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The Shinseki Controversy Opens Him To Political Scrutiny

Col. Tom Snodgrass (Ret.), Right Side News

586px-Eric Shinseki official Veterans Affairs portrait Official image of Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki Date 30 January 2009The inexcusable failure of President Obama’s Veterans Affairs to provide timely medical care for former U.S. military personnel has thrust the Secretary of Veterans Affairs, retired U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Eric Shinseki, into the national spotlight. The VA’s abysmal performance in promptly scheduling physician appointments for veterans in need of health care, as well as the VA’s widespread attempts to illegally cover-up the VA system’s inept and incompetent functioning has naturally led to vigorous demands for Obama to fire Shinseki.

One of the leading voices calling for the termination of Shinseki’s VA leadership has been conservative Rush Limbaugh. In setting the stage on his May 16th radio program, Limbaugh portrayed Shinseki as a “Democrat hack” and a “uniformed Democrat” because Shinseki stated the number of troops that the Pentagon under President Bush planned to use in the Operation Iraqi Freedom 2003 invasion was insufficient. Limbaugh was right that Shinseki was a uniformed Democrat while on active duty and is a Democrat hack as VA Secretary. However, the reason why those charges are true is more complicated and actually somewhat different and even more nefarious than Limbaugh’s account of Shinseki’s statement about insufficient troops.

But to understand Limbaugh’s charge of Democrat partisanship to begin with, it is necessary to be aware that Shinseki had been a thorn in the Bush Republican administration’s side from the time they took office. It began when President Bush’s choice as Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, set forth the transformation of the Pentagon and the military services into a more agile post-Cold War force as one of the main goals that he wanted to accomplish during his tenure. Rumsfeld’s proposed transformation included these basic tenets of military strategy: new high-technology combat systems, reliance on air forces, and small, nimble ground forces. Immediately, Rumsfeld ran into a stonewall in then-Army Chief of Staff Shinseki who opposed changing anything about the Army. In sabotaging Rumsfeld’s efforts by obstructionism, Shinseki went behind his boss’s back to enlist the aid of his political mentor and long-time family friend, Hawaii’s Democrat Senator Daniel Inouye. So, there was politically-partisan bad blood between Shinseki and the Bush Republican administration from the get-go.

The explicit source of Limbaugh’s partisanship charge was Shinseki’s February 25, 2003 testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee concerning the size of the planned Iraq invasion force. It is very germane to note that Shinseki’s invasion troop estimate testimony was in direct response to a misleading set-up question from Senator Carl Levin, which deviously inquired about the size of the force requirement for an occupation of Iraq following a successful completion of the invasion. When testifying before congress, military officers, especially members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have a moral duty to give their candid professional advice and opinions as truthfully as they can. However, if the congressional question posed to them contains incorrect or misleading information, assumptions, or context, it is also their duty to answer and correct the question, if necessary, with the true information, applicable assumption, and in the relevant context. When officers being questioned do not correct what is wrong in the question, then their response testimony misleads the Congress and the American people. And that is exactly what occurred with Shinseki’s testimony.

In replying to Levin’s question, Shinseki stated that considerably more than double the number of soldiers would be needed in the U.S. invasion force for post-hostilities population control beyond the 145,000 troops the Bush administration planned to deploy. Shinseki’s troop strength estimate disagreeing with Rumsfeld's Defense Department’s invasion troop number set off an immediate furor in congress and in the media that was gleefully exploited by then-Senator John Kerry in criticizing Bush’s conduct of the war and in his subsequent presidential campaign against Bush in 2004.

The Levin-Shinseki verbatim testimony --

SEN. LEVIN: General Shinseki, could you give us some idea as to the magnitude of the Army’s force requirement for the occupation of Iraq following a successful completion of the war?

GEN. SHINSEKI: In specific numbers, I would have to rely on combatant commanders’ exact requirement. But I think –

SEN. LEVIN: How about a range?

