How Donald Rumsfeld Complicated Eric Shinseki's Last Administration Exit

Wally Santana/AP file photo

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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