Man on a Mission

‘No Drama’ Obama Finally Takes Charge and Sacks Shinseki

As usual, the president waited too long to act. Meanwhile, let's judge Eric Shinseki on his entire record of service, not just this.

Mark Wilson/Getty

It was clear Eric Shinseki had to resign, oh… two weeks ago, wasn’t it? All the mitigating realities—that GOP congresses cut funding for Veterans Affairs, that the VA always has big problems, that it did other good things on his watch, and so on—may be true. But they don’t change the bottom-line fact that the scandal was real and horrible, and it was happening in the agency he ran.

I yearn for an America where people in positions of leadership actually take actual responsibility for their actual failures. This applies to Shinseki in the current case but also to our entire litigious ass-covering culture, both public and private sectors (the private sector is in fact far, far worse in this way; half the gonefs who sent the country into near-Depression are still making billions). Shinseki is an honorable patriot who’s been smeared unjustly in the past (more on that later). But here, he should have just stood up two weeks ago and said: “Yep, I did a bad job running the VA. I’m really sorry. It’s time for me to leave.”

And, of course, President Obama should have acted sooner. The only thing that the delay of the inevitable accomplished was to give Republicans two weeks in which to repeat and repeat and repeat the criticisms that he’s aloof and out of touch and that he doesn’t care about the military. I don’t see the second charge resonating outside their base. At this point, nearly six years in, most Americans are persuaded that Obama is in fact not out to sabotage our glorious armed forces.

The first criticism, though, will resonate outside the right wing, and, well, for good reason. It’s true. “No Drama” Obama might consider that sometimes a little drama can be a good thing. The VA could use some drama right about now. He should put someone in there who has a reputation as a bit of an ass-kicker, and he should make sure that that person gives the public thorough and frank reports three, six, nine, and 12 months from now, so that we know things are changing for the better.

It should also be a person who can, with force and credibility, go before the Republicans in Congress and say to them that one of the big problems here is the ongoing and woeful shortage in the VA and the VHA (Veterans’ Health Administration) of doctors, nurses, and nurse practitioners. Capital funding has also taken a hit, and someone needs to be running that agency who has a chance of going to the Republicans in Congress—the same people who bash Obama and pull out their violins whenever the topic of veterans’ care arises—and tell them to put up or shut up.

Of course, another problem that’s been confronting the VA in recent years has been the fact that lately, we have a lot more returning veterans than normal; more veterans than we’ve seen since Vietnam. This is the kind of thing that happens when you go around starting wars thinking you’re going to win them in six weeks and then being totally unprepared for reality when you don’t. Obama didn’t create this situation, although of course with respect to Afghanistan he did add to it for a time, because he was handed such a holy mess to clean up. But in the main he didn’t build this army of poor men and women who’ve come home with hands blown off and heads shattered, killing themselves at unprecedented rates. George Bush and Dick Cheney did that. Surely if we’d not gone crazy after 9/11, we wouldn’t have so many veterans dealing with so much trauma in the first place, but instead would have thousands of veterans who’d spent their service at Ft. Ord rather than Fallujah.

And this brings us back to Shinseki. He failed at this job, true. But at an earlier job, as Army chief of staff, he was awfully prescient about how bad things were going to get in Iraq if the United States followed the advice of Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz. After Shinseki testified before that war’s start that securing Iraq would require several hundred thousand troops to pacify the country, he was subject to a relentless campaign of vilification led by those three and their associates, carried out by the right-wing media.

But Shinseki, of course, was right. And here’s the thing. He never wagged an “I told you so” finger in anybody’s face. James Fallows of The Atlantic recounts in this article that, for a book Fallows wrote on the Iraq war, he all but begged Shinseki to do that, or at least give him an interview. No dice. Shinseki, Fallows wrote, “could have had a lucrative career on the talk show/lecture circuit giving ‘I told you so’ presentations, has not indulged that taste at all.”

So while you’re thinking about Eric Shinseki, think about that episode, too. He may have messed this assignment up, but he still comes out of the wash way ahead of the people who gave us, by choice, all the damaged veterans he was supposed to care for.