When I was a kid, my favorite film was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. In an early scene, a man (played by John Cleese) tries to give an old man to body collectors, claiming he died of the plague. The joke in the scene is that the old man keeps yelling that he’s not dead. “You’re not fooling anyone, you know,” Cleese retorts.
This scene kept running through my head this week as gays and lesbians lined up to pat themselves, and Barack Obama, on the back as the Senate finally broke through the Republicans’ eternal logjam to pass a “repeal” of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Unfortunately, even as Obama was picking up one of the ceremonial pens that are traditionally used in these ceremonies, the policy started squirming in his arms and squeaking “I’m not dead!”
“I don’t want to go on the cart!”
Like so many classic pieces of legislation, the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell “repeal” has loopholes in it. Big, gaping loopholes that you can drive an entire city (not just a city bus) through, and which could very well end up meaning that the “repeal” was an empty gesture, conceived to give Obama and the Democratic leadership a much needed “victory” with a once loyal constituency that rebelled in this election after being thrown under the bus too many times, yet still mollify the bigots within that party (and within the Republican Party, which means almost all of them) who do not want to see the policy ever end.
First off, three signatures are required to even start the process of ending the policy; the President, the Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff must all sign off that the way is cleared to end the policy and that it should be lifted. Leaving aside Obama for now, let’s consider the other two likely roadblocks: Robert Gates and Mike Mullen.
Robert Gates has made a lot of noise backing his current boss on the concept of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, but in practice he’s been anything but supportive. Gates supported the infamous appeal of the decisions striking down the policy earlier this year, calling repeal “an action that requires careful preparation and a lot of training” and “has enormous consequences for our troops.” Even as late as early December, Gates told servicemembers that the policy would be around for the forseeable future (even if he added with a wink that he wished it would be repealed).
Once the bill was passed and it was obvious that it would be signed, it was made known that Gates wouldn’t want the policy lifted until 2012 at which point it would be tied up as a campaign issue in the upcoming Presidential Election, which means that the process would be complicated by political concerns. If we know that Gates won’t sign off on the policy for over a year, we can expect thousands more servicepeople to be investigated and kicked out in the meanwhile.
Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, might be a little less resistant than Gates to the actual enforcement of the repeal (indeed, he has openly argued for it) but he has one major stumbling block: the Marine Corps’ current bigot-in-chief James F. Amos. Amos has openly said that repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell may lead to battlefield deaths. This is just a tiny bit more aggressive than his predecessor had been when he said he would just provide separate-but-equal arrangements for gay soldiers. Since the “repeal” bill provided this huge loophole, do we honestly expect Amos to sign off on integrating the Marine Corps? Do we honestly expect Mullen to certify that the services are ready for the repeal if his Marine Corps Commandant doesn’t? This one bigot alone could end up filibustering the implementation of the repeal for as long as his tenure lasts. That could be anywhere (judging from recent history) from three to ten years.
If Gates can delay his certification of the repeal until 2012, then Gen. Amos can force Mullen to delay his certification for an additional year, then Obama might not be the President who needs to issue the final certification. It’s not unreasonable to assume that the President, who has gone out of his way to alienate nearly all of the people who actually voted for him while appeasing people who will never vote for him no matter what he does, is not going to be in the White House in 2013. Do we really expect President Romney to sign off on the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell? I doubt President Palin would. And President Huckabee would probably issue an executive order banning all gays from serving even while closeted right after ripping up the certification forms.
Gates and Mullen are the most likely people to kill the repeal silently, but if they don’t manage to pull it off there’s another likely stumbling block: Congress.
“I think I’ll go for a walk”
Another fascinating provision in the “repeal” bill is a 60-day Congressional Review period. This little gem was stuffed into the bill at the insistence of notoriously homophobic and hopelessly racist Senator Robert C. Byrd, who represented a state where a man who sleeps with his sister or his daughter is held in higher esteem than one who sleeps with another man. Senator Byrd, who unlike this policy had the decency to die on June 28th, added Congressional Review to the bill a month before he went to visit the Great Klavern in the sky:
This period of time will allow the Congress, along with the American people, to thoroughly review the proposed policy recommendations to ensure that these changes are consistent with the standards of military readiness, military effectiveness, unit cohesion, and recruiting and retention for our Armed Forces.
Probably most dangerous of all, the bill doesn’t specify what role Congress will actually play in the process once their 60 days begin. Since this bill was passed with only two weeks left before the Republicans take control of the House (far less than the 60 days required), even if Obama, Gates, and Mullen all signed their certifications today there would be no way that a gay-friendly Congress would be the one to look at the policy. Once Gates and Mullen sign off, all the House will have to do is hold hearing after hearing during the 60 days, then attach an amendment to a must-pass spending bill (which only their chamber is allowed to initiate under the Constitution) stating that Congress “does not feel that the changes are consistent with the standards of…” etc., and pass it on for the Republican logjam patrol to force through the Senate. This will then, at best, force the issue into the courts where it will be tied up for years upon years.
Of course, it’s also possible (even likely) that somewhere along the way during those years in court, that a Republican will be elected President, and would stop the appeals process to let Congress’ decision in the matter stand, thus killing “repeal” outright.
But the biggest obstacle is still the man who campaigned on being a “fierce advocate” for gays.
I feel happy! I feel happyyyyyy!
While he campaigned hard to get the votes of gays and lesbians to beat Hillary Clinton in the primaries, then to beat John McCain in the general election, once the election was over Obama’s tune changed markedly.
Obama invited Rick Warren to give the invocation at his Inauguration: a man who called homosexuals immature and compared them to pedophiles and people from Robert Byrd’s home state. Obama embraced the absolutely fabulous “ex-gay” Donnie McClurkin. Obama appealed the original decisions striking down Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and is still appealing the decision striking down the so-called Defense of Marriage Act. This is also the man who insisted than any health bill he signed had to include a public option and that he would veto any attempt to extend Bush’s tax cuts for billionaires.
When push comes to shove, and when (if) the only thing standing between gays being allowed to serve openly in the military and continuing the hateful policies of the past is his signature, can we really trust Obama to sign off on the certification?
He has more than enough cover to not issue the certification should he choose not to. Gen. Amos has even given him the words he will need to do it. He can cite “the opinions of military commanders” in postponing the certification every time. He can use the ongoing military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Miami Beach, or any other place he wants to invade over the two years he has left as a reason that “this is not the time to change the policy, and we will revisit it once military operations have ceased.”
So I will believe that Obama will actually lift the policy the day he actually signs the certification, and directs his two employees (Gates and Mullen) to do so as well. I know he can’t force the Republicans in Congress to sign off on the policy (heck, he didn’t even try to get Republicans to sign off on the public option) but the least he can do is actually do what the law empowers him to do. If he does that, then and only then might I believe that he sees gays as anything other than a voting bloc he might need in the future.
“See ya Thursday.”
At the end of the scene in Holy Grail, the body collector (played by Eric Idle) ends up clubbing the “dead” man to death. Obama can do that now. He can stop the appeals of the court cases that struck down the law, arguing that the “repeal” act makes defense of them unnecessary. He can issue stop-loss orders to end the witch-hunts and discharges while the process is ongoing. But he won’t. In fact, he has pointedly said he would not do that.
So in the end, the “historic vote” to end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell will probably end up being a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing. Obama got his photo op, Harry Reid got a chance to not look like a total wimp. Nancy Pelosi got one last victory before the voters finally take her off the table. And what do gays get? At best, years of uncertainty and doubt. At worst? Another example of how we’re pawns in the games of bigots and haters.
And that’s what you’re celebrating? Count me out.