The debate over gays in the military has driven an extraordinary public wedge between the nation’s highest-ranking military officer and the four service chiefs who collectively make up the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman, in February first broke with the chiefs of the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marine Corps by endorsing President Obama’s campaign pledge to end the military’s ban on open homosexuals.
The gap widened last week. Adm. Mullen approved a White House deal for Congress to go ahead with a vote on repeal of the law barring openly gay members from the military, rather than waiting for completion in December of a Pentagon study that is seeking the views of troops. Adm. Mullen’s move brought an instant rebuttal from the four chiefs in the form of letters to Congress urging lawmakers not to hold the vote.
In fact, the service chiefs did not see the Pentagon-White House-congressional deal to rush a vote until after the administration announced it May 24, Pentagon officials said.
Retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, who opposes lifting the ban, said he has never seen such a significant public split between the chiefs and the chairman.
“The chairman is deeply beholden to the secretary of defense and the president,” said the former four-star officer, who directed the 1991 air war against Iraq. “He is in a tougher position than the service chiefs. And also the service chiefs are more directly concerned with things like readiness and personnel policies. I can see where this split occurs, for understandable reasons.”
Asked whether he had ever witnessed such public disagreement with the four-star officers who run the military, Mr. Horner answered, “No, I have not.”
On Thursday, Democrats in the House and on the Senate Armed Services Committee ignored the service chiefs and voted to repeal the gay ban, likely assuring a bill will reach Mr. Obama’s desk this year.
The breach began in February. Adm. Mullen went before the Senate Armed Services Committee and endorsed repealing the military’s ban, telling Congress it was forcing gay service members to live a lie. Some in the Pentagon were struck by Adm. Mullen’s enthusiastic endorsement, although the Joint Chiefs chairman acknowledged he did not know how lifting the ban would affect combat readiness.
Then came the service chiefs’ congressional testimony. They pointedly refused to endorse a repeal of the 1993 law that led to a policy known as “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
The chiefs said they wanted to await the Dec. 1 study ordered by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr. said he had “serious concerns” about what a policy of open homosexuality would do to military readiness. Gen. James T. Conway, the Marine Corps commandant, said he was flatly opposed to lifting the ban.
As repeal advocates worked to line up floor votes before the November elections, an even deeper split emerged. Mr. Gates and Adm. Mullen had written to House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton, Missouri Democrat, stating that they “believe in the strongest possible terms” that the impact study should be completed before any votes.
That position put them in line with the service chiefs. But then came the Gates-Mullen flip-flop.
Pressed by the White House, the two leaders endorsed legislation from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, to vote now, with a delayed start date for letting homosexuals serve openly.
To advocates of the ban, the so-called White House “compromise” was in fact an end run around the service chiefs’ wishes, because once the ban is repealed, it reduces the importance of what the troops say in Mr. Gates’ ongoing study.
“I am concerned that the men and women of our military will view this pre-emptive political action as a deep sign of disrespect and unwillingness to consider their views,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who led the fight to keep the ban.
The service chiefs revolted after Adm. Mullen and Mr. Gates abandoned their no-vote-now stance. Each sent a letter to Mr. McCain on the eve of Thursday’s vote asking lawmakers to wait.
Gen. Casey said he thinks “repealing the law before the completion of the review will be seen by the men and women of the Army as a reversal of our commitment to hear their views before moving forward.”
Gen. Norton Schwartz, Air Force chief, said, “I believe it is important, a matter of keeping the faith with those currently serving in the armed forces, that the secretary of defense-commissioned review be completed before there is any legislation to repeal.”
Adm. Gary Roughead, the Navy chief, wrote: “My concern is that legislative changes at this point, regardless of the precise language used, may cause confusion on the status of the law in the fleet and disrupt the review process itself by leading sailors to question whether their input matters.”
Democrats ignored those pleas and voted anyway. Their concern was that if they waited until the Gates study is complete, after the November elections, Republicans could pick up enough seats to block repeal in 2011.
Perhaps the biggest affront was the fact that the White House, Mr. Gates, Adm. Mullen and Democrats settled on a compromise without allowing the four service chiefs to see it or comment.
Peter R. Orszag, director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, endorsed the official compromise on May 24 in a letter to Rep. Patrick J. Murphy, Pennsylvania Democrat, sponsor of the repeal legislation. Vote now on the amendment to repeal, Mr. Orszag said, and the military can later add policies to regulate it, based on the Gates review.
The next day, in a reflection of how the chiefs were shut out, Gen. Casey said he had not seen the compromise language.
Capt. John Kirby, Adm. Mullen’s spokesman, told The Washington Times that the chairman told the chiefs on May 21 that there probably would be an amendment to repeal the ban.
Capt. Kirby said Adm. Mullen wanted to speak with the chiefs on May 24 about the exact language. “But it was not possible to do so, due to scheduling conflicts,” Capt. Kirby said. “This meeting was held Tuesday the 25th.”
The next day, the chiefs sent Mr. McCain their letters opposing the compromise.
“There was a clear expression of the chiefs, and Congress disregarded that because of a budget director,” said Elaine Donnelly, whose Michigan-based Center for Military Readiness supports the ban. “The White House chef would have as much credibility on this issue.”
Adm. Mullen said on “Fox News Sunday” that he and Mr. Gates will take a methodical approach in deciding exactly when and how the repeal takes effect.
“What I don’t want to do is electrify the force at a time when they’re going through two, in the time of two wars, the length of time that we’ve been at war,” Adm. Mullen said. “And when we get to a point, we get through the review, we’ll understand what it takes to implement it. … I, with the secretary of defense and the president, would certify that we’re ready for implementation at the time that that really should take place.”
Gen. Horner, a former fighter pilot, said he supports the ban because he fears military readiness will suffer if open homosexuals are allowed to serve, “particularly given the land forces, the way they have to live and operate.”
Asked how an Air Force fighter wing will accept openly gay personnel, he said: “There’s a lot less prejudice nowadays against people who are gay, but that does not necessarily mean that people want to live side by side with them.”
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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