December 9, 2008 – In the Bush administration, General Eric K. Shinseki committed the crime of truth-telling: He told the Senate in early 2003 that maintaining order in Iraq would take far more US troops than Donald Rumsfeld planned for. It cost him his job as Army chief of staff. That same virtue, honesty, should stand him in good stead now that President-elect Barack Obama has nominated him to be secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
The choice is a stinging rebuke not just of Rumsfeld and President Bush for failing to take Shinseki’s advice on the Iraq war, but also of the administration’s weak effort to solve the medical, educational, emotional, and employment problems that veterans are having in returning to civilian life. Just as the Bush administration thought it could oust Saddam Hussein and create a peaceful, democratic Iraq with a bare-bones force, it has tried to skimp on veterans services.
If confirmed, Shinseki will face the challenge first of reducing the unconscionable six months to a year that it now takes many veterans to qualify for disability coverage, or to transition from military medical care to the veterans’ system. Also, veterans health facilities often lack the psychiatrists and psychologists needed to treat and counsel veterans suffering from traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder. The new secretary will have to oversee implementation of the expanded GI Bill educational benefits that Congress wisely approved earlier this year.
Military leaders and veterans organizations have hailed the nomination. Shinseki, who lost most of one foot in combat in Vietnam and had to persuade military doctors to let him return to duty, said discharged service members “deserve a smooth, error-free, no-fail, benefits-assured transition into our ranks as veterans.” That is a tall order.
While no one doubts that Shinseki would speak up if he thought Congress or the administration’s own numbers-crunchers were not giving him the money he needs, there is concern that his low-key style might not be up to the formidable task of shaking up the department’s bureaucracy. Critics said that, as Army chief of staff in 2002 and 2003, Shinseki should have fought harder to get Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, to plan for the several hundred thousand troops that Shinseki predicted would be needed to occupy Iraq.
But in that dispute, Shinseki could not count on the backing of the president. Obama made clear in nominating him Sunday that Shinseki would have that support. That should put some steel in his management of the department. It badly needs a forceful advocate at its head.