Robert Gates’ new tell-all book is stirring controversy, including among LGBT rights advocates, who are hitting back at leaked excerpts regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal.
According to a preview of “Duty” in media reports, including in the Washington Post, the former defense secretary identifies “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as among the issues he said he endured “continued conflict and a couple of important White House breaches of faith” over the course of 2010.
Although Gates reportedly writes he supported the decision to move toward open service, he says Obama “blindsided” him and then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen with one day’s notice that he would announce his request to repeal the law.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Gates also takes a jab at Obama by saying “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal was among the few military issues about which the president expressed interest.
Based on the media outlet’s depiction of the portion of the book, it’s hard to tell what Gates is referring to by Obama’s announcement that he would move to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Gates may be referring to the 2010 State of the Union address in which Obama pledged to “work with Congress and our military to finally repeal the law that denies gay Americans the right to serve the country they love because of who they are.”
Nonetheless, LGBT advocates who contributed to the effort to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” are scratching their heads over the depiction that Gates was “blindsided” by the president’s plans.
Joe Solmonese, former president of the Human Rights Campaign, said his memory of what happened “doesn’t really square” with Gates’ reported recollection of the administration’s efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“If anything, I think they were particularly sensitive to making sure that Secretary Gates and Adm. Mullen were completely engaged in the process,” Solmonese said. “At each step along the way, my recollection, my memory, what I witnessed being part of the process was that was something they were incredibly sensitive to.”
Recalling that the Obama administration set up a 10-month study over the course of 2010 to examine the potential impact of open service, Solmonese said the administration approached repeal “with a deference toward” Gates and Mullen. They both endorsed the study when they announced it before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2010.
Nathaniel Frank, a political commentator who formerly worked for the University of California’s Palm Center on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” said Obama was “clear from the start” he wanted open service and it’s “hard to see” how Gates could have felt blindsided.
“The two men were doing a delicate dance over how much to prioritize repeal among many important issues, and both were under a lot of pressure to deliver,” Frank said. “I don’t know what their private conversations involved, but eventually the president came to understand that the political window for repeal was closing, and he had to move forward.”
Solmonese added he thinks Gates included in his book disparaging remarks about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” repeal as part of a broader theme of disappointment with the administration. Although Solmonese said he wouldn’t speculate on Gates’ motivation, he said the former defense secretary’s claim he was “blindsided” is “somewhat disingenuous to me.”
“This was a United States senator and a candidate for president, and the president all through the first part of his term who ongoingly talked about his intention to end ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,'” Solmonese said. “Quite frankly, it was a rather long time from that particular moment, if that’s what he’s talking about, until we actually ended ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.'”
But not all LGBT advocates who worked on the transition to open service share the same view.
Jarrod Chlapowski, who worked on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as part of HRC and the now-defunct Servicemembers United, said “it’s possible” Gates didn’t expect repeal would happen because there was a question over whether open service or the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would be a priority for the LGBT movement.
“There are a number of events prior to that which indicated that DADT was sexier than ENDA: Patrick Murphy’s push in the House (coordinated with Voices of Honor), the rise of Dan Choi, the standing ovation during the HRC dinner in 2009,” Chlapowski said. “I remember talking to David Smith the next day who was absolutely shocked that DADT resonated so strongly among HRC’s major donors, and you can bet that shock was shared by the administration.”
Chlapowski said the “sudden announcement” that Gates recalled would be consistent with the sudden change in priorities for the LGBT groups.
“So the narrative that the administration worked closely with Gates on a long-term strategy only to pull out the rug from under Gates jibes with the sudden recalibration of the entire gay rights movement at roughly the same time,” Chlapowski said.
The White House didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Gates’ remarks regarding “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Even after Congress voted to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” and the president signed the repeal measure in December 2010, Obama, Gates and Mullen waited nine months to formally lift the ban in September 2011. Over the course of that time, military officials engaged with troops to prepare for the change in law, saying their duties wouldn’t change with open service.
Winnie Stachelberg, vice president of external affairs at the Center for American Progress, said she won’t comment on Gates’ recollection because she wasn’t part of his discussions. However, she said whatever the challenges in getting there, the end result to open service was seamless.
“Regardless of one’s memory, I think it’s important to note that the president and the administration were firmly committed, and that the process took some challenging turns, but the end result speaks for itself,” Stachelberg said. “Repeal of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ was a success and the concerns about undermining readiness and unit cohesion and retention never materialized.”