Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A Good, Overrated, Nomination

It seems that the myth is mightier than the man. General Eric Shinseki, who has been lauded for his testimony to the Senate Armed Forces Committee in February, 2003, has been nominated by president-elect Obama as director of the Veterans Administration. A brave (former) soldier? yes. (He lost the front half of his right foot in Vietnam, where he earned two purple hearts.) Prescient? yes. (He probably was right.) Humble? yes. (He never said "I told you so.") Speaking truth to power? Not so clear.

As one of the videos below indicates, it all began when Senator Carl Levin (D.-Mi.) asked Shinseki "could you give us some idea as to the magnitude of the Army's force requirement for an occupation of Iraq following a successful completion of the war?" After a brief, apparently noncommittal response, Levin asked a follow-up question and elicited the General's famous response:

I would say that what's been mobilized to this point -- something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably, you know, a figure that would be required. We're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems. And so it takes a significant ground-force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment, to ensure that people are fed, that water is distributed, all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this.

In a strategically damaging case of over-reacting, noted neo-conservative and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz contemptuously dismissed Shinseki's estimate as "wildly off the mark." (This came 47-48 months before the vaunted "surge.")

It's too much to ask of anyone, including General Shinseki, to resign when his opinion does not hold sway. (Resigning out of principle is not a time-honored tradition in American government, Cyrus Vance notwithstanding.) Nor, as CNN Senior PentagonCorrespondent Jamie McIntyre points out in "Myth of Shinseki Lingers," was it "really part of his job to take part in direct war planning." But the general kept any of his reservations about Iraq war strategy to himself and when the joint chiefs were asked by then-Chairman General Richard Meyers to voice any concerns "about the plans before they went to the president, Shinseki kept silent." Shinseki, whose influence had been undermined by allies of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, served out his term as Army chief of staff and retired in 2003.

Eric Shinseki may prove to be an excellent head of the Veterans Administration, underfunded with an annual budget nearing $100 billion. He may be an effective administrator and (video below), as Obama stated, leave no one to "question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure that they (veterans) have the support that they need." (And there appears to be nothing bad about this symbolically satisfying nomination.) But the president-elect's remark "no one will ever doubt that this former Army chief of staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans" probably says less about General Shinseki than it does about us.

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