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Sunday, December 07, 2008

Response to Rebuked Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki's Selection as Next VA Secretary

"You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader. You can certainly command without that sense of commitment, but you cannot lead without it. And without leadership, command is a hollow experience, a vacuum often filled with mistrust and arrogance." -- Retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, June 2003 farewell speech

On Pearl Harbor Day, Obama makes a stellar choice.

From the BBC:

United States President-elect Barack Obama has chosen the former army chief of staff, Eric Shinseki, as his secretary of veterans' affairs.

Mr Obama told NBC television that General Shinseki was "exactly the right person" to honour returning soldiers. Gen Shinseki left his top army job after disagreeing with the defence secretary over troop levels needed in Iraq after the invasion. He was the first four-star general of Japanese-American ancestry.

Iraq disagreement
Mr Obama made his comments ahead of a press conference on Sunday in Chicago to announce the appointment. Gen Shinseki's time as chief of staff from 1999 to 2003 was marked by constant tensions with then-Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, particularly over the issue of Iraq.

In 2003 he testified to Congress that it might take several hundred thousand US troops to control Iraq after the invasion. His estimate was dismissed by Mr Rumsfeld, and he was ousted from his job within months.

But Mr Obama said he was suitable for the post of veteran affairs because he "was right" in predicting that the US would need more troops in Iraq than Mr Rumsfeld believed at the time.

In educational interest, article(s) quoted from extensively.

James Fallows for The Atlantic:

One of the truly nauseating moments in the run-up to the Iraq war was the humiliating public rebuke that Paul Wolfowitz, then Donald Rumsfeld's #2 at the Pentagon, delivered to Eric Shinseki, then a four-star general serving as Army chief of staff.

Shinseki, a wounded combat veteran of Vietnam, was by career and reputation a cautious, methodical person. Those who criticized his performance as Army chief mainly complained that he was too traditional and non-innovative in his approach. Thus, he was constantly at odds with Rumsfeld's crew, who viewed him as a passive-aggressive, fuddy-duddy obstacle to doing things in their new lean-and-mean way.

The showdown came just before the war began. Shinseki, who had direct experience with land warfare (in Vietnam) and post-combat occupation (in the Balkans), was urging that the U.S. go in with a force large enough to ensure that it could maintain order and genuinely control Iraq's sizable territory and potentially fractious society after it ousted Saddam. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz hated this whole idea.

After the jump, a passage from my Atlantic article and subsequent book, both called Blind into Baghdad, describing what happened next. I think this also explains why it is so satisfying and right that Barack Obama will (reportedly) name Shinseki to his Cabinet as the Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

Here's one other point that is not as widely known as Rumfeld's and Wolfowitz's bullying of Shinseki: Despite being unfairly treated, despite being 100% vindicated by subsequent events, Shinseki kept his grievances entirely to himself. Although my book contains accounts of Shinseki's inside arguents with Rumsfeld et al, and his discussions with his own staff, zero of that information came from Shinseki.

I made a complete nuisance of myself requesting an interview, or a phone conversation, or an email exchange, or even some "you're getting warmer" guidance from him. Nothing doing, in any way. (I did track him down at an ROTC commissioning ceremony where he was speaking; he greeted me politely, but that was it.) I am confident in the accounts I presented, which came from a variety of first-hand participants; but Shinseki, who could have had a lucrative career on the talk show/lecture circuit giving "I told you so" presentations, has not indulged that taste at all.

So congratulations to Eric Shinseki, who has stoically served his country for decades and was wounded in that cause, in several senses, on this new honor -- and on the responsibility to help others who have served. Congratulations, too, that a Japanese-American patriot from Hawaii should receive this news on December 7. And not just congratulations but wonderment at the Obama team's deftness in the symbolism and substance of this choice.

Details of Shinseki-Wolfowitz showdown...

From PolitickerCA:

Senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco/San Mateo), chair of the Senate Select Committee on Asian Pacific Islander Affairs, issued the following statement in response to President-elect Barack Obama’s selection of Gen. Eric Shinseki as the next Veteran Affairs Secretary:

“As the son of a WWII veteran, I commend President-elect Obama on the selection of Gen. Shinseki for Veterans Affairs Secretary. Gen. Shinseki was prophetic when he testified to Congress in 2003 that it would take hundreds of thousands of US troops to stabilize Iraq after an ill-conceived invasion. As a recipient of two Purple Hearts, he understands the needs of our veterans and the dismal failure of the Bush Administration in caring for those returning from war. Under Gen. Shinseki veterans will finally receive the treatment and respect they deserve and more importantly, earned. Once again, President-elect Obama is ensuring that his administration reflects the great diversity of our nation and at last puts the needs of all Americans first.” ,

In 2003, Gen. Shinseki talked about how an administration could put America first. He said, "You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader. You can certainly command without that sense of commitment, but you cannot lead without it. And without leadership, command is a hollow experience, a vacuum often filled with mistrust and arrogance."

