Sunday, December 14, 2008

Baby Steps -- and Big Questions -- for General Colin Powell By Steve Ralls

It could have been a political earthquake that, in the end, was more of a subtle shift on the ground.

Yesterday afternoon, CNN's Situation Room began promoting an interview with General Colin Powell that promised the "strongest statement yet" from the retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs about "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," the federal law that prohibits lesbian, gay and bisexual Americans from serving openly in our armed forces. And while that may have technically been true, it was hardly the ringing endorsement for repeal that Powell's colleague, General John Shalikashvili, offered up more than two years ago in The New York Times.

"We definitely should reevaluate [the law]," Powell told Fareed Zakaria. "It's been 15 years since we put in 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell,' which was a policy that became a law. I didn't want it to become a law but it became a law. Congress felt that strongly about it. But it's been 15 years and attitudes have changed and so I think it is time for the Congress, since it is their law, to have a full review of it, and I'm quite sure that's what President-elect Obama will want to do."

The step forward for Powell came down to one word: "should."

In other interviews prior to Thursday's sit-down with Zakaria, the General, who is widely regarded as the magic bullet that could considerably speed up repeal efforts on Capitol Hill, went with a different analysis of Congress' role: "could."

Earlier this year in Aspen, Powell joined former Senator Sam Nunn - the other person widely regarded as responsible for the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" fiasco - and reminded the country that Congress could, if it chose, re-visit the law. And in an interview in October 2007 with GQ, he took another step forward, reiterated yesterday, in saying that our country, and our military, have changed since the law was implemented in 1993. But what Powell has consistently declined to say is what, when Congress does seriously re-visit the law, they should conclude about its future.

In answering inquiries about the military's ban, General Powell has raised more questions than he has offered answers about where he stands on the issue.

There is little question, for example, that Congressional leaders would very much like to hear from Powell as they contemplate legislation, now pending in the House, to repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell." And, as a trusted voice on military issues, there is a strong likelihood that, as future hearings on the matter are planned, he will receive an invitation to offer his insight. But if asked by lawmakers whether he supports ending the law - and whether he believes the time do so is now - what will his answer be?

And what, precisely, did Powell mean in his statement to CNN that he "didn't want it to become a law?"

It was, in fact, Powell's 1993 testimony to Congress that helped get "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" onto the books. Prior to that move, Congress had never intervened in the matter, and largely left decisions regarding who can and cannot serve up to military leaders and the commander-in-chief. Encouraged by Powell and Nunn to block attempts by then-President Bill Clinton to welcome gay Americans into the services, however, lawmakers did just that, and stripped the president of any ability to single-handedly determine whether sexual orientation should be a bar to serving in the armed forces.

Did General Powell believe that his testimony before Congress would not, in fact, tempt Congress to take action and steer the issue into their domain? Or does he simply believe that, in retrospect, it was a mistake for Congress to do so?

Those are big questions that require more than "baby step answers" from General Powell.

The answers to those questions could, in fact, determine the timeline for the demise of "Don't Ask." Because, as long as Powell plays on the peripheral of particulars, lawmakers can continue to use him as cover as they avoid tackling the issue. And another two service members will continue to be fired - simply because of who they are - every single day.

And while no one doubts that Powell could answer with specifics about what he believes, the question is: does he understand why now is the time that he should?

And the issue - one of national security and respect for our troops - is too important to be wrapped up in a debate about what the definition of "should" should be.

Steve Ralls is director of communications for Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and is a widely quoted source on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

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