Vets Affairs Pick Known For Contradicting Rumsfeld

Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki listens as he is introduced by President-elect Obama in Chicago, Dec. 7. i

Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki listens as he is introduced by President-elect Obama as his choice for secretary of veterans affairs on Dec. 7, 2008, in Chicago. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images
Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki listens as he is introduced by President-elect Obama in Chicago, Dec. 7.

Retired Gen. Eric Shinseki listens as he is introduced by President-elect Obama as his choice for secretary of veterans affairs on Dec. 7, 2008, in Chicago.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Eric Shinseki, President-elect Obama's choice to be the next secretary of veterans affairs, is probably best known as the general who questioned Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's strategy in Iraq on the eve of the war.

On Wednesday, Shinseki will return to Capitol Hill, the place where he made his reputation — this time, for his Senate confirmation hearing.

Shinseki first distinguished himself in an earlier war — Vietnam. He served two combat tours there and was awarded the Purple Heart twice. He lost part of his foot when he stepped on a land mine. After that, Shinseki had to fight to stay in the military. Eventually, he rose to become the first Asian-American four-star general.

But for all his achievements, Shinseki's career has come to be defined by that moment on Feb. 25, 2003 — a month before the invasion of Iraq — when Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin asked him a question at a Senate hearing.

"Gen. Shinseki, could you give us some idea as to the magnitude of the Army's force requirement for an occupation of Iraq?" Levin asked.

"In specific numbers, I would have to rely on combatant commanders' exact requirements," he replied. But when Levin pressed him for a range, Shinseki answered, "I would say that what's been mobilized to this point — something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers are probably a figure that would be required."

Several hundred thousand soldiers was way above Rumsfeld's estimates. Rumsfeld quickly administered a public scolding: "The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces is far from the mark."

Out of that clash was born something of a legend: the soft-spoken Shinseki as the one man who stood up to Rumsfeld and lost his job for it.

'A Clear Vindication'

"I think all of us understood at the time that he was confronting the Rumsfeld administration face-on," says retired Army Gen. Bob Scales. He has known Shinseki since the 1980s, when they first worked together. Scales says that when Shinseki was picked last month to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, it helped set the record straight on Iraq.

"It was a clear vindication that at the end of the day, Rick turned out to be right," Scales says. "His prognostication of how that war would evolve over time turned out to be correct. And Rick comes down on the right side of history."

Rumsfeld aides have disputed that version of history. They deny that Shinseki was forced from office — pointing out he retired as scheduled months after that testimony and with full honors. And they argue that if Shinseki had real concerns about troop levels, he could have spoken up earlier and more forcefully. Instead, Shinseki mostly kept quiet. There is no public record of him objecting to the war plans.

Political Baggage?

At Shinseki's Senate confirmation hearing for the veterans affairs job, he will surely be asked about the episode. But Paul Rieckhoff, for one, is hoping he doesn't dwell on it.

Rieckhoff, head of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, believes that Shinseki has the potential to be a "transformative figure" at the VA, but that political baggage from six years ago won't help him.

"He's going to have to show that he's not just the guy who challenged Rumsfeld," Rieckhoff says. "He's not just the guy who would have been right on troop numbers inside Iraq. He's got to make it clear that that political element is behind him. And that now he's focused on caring [for] and supporting our veterans coming home."

If confirmed, Shinseki would face the challenge of fixing a broken agency at a time when budgets are tight and the number of wounded veterans is growing.

The consensus so far, though, appears to be that Shinseki is up to the challenge. Sen. Daniel Akaka, who is chairing Wednesday's hearing, has already gone on record praising his judgment and calling the general "a great choice."

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