Karmic justice: Gen. Eric Shinseki

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.


(Shinseki after his retirement, at a museum in his honor in Hawaii. Photo from a profile of him at this official Army web site.)

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 after the jump.

From the Atlantic version of Blind into Baghdad, published nearly five years ago

As the war drew near, the dispute about how to conduct it became public. On February 25 [2003] the Senate Armed Services Committee summoned all four Chiefs of Staff to answer questions about the war--and its aftermath. The crucial exchange began with a question from the ranking Democrat, Carl Levin. He asked Eric Shinseki, the Army Chief of Staff, how many soldiers would be required not to defeat Iraq but to occupy it. Well aware that he was at odds with his civilian superiors at the Pentagon, Shinseki at first deflected the question. "In specific numbers," he said, "I would have to rely on combatant commanders' exact requirements. But I think ..." and he trailed off.

"How about a range?" Levin asked. Shinseki replied--and recapitulated the argument he had made to Rumsfeld.

I would say that what's been mobilized to this point, something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers, are probably, you know, a figure that would be required.
We're talking about post-hostilities control over a piece of geography that's fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems. And so, it takes significant ground force presence to maintain safe and secure environment to ensure that the people are fed, that water is distributed, all the normal responsibilities that go along with administering a situation like this.

Two days later Paul Wolfowitz appeared before the House Budget Committee. He began working through his prepared statement about the Pentagon's budget request and then asked permission to "digress for a moment" and respond to recent commentary, "some of it quite outlandish, about what our postwar requirements might be in Iraq." Everyone knew he meant Shinseki's remarks.

"I am reluctant to try to predict anything about what the cost of a possible conflict in Iraq would be," Wolfowitz said, "or what the possible cost of reconstructing and stabilizing that country afterwards might be." This was more than reluctance--it was the Administration's consistent policy before the war. "But some of the higher-end predictions that we have been hearing recently, such as the notion that it will take several hundred thousand U.S. troops to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq, are wildly off the mark."

This was as direct a rebuke of a military leader by his civilian superior as the United States had seen in fifty years. Wolfowitz offered a variety of incidental reasons why his views were so different from those he alluded to: "I would expect that even countries like France will have a strong interest in assisting Iraq's reconstruction," and "We can't be sure that the Iraqi people will welcome us as liberators ... [but] I am reasonably certain that they will greet us as liberators, and that will help us to keep requirements down." His fundamental point was this: "It's hard to conceive that it would take more forces to provide stability in post-Saddam Iraq than it would take to conduct the war itself and to secure the surrender of Saddam's security forces and his army. Hard to imagine."

None of the government working groups that had seriously looked into the question had simply "imagined" that occupying Iraq would be more difficult than defeating it. They had presented years' worth of experience suggesting that this would be the central reality of the undertaking. Wolfowitz either didn't notice this evidence or chose to disbelieve it. What David Halberstam said of Robert McNamara in The Best and the Brightest is true of those at OSD [Office of the Secretary of Defense] as well: they were brilliant, and they were fools.

Thanks for the Atlantic's Marc Ambinder for a post that first alerted me to this news.