Shinseki appointment: a good omen

A few years ago, writing about the Bush administration’s responsibility for the horrors at Abu Ghraib, I noted that “people are more likely to lose their positions for telling the truth than for screwing up.”

Trying to predict the course of the next administration based on a few appointments is a fool’s game. Nevertheless I take it as a good omen that Barack Obama has chosen retired General Eric Shinseki as his Secretary for Veterans’ Affairs.

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– essentially forced out– 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.

Perhaps Obama is more interested in smart, competent truth-tellers than in yes-men and women who may or may not be suited for their jobs.

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