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The American Debate: Obama needs just a bit of Truman's courage

Ending the ban on openly gay solders will be far simpler than was racially integrating the military.

Former Army National Guard Lt. Dan Choi, an Arabic-speaking specialist dismissed through the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, comments on Proposition 8, outside the Beverly Hills hotel, where U.S. President Barack Obama attended a benefit dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Wednesday, May 27, 2009. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Former Army National Guard Lt. Dan Choi, an Arabic-speaking specialist dismissed through the 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' policy, comments on Proposition 8, outside the Beverly Hills hotel, where U.S. President Barack Obama attended a benefit dinner in Beverly Hills, Calif. on Wednesday, May 27, 2009. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)Read more

When will Barack Obama tap his inner Truman and take the initiative to end the ignominious ban on gays serving openly in the military?

Actually, he needs to exhibit only a fraction of Harry Truman's political courage. When FDR's successor announced in 1948 that he intended to racially integrate the armed forces, Americans recoiled in horror. Gallup reported that only 13 percent of the people endorsed the notion of blacks and whites serving together. Yet Truman signed the executive order anyway; as he liked to say, "I wonder how far Moses would have gone if he'd taken a poll in Egypt."

Truman stood tall even though the wind was in his face; Obama, by taking the lead on ending the gay ban, would actually have the wind at his back. National resistance to open service has melted during the 15 years since the enactment of "don't ask, don't tell." Gallup now reports that 69 percent of Americans support gays and straights serving together without the caveat of the closet - a six-point hike since 2004, fueled by big gains among conservatives and weekly churchgoers.

We've reached a rough consensus on this issue for mostly practical reasons. With the military stretched by two land wars and the twilight struggle against terrorism, it seems a tad counterproductive to keep firing people who want to put their lives on the line for their country. More than 11,000 gays have been kicked out since 1994; taxpayers have spent well over $400 million to process the discharges. Hundreds have been Arab linguists. Dan Choi, an Iraq vet who is fluent in Arabic, received his firing notice last month after he came out on national TV.

At this point, America and Turkey are the sole founding members of NATO to maintain a ban on open service. Our closest ally, Great Britain, lifted its ban nine years ago, and has since determined that the policy switch, which it calls "a solid achievement," has had "no discernible impact" on recruitment or readiness. Nor has Israel reported problems, and, last I checked, those Israeli fighters are pretty tough.

Yet Obama seems unwilling to make even the easiest move. He has the authority to sign an executive order suspending the forced ousters of gay service members. That should be a no-brainer. But, unlike Truman (who seized the reins on civil rights despite being broadly unpopular), Obama is clearly averse to spending even a cent of his considerable political capital on this issue.

I've heard various rationales for his reluctance to lead: He doesn't want to antagonize the military brass, with whom he is still nurturing relationships; he already has a full plate of issues, ranging from health care to energy, and he doesn't want to distract Congress (ending the gay ban will require congressional approval); and he doesn't want to fight another culture war that could imperil the dozens of Democratic congressmen who hail from conservative districts.

But this issue is far more benign than gay marriage; this issue no longer triggers a culture war. The aforementioned Gallup poll reports that 58 percent of conservatives, 58 percent of Republicans, and 60 percent of weekly churchgoers now believe that gays should be allowed to serve openly. The conservative percentage has jumped 12 points since 2004; the churchgoer share by 11 points.

It's true that some military leaders and retired flag officers still oppose lifting the ban. But Truman had it far worse when he sought to integrate in 1948. Southerners in the service warned that recruitment and morale would suffer. World War II icon Omar Bradley publicly declared that the military should not be forced to conduct "social experiments," and Truman had to tell him to zip it.

Obama has a lot more cover; for instance, retired Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, contended two years ago that openly serving gays "would not undermine the efficacy of the armed forces," and that the lifting of the ban was "inevitable." He also cited a Zogby poll that reported that three-quarters of the Iraq and Afghanistan vets felt comfortable serving with gays. Meanwhile, this past April, a Quinnipiac poll found that, by a margin of 56 to 39 percent, people in military households reject the argument that openly serving gays would be divisive.

But what's really weak is this notion that Obama is too overwhelmed with weighty matters to deal at this time with the serving gays. To put that argument in perspective, let's return to Truman.

Here are just some of the weighty matters that plagued the president during the first half of 1948: Soviet aggression in Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria; China, on the verge of falling to the communists; a severe domestic housing crisis; a Republican-led Congress that was fiercely resisting his pitch for national health insurance, a higher minimum wage, stronger pro-labor laws, and expanded education aid. Moreover, all the polls predicted that, when Truman stood for reelection in November, he would be toast.

Yet somehow he found the time to touch the third rail. It took another six years for the military to fully desegregate, but the point is, Truman had the guts to make it happen.

And as another tough guy has said, "Lifting the ban on gays in the military isn't exactly nothing, but it's pretty darned close. Everybody knows that gays have served honorably in the military since at least the time of Julius Caesar. . . . It's time to deal with this straight on and be done with it."

So said Barry Goldwater, father of the modern conservative movement, 16 years ago. But we'll never be done with it unless Obama starts the clock.