How Donald Rumsfeld Complicated Eric Shinseki’s Last Administration Exit

The George W. Bush defense team did not give the Vietnam veteran the respect he deserved.

National Journal
Tom DeFrank
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Tom DeFrank
May 31, 2014, 4:28 a.m.

Yes, Eric Shin­seki had to go, and he prob­ably knew it him­self once the hor­ror stor­ies sur­faced. As the re­tired four-star gen­er­al learned at West Point, the com­mand­er is ul­ti­mately re­spons­ible. While the Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion has been a ma­na­geri­al bleed­ing sore for years, the chaos and per­haps crimin­al­ity at sub­or­din­ate ech­el­ons of the VA on Shin­seki’s watch made his sur­viv­al im­possible.

But let’s not for­get that Ric Shin­seki is not just a highly dec­or­ated com­mand­er and wounded war­ri­or, los­ing part of his foot in Vi­et­nam and claw­ing his way back onto act­ive duty against the wishes of Army brass. He’s a truth-tell­er of the first rank — and that dis­play of char­ac­ter so en­raged the George W. Bush de­fense team that he en­countered some of the shab­bi­est treat­ment an of­ficer and a gen­tle­man has ever en­countered dur­ing my 46 years serving in and hanging around the Pentagon.

It didn’t help his case with the Bush­ies that Bill Clin­ton had ap­poin­ted him Army chief of staff. Moreover, De­fense Sec­ret­ary Don­ald Rums­feld, who didn’t en­joy be­ing chal­lenged, quickly took a dis­like to Shin­seki after sev­er­al policy and strategy dis­agree­ments.

Rummy was so in­tent on pun­ish­ing Shin­seki out, in fact, that he dir­ec­ted one of his flack-shop aco­lytes to leak word of his re­place­ment to The New York Times — 15 months be­fore Shin­seki’s four-year term was up.

This had the in­stant ef­fect of ren­der­ing Shin­seki a lame duck with­in the E-ring, the Pentagon’s power cor­ridor. It was cheesy, petty, shame­ful, and totally un­war­ran­ted be­ha­vi­or. The Rums­feld crowd loved them­selves for it.

When Shin­seki re­tired in June of 2003, Rums­feld and Deputy De­fense Sec­ret­ary Paul Wolfow­itz were not­able by their ab­sence at his Fort My­er send-off — an­oth­er gra­tu­it­ous, small-bore move.

Even then, they were still fum­ing over Shin­seki’s testi­mony be­fore the Sen­ate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee four months earli­er. Asked how many troops would be needed to keep the peace in a post­war Ir­aq, Shin­seki pre­dicted “sev­er­al hun­dred thou­sand.”

Rums­feld went bal­list­ic; that was far more than the low-ball fig­ure he’d been us­ing on Cap­it­ol Hill. Wolfow­itz blas­ted Shin­seki pub­licly, call­ing his es­tim­ate “wildly off the mark.” The sub-rosa snip­ing es­cal­ated from there; sud­denly it wasn’t hard at all for re­port­ers to find someone in the Rums­feld or­bit eager to dump all over the Army chief.  

Of course, his­tory has shown that Shin­seki’s prin­cipled testi­mony about Ir­aq was on the mark, and the Rums­feld/Cheney/Wolfow­itz war hawks were wrong.

Still, Obama was right to in­sist on Shin­seki’s resig­na­tion from the VA. But he was also right to sa­lute Shin­seki as “a very good man; I don’t just mean he’s an ac­com­plished man “¦ [and] an out­stand­ing sol­dier.  He’s a good per­son who’s done ex­em­plary work on our be­half.”

In the polit­ic­al game, there’s of­ten a dif­fer­ence between need­ing to go and de­serving to go. Not for the first time in a stor­ied ca­reer, Ric Shin­seki de­served bet­ter.

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