GEN. 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. We are talking about post-hostility control over a piece of geography that is fairly significant, with the kinds of ethnic tensions that could lead to other problems. So it takes a significant ground force presence to maintain a safe and secure environment, to ensure people are fed, water is distributed, all of the normal responsibilities that go along with such a situation.”

The Doctrinal Basis of Shinseki’s Invasion Troop Strength Estimate

In regard to military manpower required to subdue and control an enemy population, the U.S. military doctrine ratio, based on studies by the RAND Corporation and others, is generally 20 soldiers for every 1,000 indigenous inhabitants in an occupied country. Given that the population of Iraq in 2003 was 25 million, according to the U.S. military doctrine ratio, the U.S. invasion force should have numbered around 500,000; however, that number would have been next impossible to achieve because the size of the active U.S. Army in 2003 was 490,000. Nevertheless, Shinseki’s response to the specific question posed by Senator Levin was an accurate answer regarding the occupation force requirement for Iraq in terms of doctrine derived from military historical experience.

U.S. Invasion Planning and Different Strategies

However, Shinseki’s rejoinder to Levin, while doctrinally sound, did not honestly address the military situation confronting the Pentagon and U.S. Congress as conceptualized by Bush administration defense planners. As Chief of Staff of the Army Shinseki was well aware that Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense had no intention of occupying Iraq after defeating and deposing Saddam Hussein. According to Rumsfeld’s memoire, Known and Unknown (p.482), he envisioned quickly setting up a new Iraqi government that would renounce Saddam’s aggressive policies and weapons of mass destruction, with U.S. forces then withdrawing from the country as quickly as possible. Consequently, under the Rumsfeld Department of Defense planning, there would be absolutely no “nation-building” that required the massive occupation force. Rumsfeld’s 145,000-man invasion force was sized only to defeat Saddam’s army, not to occupy the country and install a democratic government, much less construct countrywide public service utilities infrastructure and fight multiple Iraqi insurgent forces. Shinseki knew perfectly well that Levin was asking his question with the false occupation premise in order to open Bush’s conduct of the war to charges of mismanagement by Democrats. Kerry and other Democrats wasted no time in doing just that, using the disingenuous Levin-Shinseki congressional exchange as their basis.

As noted, Levin’s question was misleading because the Bush administration had no plan for a lengthy occupation of Iraq. In fact, Bush had campaigned and been elected in 2000 with a national defense platform that specifically pledged no nation-building as the U.S. had been doing in the Balkans during the 1990’s under the Democrats prior to his election. Rumsfeld had proposed in 2002 that, following a successful invasion, Iraqis should be quickly incorporated into the governing of Iraq through the formation of a provisional council, the Iraqi Interim Authority (IIA). The IIA would immediately be given only limited responsibilities, but its significant role would be to serve as the Iraqi face of the entity governing Iraq. It only made sense to anticipate that Iraqis would sooner or later rebel at being governed by foreigners over an extended period of time.

However, if the Bush administration began the invasion of Iraq with no intention of occupying Iraq, how did they become engaged in the disastrous, failed occupation and nation-building?

Why the U.S. Meandered into Occupation and Nation-Building

Opposing Rumsfeld’s quick in-and-out strategy was Secretary of State Colin Powell and the Department of State. Powell’s Iraq postwar philosophy was summed up in his much-quoted pre-invasion advice to Bush: “You break it, you own it, you fix it.” The State Department plan that Powell championed envisaged open-ended postwar occupation and border-to-border nation-building to “fix” a broken Iraq.

But Powell is not alone in sharing the ignominy of having led the U.S. into the quicksand of Iraq occupation. The indecisive National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and the inept and egoistic Ambassador Paul Bremer, top civilian administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority, teamed up with Powell to undermine and reverse in increments the original Bush administration’s no-occupation policy. However, there was no formal National Security Council decision changing the original no-occupation policy that was in effect as far as Bush, Rumsfeld, and the Department of Defense were concerned when the invasion began. The problem was that the size of U.S. force was not increased to carry out the Powell-Rice-Bremer over-ambitious democratization and nation-building schemes that went into effect piecemeal as the war wore on. Bremer in Iraq, in conjunction with Powell and Rice in D.C., essentially reversed the president’s no-occupation policy using the salami tactic of implementation of change through small decisions without ever addressing the monumental change head-on.

