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Change, whether it's in public policy or attitudes, can be painstakingly slow. Yet there comes a time when outdated policies should yield to reality and that's why the White House and military leaders saw the need to repeal the "don''t ask, don't tell" policy on gays who serve in the armed forces.

The U.S. Congress missed an opportunity Thursday when it blocked legislation that would have lifted the "don't ask, don't tell policy.

The 1993 policy was a stopgap measure - an unsatisfactory compromise between President Bill Clinton, who wanted to lift the ban on gays in the military and Pentagon leaders who worried that military effectiveness might be compromised.

The issue has been studied to death. The results of the Defense Department's latest research on the issue showed mixed results with two-thirds of the troops opining that lifting the ban would have little impact on their unit's ability to fight while nearly 60 percent of Marine Corps and Army soldiers in combat units predicting their would be problems.

Two leaders, widely respected in Defense Department circles - former Secretary of State Colin Powell (who also served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and former Sen. Sam Nunn reversed their earlier opposition to lifting the "don't ask, don't tell" ban.

Certainly any untoward behavior on the part of gay soldiers would indeed have caused the military problems, just as improper heterosexual behavior by soldiers has no doubt caused headaches for the brass. In both cases we have confidence the military could effectively discipline those whose behavior was unprofessional. U.S. military leaders should target and remedy unsuitable behavior and rather than individuals who may have a different sexual orientation.

The attempt to lift this ban wasn't about whether one approves of gay lifestyles. It was about letting gays in the military live their own lives as long as they adhere to military discipline in the service of their country.

Congress should have lifted the "don't ask, don't tell" policy this week. Had it done so we would have expected the same high standard of behavior from all those who serve in the military, whether gay or straight.