Monday, December 8, 2008

Shinseki to VA: One leader hails another

A host of leftist hothouse flowers (genus: impatience) have lately been calling for President-elect Barack Obama to follow though on their idea of a campaign pledge and stroll out on the nearest large body of water while healing the broken economy, resolving world conflicts and restoring the national brand around the world — and do it before you take office, please. Sir.

Quietly, and thankfully, Team Obama has gone about its business and ignored the restless ones inclined to look past governing as process, the ones who want the signing ceremony yesterday.

On Sunday, Pearl Harbor Day, it got even harder to deny, or even doubt, the quickly evolving political acumen of Barack Obama.

The president-elect went some distance to repairing the government’s bond and pledge to its soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan with his latest nomination: former Gen. Eric Shinseki to be the next Secretary of Veterans Affairs.

"There is no one more distinguished, more determined, or more qualified to build this VA than the leader I am announcing as our next secretary of Veterans Affairs -- Gen. Eric Shinseki," Obama said at a press conference in Chicago.

"No one will ever doubt that this former Army chief of staff has the courage to stand up for our troops and our veterans. No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure they have the support they need,"

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Shinseki spoke truth to power in February 2003, when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that "something on the order of several hundred thousand soldiers would be required" to quell sectarian disturbances in Iraq. Shinseki’s statements were said to anger then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz.

Within months of his testimony, Shinseki resigned. In keeping with a soldier of deep loyalties, Shinseki kept his counsel, apparently making few comments about the circumstances of his departure from military service, but secure in his knowledge that he’d done the right thing.

On Sunday, the next president essentially told Shinseki, a fellow Hawaii homeboy, that he had his back.

“No one will ever question whether he will fight hard enough to make sure the have the support that they need,” Obama said. “A graduate of West Point, General Shinseki served two combat tours in Vietnam where he lost part of his foot, and was awarded two Purple Hearts and three Bronze Stars.

“Throughout his nearly four decades in the United States Army, he won the respect and admiration of our men and women in uniform because they have always been his highest priority. He has always stood on principle, because he has always stood with our troops. And he will bring that same sense of duty and commitment to ensuring that we treat our veterans with the care and dignity that they deserve …”

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As with many things Obama, there were layers of nuance and substance below, or beyond, the nomination of Shinseki. We’re left surprised at how many different things one nomination for an administration post could achieve, at so many different levels.

First, Obama’s choice of Shinseki points to a Democratic president-elect comfortable with the presence of principled military power in the White House. Obama’s centrist positioning system may inflame the deep left field, but it makes sense now that the campaigner has become the president-elect. A fairly obvious tacking to the center reflects, ironically enough, precisely the kind of independent thinking the nation voted for.

Naming Shinseki to head the VA, Obama has made the choice of a capable, principled military leader to helm a critical agency at a critical juncture of the nation’s history, and he's done it on his own terms, according to his own principles, rather than obedience to political reflex.

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Not that there wasn't a political elbow being thrown. Selecting Shinseki for this post is Obama's first real sharp stick in the eye of the Bush administration and its handling of the veterans of the war in Iraq. In one stroke, the Democratic president-elect breaks the Republican grip on the stereotype of GOP concerns for a strong military. The hothouse crew overlooks the ways in which Shinseki at VA is a stunning rebuke to the Bushies.

Then, Obama’s obligatory tribute to the veterans of Pearl Harbor Day, and the remembrance of their sacrifice, took on a resonance beyond the ritual marking of the day. He timed this nomination — one that still matters deeply to veterans — to that “day of infamy” to underscore the importance of protecting (Lincoln again) “those who have borne the battle” in an unmistakable way.

Obama’s nomination of Shinseki fulfills a pledge of achieving diversity within his Cabinet and his body of advisers. If — when — confirmed, Shinseki would be the first Asian American secretary of a presidential administration. And by nominating Shinseki, a Japanese American, for the post on Pearl Harbor Day, Obama does what he can, incidentally but unmistakably, to disperse whatever residue of anti-Japanese resentment remains among the dwindling generation of veterans who remember firsthand the horrors of Dec. 7, 1941.

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In his farewell speech in June 2003, Shinseki sent a message of what he stood for, a message that would become, five years and change later, both an exposition of the failures of the administration about to exit the White House, and a challenge — and a warning — to the new crew about to move in.

Shinseki was speaking of the military and its leaders, but he might as well have been speaking of the nation, and its leaders.

“You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader,” he said. “You can certainly command without that sense of commitment, but you cannot lead without it. And without leadership, command is a hollow experience, a vacuum often filled with mistrust and arrogance.”
Image credit: Shinseki: Charles Dharapak, Associated Press. Pearl Harbor survivors: Chief Mass Communication Specialist Don Bray, USN.

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