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Obama Picks Shinseki to Lead Veterans Affairs

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 7, 2008

President-elect Barack Obama today will introduce retired Army Gen. Eric K. Shinseki as his nominee to head the Department of Veterans Affairs, bringing to his Cabinet a career military officer best known for running afoul of the Bush administration by questioning the Pentagon's Iraq war strategy.

Shinseki, a four-star general and 38-year veteran who retired shortly after the fall of Baghdad in 2003, will appear with Obama in Chicago at a news conference today commemorating the 67th anniversary of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor. Obama said Shinseki agreed to join the incoming administration because "both he and I share a reverence for those who serve."

"When I reflect on the sacrifices that have been made by our veterans and I think about how so many veterans around the country are struggling even more than those who have not served -- higher unemployment rates, higher homeless rates, higher substance-abuse rates, medical care that is inadequate -- it breaks my heart, and I think that General Shinseki is exactly the right person who is going to be able to make sure that we honor our troops when they come home," Obama told NBC News' Tom Brokaw in a interview taped for broadcast today on "Meet the Press."

Shinseki was Army chief of staff when, during the run-up to the Iraq war, he publicly disputed the Bush administration's determination to invade with a relatively small force. To maintain the postwar peace in Iraq, Shinseki told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2003, "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers" could be necessary. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reacted by telling reporters that the estimate "will prove to be high," and Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul D. Wolfowitz called it "way off the mark."

When Shinseki retired that summer, neither Rumsfeld nor Wolfowitz attended his farewell ceremony.

Three years later, Gen. John P. Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command and the main architect of U.S. military strategy in Iraq, told the same committee, "General Shinseki was right." And in January 2007, President Bush ordered tens of thousands of U.S. troops back into Iraq to stabilize and secure the country.

Notably, Shinseki led the Army at the same time that Gen. James L. Jones, Obama's pick for national security adviser, commanded the Marines. Both questioned Wolfowitz's presumptions, before the war in Iraq commenced, about how the fighting would go, and they argued that the Pentagon was being too optimistic in its planning and should prepare thoroughly for worst-case scenarios.

In a 12-page private letter he wrote to Rumsfeld in June 2003 just before stepping down as chief of staff, Shinseki said: "People are central to everything we do in the Army. Institutions don't transform, people do. Platforms and organizations don't defend the nation, people do. . . . Without people in the equation, readiness and transformation are little more than academic exercises." The letter was never publicly released; The Washington Post obtained a copy this August.

Military leaders and veterans advocates hailed Obama's selection of Shinseki, describing the nominee as a soft-spoken, dynamic leader who is widely respected by rank-and-file service members past and present.

Retired Army Gen. Colin L. Powell, who was President Bush's secretary of state at the time of the Iraq invasion, called Shinseki "a superb choice. . . . He is a wounded hero who survived and worked his way to the top. He knows soldiers and knows what it takes to keep faith with the men and women who went forth to serve the nation. He also knows how to run large and complex bureaucratic institutions. His is an inspired selection." Powell, also a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supported Obama's election.

Shinseki, 66, was twice awarded a Purple Heart for injuries sustained in Vietnam.

Kori Schake, a fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution who served on Bush's National Security Council during the run-up to the war, said Shinseki is "a great choice. . . . Shinseki will be a terrific advocate for and leader of our Veterans Administration. He distinguished himself in caring for wounded warriors while chief of staff, and I'm certain he will serve veterans and the country well."

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor who writes about the Iraq war and Islam, called Shinseki's appointment ironic.

"If Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and [former undersecretary for defense Douglas J.] Feith had listened to Shinseki, there wouldn't be as many wounded veterans to take care of," Cole said. "I think this is a way of saying, 'Here was a career officer who had valuable insights who was shunted aside by arrogant civilians, and we're not going to make the same kind of mistakes.' "

Like Obama, Shinseki was born in Hawaii, and, as a Japanese American, he is the first Asian American nominated to Obama's Cabinet.

Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, which will consider the nomination, also applauded the selection. "General Shinseki is a great choice. He is well aware of the needs of our veterans and will make an excellent secretary. . . . He is a man of great ability and integrity."

If confirmed by the Senate, Shinseki would control one of the federal government's largest agencies, which administers health care and other benefits for the nation's active military and veterans, as well as their families and survivors. The 240,000-employee department is the government's second largest, behind the Defense Department.

The Veterans Affairs Department has long been a sprawling bureaucracy fraught with difficulty, and Shinseki immediately will face problems compounded by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which are contributing to a backlog in claims, an increasing suicide rate and health-care problems.

"It's an antiquated system that has been underfunded for years, really needs to get into the 21st century," said Paul Rieckhoff, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Thomas E. Ricks contributed to this report.

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