From IAVA:

Today, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the nation's first and largest nonpartisan organization for veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, issued the following statement in response to President-elect Obama's nomination of General Eric Shinseki to serve as the Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs:

"IAVA applauds President-elect Obama and the transition team for making this historic selection. General Shinseki has a record of courage and honesty, and is a bold choice to lead the VA into the future. The President-elect has demonstrated an understanding of the urgency of the issues facing America's veterans by making this announcement early. General Shinseki is widely-respected, honest and experienced. He is a man that has always put patriotism ahead of politics, and is held in high regard by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan. IAVA looks forward to supporting him to implement the historic change that is needed at the VA. ...

General Shinseki has a monumental task before him. To address these issues will require real leadership that encourages active VA outreach and transparency. We encourage General Shinseki to move quickly to add Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans to key positions in his senior staff.

President-elect Obama made veterans' issues a priority in his campaign, and Michelle Obama has called military families one of the issues she cares most about. We look forward to working closely with General Shinseki and the new Administration to ensure every veteran in this country gets the care and support they have earned."

Katrina Vanden Heuvel for The Nation:

On December 7th, the 67th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, President-Elect Obama will nominate the retired General-- the highest ranking Asian-American in US military history (he is Japanese-American)-- to head the Department of Veteran Affairs. The Department, second largest after Defense (with 240,000 employees) administers health and other benefits for active military and veterans. It is underfunded, antiquated and stretched to the breaking point by a war this country should never have waged.

As Joshua Kors has reported in his award-winning Nation series, we've seen a stunning pattern of benefit denials to veterans by the Department of Veteran Affairs. Misdiagnosing PTSD as preexisting "personality disorder"--in an effort to save funds on the backs of worthy vets-- is a travesty that the Department and new administration must address with sustained commitment and bring to a full stop.

Fortunately, Kors' reporting in The Nation has led to congressional hearings, an amendment to the 2008 Defense Authorization Act and, crucially, payment of back benefits for the men and women who've served their nation. Let's work with Shinseki to repair the damage done to veterans' lives, health and well-being-- and ensure that those who understand the brutality of war don't escalate another futile one in Afghanistan.

From the Honolulu Advertiser:

U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawai'i, chairman of the Veterans' Affairs committee, said:

"President-elect Obama made an excellent choice. I've worked with Eric Shinseki when he was Army chief (of staff) and he worked real well. I will tell you that I respect his judgment and I know he made good judgments when he was chief, and he will make good judgments as secretary of Veterans Affairs."

Akaka knew Shinseki before he was Army chief of staff, and in fact "pinned" Shinseki with the rank of colonel at the Pentagon.

"I think everything's happening for the best interests of the country. Anybody from Hawai'i, and in this case, Gen. Shinseki, will really add to the diversity and reflect our country," Akaka said.

U.S. Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawai'i, said:

"President-elect Obama has selected the perfect candidate for the position of Veterans secretary. He (Shinseki) was an extremely dedicated soldier who I had the honor of nominating to West Point so many years ago.

"He served with distinction and was seriously wounded. Shinseki, like many other veterans, will carry his scars to his grave. He understands the military and the needs of our veterans. I am honored to support one of Hawai'i's greatest heroes."

Veterans for Common Sense:

Veterans for Common Sense strongly supports President-Elect Barack Obama's nomination of retired Army General Eric Shinseki to become the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

As a decorated and wounded Vietnam War combat veteran, we believe he has the bold leadership experience needed to implement President-Elect Obama's agenda and reform VA for the 21st Century.

In February 2003, General Shinseki honestly and correctly assessed our Nation's military needs before the invasion of Iraq in March 2003. This same level of candor and honesty will serve President-Elect Obama well so he can quickly and accurately identify VA's many challenges and then implement responsible solutions that take into consideration our veterans' needs and concerns.

We look forward to working with President-Elect Obama and General Shinseki as they listen to our veterans’ needs, assess VA’s challenges, and move forward to provide prompt and high-quality healthcare and disability benefits to our fellow citizens who protected and defended our Constitution.

Vietnam Veterans of America [via IBT]:

"President-elect Obama's selection of General Eric Shinseki as the next Secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs is a promising choice," said John Rowan, National Presidentof Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA). "We have no doubt that General Shinseki has the integrity and personal fortitude to usher in the real changes needed to make the VA a true steward of our nation's veterans and their families.
"His selection certainly lives up to Mr. Obama's promise to bring change and hope to Washington," Rowan said. "VA bureaucrats, for whom 'change' is a dirty word, will learn that there really is a new game in town. Veterans ofall political persuasions should take heart and applaud this choice."

