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“Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” Repeal Marks Rare Victory for Obama

Matthew O. Berger

WASHINGTON, Dec 20 2010 (IPS) - The U.S. Senate’s repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy Saturday ended what had become for many an embarrassing and awkward policy – and marked a rare victory for the agenda of President Barack Obama in the U.S. Congress.

“Today, the Senate has taken an historic step toward ending a policy that undermines our national security while violating the very ideals that our brave men and women in uniform risk their lives to defend,” Obama said following the Senate vote.

The bill to repeal the policy passed by a larger than expected margin and repeals the compromise policy passed under President Bill Clinton, which prohibited the military from investigating the sexuality of troops but left in place bans on openly gay troops.

But in a matter of months that policy should be relegated to history books.

Proponents of the policy had raised concerns that repealing it – especially during a time of war – would lead to an erosion of “unit cohesion” and greater difficulty in recruiting soldiers. They also contended that the change was happening too quickly.

Senator John McCain, the most vocal opponent of the repeal, said in the Senate debate, “I hope that when we pass this legislation, that we will understand that we are doing great damage and we could possibly, and probably, as a commandant of the Marine Corps said and I’ve been told by literally thousands of members of the military, harm the battle effectiveness, which is so vital to the support—to the survival of our young men and women in the military.”

But Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen have both favoured repealing the policy. In releasing a Defence Department study Nov. 30, Gates said the repeal “can and should be done without presenting an undue risk” and asked the Senate to do so by the end of the year.

The alternative, he said, was federal courts ordering the policy’s repeal, which would mean the repeal would need to be done much faster and with much less warning – and thus be more disruptive. One court has already ruled the policy unconstitutional, though that ruling had been stayed while it was being appealed.

The Defence Department study found that 70 percent of active-duty and reserve troops believed repealing “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” would have positive, no or mixed effect. And 92 percent of troops who had served with someone suspected of being homosexual characterised their unit’s ability to work together as good, very good, or neither good nor poor.

The “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal marks a rare victory in what has generally been a rejection of Obama’s policy priorities by a vocal Republican minority of lawmakers.

Just before the repeal, the Senate failed to deliver passage of the DREAM Act, which would give people who arrived in the U.S. illegally as minors the opportunity to gain permanent residency through attending college or serving in the military, rather than facing deportation.

Advocates had pointed to both the economic and national security benefits of the bill, as well as the moral argument that children who grew up in the U.S. should not be punished because their parents brought them there illegally.

Though it garnered a majority of votes, the bill failed to attract enough supporters for debate on the measure to move ahead. The bill now likely will not be voted on this year, and it is highly unlikely the incoming Republican-led Congress that takes over January will bring the measure up for a vote.

Congress’s attention has now turned to the new START Treaty, which would reduce the number of nuclear warheads and other arms the U.S. and Russia can have in their stockpiles.

The START treaty needs two thirds of the Senate – 67 votes – to support it in order to pass. Last week, some Republican lawmakers vowed to tie their support for the treaty to the defeat of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal push.

With the repeal’s success, their anger bubbled over Sunday and Monday on the Senate floor, where several Republicans accused Democrats of rushing to ratify the treaty in order to give Obama a policy victory after the Congress has repeatedly rejected or watered-down much of his policy agenda over the past two years.

“No senator should be forced to make decisions like this so we can tick off another item on someone’s political checklist before the end of the year,” Senator Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday.

Republicans, on the other hand, are being accused of opposing START simply in order to deny the president that policy success. Their other reservations stem from fears the treaty does not mandate enough inspections of Russian stockpiles and would limit the U.S.’s ability to expand missile defence programmes.

The Russian foreign minister said Monday that Republicans should refrain from amending the language of the treaty, though, as that would necessitate a return to the negotiating table.

Democrats remain optimistic they will have the votes – they will need at least 10 Republicans – to ratify the treaty before the new congress takes over next month, though. A vote to end debate on the treaty and move toward a final vote is scheduled for Tuesday.

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