The slide into the occupation fiasco was made possible by Bush’s lackadaisical and unfocused oversight of the U.S. postwar policy and conduct. Bush never forcefully and definitively clarified who was absolutely in charge of managing U.S. military and diplomatic operations in postwar Iraq – Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice, or Bremer. As a result of the ambiguity in the chain of command, Bremer, who was purportedly to report to Bush through Rumsfeld, would circumvent Rumsfeld to confer separately with Powell and Rice on policy matters, after which he would then choose whose counsel he preferred to follow. Bremer took orders from everybody and nobody. Furthermore, the arrogant Bremer ruled by decree without consultations and angered everyone he dealt with in Iraq, Americans and Iraqis. The Powell-Rice-Bremer forces successfully opposed and killed Rumsfeld’s IIA Iraqi governing face idea. Their school of thought was of the belief that only Americans were capable of designing and constructing a viable Iraqi government!

Rumsfeld initially granted Bremer a great deal of latitude in order to adjust to the very difficult situation he faced, but Rumsfeld soon realized that there were “too many hands on the steering wheel” and in October 2003 recommended changes to get the careening situation under control. No action was taken on his proposal and the situation continued just deteriorating.

Between Bremer’s incompetence and the seemingly unending U.S. rule that Iraqis resented as foreign and illegitimate, the predictable insurgency broke out, which Rumsfeld had sought to avoid by advocating a hasty departure of U.S. forces. Soon we were fighting insurgencies against at least a dozen different major organizations. However, the four principal enemy forces were the secular Baathist nationalists known as the ‘Fedayeen Saddam,’ the Shia jihadist Muqtada al-Sadr ‘Madhi Army,’ the Sunni jihadist ‘Salafi Iraqi Islamists,’ and the Sunni jihadist ‘Al Qaeda in Iraq’ composed of foreign Islamists.


Shinseki’s willingness to shill for Levin in his congressional testimony in order to provide the Democrats with a basis for partisan criticism of Bush’s conduct of the Iraq War discredits his protestations that deflect responsibility for the VA mismanagement from himself, Obama, and the Democrat Party. When Shinseki was prepared to forsake his officer’s moral duty to truthfully answer a congressional question by pointing out the fallacious premise of Levin’s inquiry, he has made his testimony and statements regarding other serious matters with partisan political implications very suspect.

Responsibility for America’s miserable failure of Iraq post-invasion policy rests squarely with Bush, Powell, Rice, Bremer, and Rumsfeld. Theirs was a combination of bad ideas and careless management.

Both of these significant national failings are related in that they demonstrate America’s current dearth of national level political and national security leadership, Democrat and Republican.

See the Colonel's Archive

Col Thomas Snodgrass USAFCol. Thomas Snodgrass, USAF (retired) served over a year in Peshawar, Pakistan, working with Pakistani military intelligence. During his year in Vietnam he daily scheduled 130 U.S. Army and Air Force intelligence collection aircraft. In his final overseas tour he was the U.S. Air Attaché behind the Iron Curtain in Warsaw, Poland. In total, Col. Snodgrass was variously an Intelligence Officer or an International Politico-Military Affairs Officer serving duty tours in seven foreign countries, as well as teaching military history and strategy at the Air War College, US Air Force Academy, and USAF Special Operations School during a thirty-year military career. Additionally, he was awarded an Air Force scholarship to get a history master’s degree in revolutionary insurgent warfare at the University of Texas, as well as being granted a year's educational sabbatical to teach and to write about international relations on a graduate school level as an Air Force Research Associate at the Center for Advanced International Studies, University of Miami, Florida. Following the Air Force, Col. Snodgrass was an adjunct professor of military history for ten years at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Arizona.

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