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
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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