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Obama's Military Bridge Builder

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, December 9, 2008

In naming retired Gen. Eric K. Shinseki as veterans affairs secretary, President-elect Barack Obama made what may be the most politically and morally significant choice of his transition.

Politically, Obama has been moving aggressively to close a wide gap between Democrats and the military -- and particularly between the party and the officer corps -- that began growing in the Vietnam era.

Shinseki's appointment can be seen as one of several steps the incoming president has taken to win respect and trust within the armed forces. Obama's decision to keep Robert Gates as defense secretary and his choice of retired Marine Gen. James Jones as White House national security adviser are of a piece in sending a strong, sympathetic signal to the uniformed services.

Morally, Shinseki's appointment marks the vindication of a man who was punished for telling the truth in the run-up to the Iraq war.

As the Army's chief of staff, Shinseki famously told Congress in February 2003 that "several hundred thousand soldiers" would be needed to stabilize Iraq. A month before the Iraq invasion, he predicted that because of "ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems," it would take "a significant ground force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment."

Shinseki was quickly rebuked by then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz for being "way off the mark." Vice President Cheney told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press" a few weeks later that "to suggest that we need several hundred thousand troops there after military operations cease, after the conflict ends, I don't think is accurate. I think that's an overstatement." It was no overstatement.

In naming Shinseki to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, Obama implicitly set a high standard for himself by declaring that truth-tellers and dissenters would be welcome in his administration.

There is a link between Shinseki's prophetic courage and the opening Obama has with the military: The Iraq war's impact on the politics of the armed services has been decidedly different from the impact of the Vietnam War. Iraq has created a potential problem for Republicans because many in both the officer corps and the enlisted ranks were alienated by the way President Bush and then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld handled the conflict, particularly in its early stages.

After Vietnam, by contrast, many in the military blamed liberals and the left as failing to give them a chance to win a war in which they continued to see triumph as a possibility. Some opponents of the Vietnam War turned sharply on the military and "the war machine." It remains a scandal that veterans of that conflict often bore the brunt of the war's unpopularity when they returned home.

In a seminal 1997 article in the Atlantic that addressed "The Widening Gap Between the Military and Society," Thomas Ricks, a longtime military affairs correspondent who later worked at The Post, found that officers disproportionately identified themselves as conservative Republicans. Ricks saw the "classic military values of sacrifice, unity, self-discipline, and considering the interests of the group before those of the individual" as being increasingly at odds with the values of a highly individualistic and increasingly fragmented society.

The battle over the role of gays in the military at the outset of Bill Clinton's presidency had only deepened the divide that Ricks described.

Obama, who promised repeatedly during his campaign to "turn the page" on past cultural and political divisions, has clearly set out to do precisely that where the military is concerned. He is building on a little-noticed veterans outreach effort launched by Nancy Pelosi before she became House speaker and spearheaded by her former aide Burns Strider. Democrats called attention to shortfalls in programs for veterans in Bush's budgets and built new alliances with veterans organizations.

The Shinseki appointment gives Obama a way to marry the Democrats' twin critiques of the Bush past. The new president has sent a strong signal that he will listen more closely than his predecessor did to doubters and skeptics in the uniformed ranks. And by making an admired soldier responsible for helping veterans recover from their wounds and rebuild their lives, Obama aims to show that his party's commitment to the needs of those who served their country was more than just campaign chatter.

The 66-year-old Shinseki, who was awarded two Purple Hearts during his service in Vietnam, has the opportunity to heal the social and political wounds from two wars: the one in which he fought decades ago, and the more recent conflict whose burdens he anticipated so clearly.

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