It was not a surprise that the U.S. Supreme Court this week refused to hear a legal challenge to the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy. The high court takes only a small percentage of the cases submitted to it. But what was disappointing is that the Obama administration weighed in to support the legality of discharging openly gay troops. The Justice Department told the justices that a lower court had correctly ruled that "don't ask, don't tell" was rationally related to the government's interest in military discipline and cohesion.
That is not the promised step forward. As a candidate, Barack Obama promised to repeal "don't ask, don't tell." Now as president, Obama is not only defending the law's constitutionality but standing by as gay soldiers continue to be thrown out of the military due solely to their sexual orientation. Whatever political calculus Obama is using, he should rethink it. The United States needs all able-bodied troops to serve in our ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including the tens of thousands of loyal, brave and committed men and women who are gay.
To be fair, the Justice Department has an obligation to defend statutes passed by Congress against court challenge. But there are rare occasions when the department may decline to do so, particularly when there are no longer reasonable arguments to be made in the law's defense. The rationale put forth in support of "don't ask, don't tell" is that openly gay troops cause problems of unit cohesion and declines in morale, order and discipline. These claims are belied by the experience of our allies, including Britain, Canada, Israel and more than a dozen others that include gay troops in their ranks without experiencing any of those issues.
Then there is the ban's waste of talent and resources, which saps rather than enhances our military readiness. More than 12,500 men and women have been discharged from the military since the 1993 passage of "don't ask, don't tell," including more than 60 Arabic linguists. The estimated cost of replacing them is more than $364 million.
Obama should say enough is enough. It should not cost him much politically to do the right thing. Attitudes have changed over the last 16 years. President Bill Clinton's efforts to integrate gays into the armed forces faced fierce resistance from senior officials in the military, and a majority of Americans were against the idea. The resulting political compromise may have been the best he could do.
Today, substantial majorities of Americans support gays serving openly in the military. And a 2006 Zogby International poll of military members found that 71 percent of those who had experience with gay troops in their unit said it had either no impact or a positive impact on their morale.
Obama promised to accord the estimated 65,000 gay service men and women who are active military members the dignity of being treated as equal and valued members of our nation's fighting forces. He should not be making contrary legal arguments to the Supreme Court. He should be following through on his campaign pledge.