Gen. Shinseki's Silence

By Lawrence Di Rita
Monday, December 15, 2008

The announcement that retired Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki will be President-elect Barack Obama's nominee for secretary of veterans affairs has energized one of the most enduring myths of the Bush presidency. Among the media coverage in recent days: Gen. Shinseki "clashed with the Bush administration on its Iraq war strategy" (Associated Press). In "questioning the Pentagon's Iraq war strategy" (The Post), Shinseki "warn[ed] that far more troops would be needed than the Pentagon had committed" (New York Times). For his candor, he was "vilified" (Boston Globe) by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Shinseki has a chance during his confirmation hearings to set the record straight: None of those statements is correct.

The source of the Shinseki narrative was testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war. Shinseki and Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan had this exchange:

Levin: "General Shinseki, could you give us some idea as to the magnitude of the Army's force requirement for an occupation of Iraq following a successful completion of the war?"

Shinseki: "In specific numbers, I would have to rely on combatant commanders' exact requirements. But I think --"

Levin: "How about a range?"

Shinseki: "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."

From this impromptu exchange, a legend has grown: Shinseki was a stalwart opponent of the "Rumsfeld" war plan. He voiced those concerns and, after being "snubbed" by Pentagon officials (Los Angeles Times), was forced from office (CBS radio affiliate WTOP-Washington).

Here are some facts: First, Shinseki, as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supported the war plan. The head of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks, and his planning staff presented their approach to the Joint Chiefs and their staffs during the development of the plan. There was ample opportunity for the chiefs to express concerns and propose alternatives. There is no record of Shinseki having objected.

Shinseki also met with the commander in chief himself to discuss the plan. On at least one occasion at the White House, President Bush asked each member of the Joint Chiefs, including Shinseki, whether he believed the Iraq war plan was adequate to the objectives. Each said it was.

Further, Shinseki was not forced from office. He retired on time in June 2003, with the full honors due a retiring chief of staff of the U.S. Army. Much has been made of the fact that the secretary of defense did not attend Shinseki's retirement. The retiree determines who is included in the ceremony. The secretary, when included, is there by invitation. For whatever reason, and with an explanation neither required nor sought, Shinseki did not ask the secretary to speak or to attend.

But these elements are incidental to the central assertion -- that Shinseki was right about basic U.S. force levels needed in post-conflict Iraq. Even allowing that Shinseki was under pressure to respond to a U.S. senator after trying to avoid answering, his estimate turned out to be far from the number of forces actually employed. "Several hundred thousands of soldiers" suggests Shinseki believed 300,000 troops would be needed for post-conflict Iraq. As it happens, and Shinseki would have known this, as many as 400,000 troops were in the pipeline for use during major conflict operations. But nowhere near that number was used. After major conflict operations ended, the number that remained in country settled around 150,000 to 160,000 (about half of Shinseki's guesstimate). Ultimately, commanders brought troop levels down to about 135,000 on the belief that a relatively lighter U.S. footprint would minimize the perception of occupation.

As the insurgency grew, and as Iraqi security forces grew in strength and capability, there was continual assessment and adjustment of the number of U.S. forces. In fact, at least twice before the January 2007 surge, force levels rose as high or nearly as high as the surge level of 165,000.

At no time, even as a surge was being considered, did anyone recommend doubling U.S. forces to the "several hundred thousand" troops Shinseki said might be needed. That's fine; conflict is all about adjusting to conditions on the ground, and his comments were made without knowing those conditions. But the fact remains that the 2007 surge level of 165,000 was much closer to the range suggested by Franks, Gen. John Abizaid (then head of U.S. Central Command) and Gen. George Casey (the current Army chief of staff), 135,000 to 160,000, than to the 300,000 figure Shinseki provided Levin.

Shinseki has remained silent about the clash that never was. Some interpret that as honorable; he does not want to comment on relations with his prior boss. To many others, though, his silence has been deafening. He has benefited immeasurably from it, even as Rumsfeld has been grossly maligned. Rumsfeld, too, has been quiet -- except for the times he defended Shinseki for having been put in a tough spot and forced to answer a question off the cuff during a congressional hearing.

Eric Shinseki served his country with distinction and is on the cusp of having another opportunity to do so. He also has a chance to right an egregious wrong. During his confirmation hearings, he can acknowledge that he did indeed support the Iraq war plan; that he had many opportunities to express himself; and that he has no desire to play the role he has been assigned: hero in a legend that has little basis in fact.

Lawrence Di Rita was special assistant to the secretary of defense from 2001 to 2006.

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