly, including majorities of weekly churchgoers, conservatives, and Republicans, according to a Gallup Poll out this month. Virtually no other public-policy issue polls this well among all demographic groups.
Attitudes within the military, particularly among military personnel in their 20s and 30s who are on the ground fighting America's 21st-century wars, are changing, too. Seventy-three percent of veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan say they are comfortable with lesbians and gays. Half of all military families favor lifting the ban, as do Gen. John Shalikashvili, Democratic former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and William Cohen, a Republican and a former defense secretary.
Despite the shifting attitudes toward gays and lesbians in the armed forces, some in the Obama administration do not seem to be preparing for repeal anytime soon. The president's top military officials—including Secretary of Defense Bob Gates; Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs; and National Security Adviser Jim Jones—have made it clear they are in no hurry to take up the issue.
Momentum for repeal will build when the commander in chief announces a plan for ending don't ask, don't tell. The next move is his, and he must engage Congress. As old Washington hands know, Congress often defers to the president and the Pentagon on military personnel matters, of which don't ask, don't tell is a part. Lawmakers are looking to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for guidance and leadership.
Specifically, the White House should publicly endorse repeal legislation currently in the House (the Military Readiness Enhancement Act, which has nearly 150 cosponsors) or send its own repeal proposal to Capitol Hill. This is what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid just requested. Congress will then have the signals it needs to move out decisively with legislation. But Obama needs to step up to the plate on behalf of the 13,000 service members who have been fired under the law. Indecision or delay on the part of this administration is only music to the ears of the religious right.