General Shinseki, 66, is the first Asian American to be a four-star general and to head one of the military services. In June 1999, he assumed duties as the 34th Chief of Staff of the United States Army. He ran afoul of the rose-colored optimism of the Bush administration before the war in Iraq,when he testified that it would probably require "something in the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" to maintain the peace after the invasion of Iraq. Subsequent events have proved Shinseki correct.

The general served two combat tours in Vietnam, with the 9th and 25thInfantry Divisions as an artillery forward observer and as commander of Troop A, 3rd Squadron, 5th Cavalry. He was severely wounded in action, losing partof a leg. In his long career, among his awards have been the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Clusters, the Bronze Star with "V" Device and two Oak Leaf Clusters, the Purple Heart, and the Air Medal.

"The most effective administrator of the VA was General Omar Bradley, who was brought in by President Harry Truman to clean up the old Veterans Administration," Rowan said. "We hope that General Shinseki will follow General Bradley's example and exert the strong leadership needed to overhaul today's VA, particularly with the seemingly intransigent backlog of more than 600,000 claims and appeals that seem to stagnate in the Veterans Benefits Administration," Rowan said.

[UPDATE Dec 07, 2008 - 8pm]: Additional reaction.

VA Secretary James B. Peake:

"I worked for General Shinseki when he was Army Chief of Staff and am proud to count him as a friend. He is a soldier who has dedicated his life to serving this nation. He knows service men and women, he knows large organizations, and he knows Washington.

"The more than 270,000 VA employees serve veterans of all generations with great dedication, and, with record funding over the past eight years, they deliver outstanding care. General Shinseki will be a great leader for them and a strong advocate for our veterans."

Bipartisan praise, via Bloomberg:

Shinseki’s appointment won bipartisan praise from lawmakers, with Republican Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama pledging his support and saying the former general was correct in his 2003 assessment.

“He’s a great soldier, he’s a great leader,” Shelby said today on the “Fox News Sunday” program. “We should have listened to him,” Shelby said. “We didn’t and look where we are today.”

Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan said on the Fox program that “it was wrong for the Bush administration to mistreat him the way they did.” Levin added that Obama’s choice of Shinseki shows that the president-elect “will welcome people who disagree with him to express those views to him.”

NPR's All Things Considers looks backwards and forwards:

Andrea Seabrook looks back at the moment that thrust Gen. Eric Shinseki into the spotlight: his prewar call to send far more troops into Iraq. She also speaks to Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Dana Priest, who broke the story of the deplorable conditions for veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, about the challenges Shinseki faces at the VA.

Announcement comments of Obama and Shinseki via AFP:

"For many of today's troops and their families, the war doesn't end when they come home," Obama said at a press conference in Chicago. But "far too few" are receiving the treatment they need to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, he said. Obama pledged to cut red tape, eliminate budget shortfalls and help ease the transition back to civilian life for troops returning to a troubled economy.

"No one will ever doubt that this former army chief of staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans," Obama said of Shinseki. "He has always stood on principal because he has always stood with our troops, and he will bring that same sense of duty and commitment to insuring that we treat our veterans with the care and dignity that they deserve."

For his part, Shinseki promised to open new doors of opportunity for returning troops through the VA, which is the second largest US government agency after the department of defense. "Even as we stand here today, there are veterans who have worried about keeping their health care or even their homes, paying their bills or finding a good job when they leave the service," Shinseki said.

"They deserve a smooth, error-free, no-fail benefits-assured transition into our ranks as veterans, and that is our responsibility. Not theirs."

Press announcement via Associated Press:

Sen. Patrick Leahy, Senate National Guard Caucus Co-Chair:
In choosing retired General Eric Shinseki to be Secretary of Veterans Affairs, President-elect Obama has made another impressive choice for his Cabinet. He is a straight shooter and a truth talker.

General Shinseki has tremendous character and honesty, deep experience and a clear vision. Throughout a stellar career, especially in his time as the Army's Chief of Staff, his words and deeds reflected an overwhelming care about soldiers and all of our military servicemembers.

It was a sad moment when the Bush Administration forced General Shinseki into retirement because he had the temerity to point out that the invasion of Iraq would be more difficult than they said it would be. He was right, and we would be in a much better position today if they had listened.

I'm tremendously encouraged that after eight years of mistakes and afterthought treatment by an administration whose attention was elsewhere, veterans will have a powerful and knowledgeable advocate at the top with the skill and vision to improve and modernize the veterans health care system.

A remarkable, recent Harvard Kennedy Center for Public Leadership speech given by Shinseki addresses leadership in the armed forces, its development and applications. Well worth a viewing:

Part 1

Part 2

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