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Forced out for Iraq predictions, retired general chosen for VA post

Eric Shinseki may be selected today. Eric Shinseki may be selected today.
Associated Press / December 7, 2008
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WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama has chosen retired General Eric K. Shinseki to be the next Veterans Affairs secretary, turning to a former Army chief of staff once vilified by the Bush administration for questioning its Iraq war strategy.

Obama will announce the selection of Shinseki, the first Army four-star general of Japanese-American ancestry, at a news conference today in Chicago. He will be the first Asian-American to hold the post of Veterans Affairs secretary, adding to the growing diversity of Obama's Cabinet.

"I think that General Shinseki is exactly the right person who is going to be able to make sure that we honor our troops when they come home," Obama said in an interview with NBC's "Meet the Press" to be broadcast today.

Shinseki's tenure as Army chief of staff from 1999 to 2003 was marked by continual tensions with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, which boiled over in 2003 when Shinseki testified to Congress that it might take several hundred thousand US troops to control Iraq after the invasion.

Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, belittled the estimate as "wildly off the mark" and the army general was forced out within months. But Shinseki's words proved prophetic after President Bush in early 2007 announced a "surge" of additional troops to Iraq after miscalculating the numbers needed to stem sectarian violence.

Shinseki, 66, was born in Lihue on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. He was educated at West Point, Duke University, and the National War College. A recipient of two Purple Hearts for life-threatening injuries in Vietnam, he was Army chief of staff, vice chief of staff, and commanding general of the Army in Europe.

Obama said he selected Shinseki for the VA post because he "was right" in predicting that the United States will need more troops in Iraq than Rumsfeld believed at the time.

"When I reflect on the sacrifices that have been made by our veterans and, I think about how so many veterans around the country are struggling even more than those who have not served - higher unemployment rates, higher homeless rates, higher substance abuse rates, medical care that is inadequate - it breaks my heart," Obama told NBC.

Shinseki will take the helm of an agency that has been roundly criticized during the Bush administration for underestimating the amount of funding needed to treat thousands of injured veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thousands of veterans face six-month waits for disability benefits, despite promises by VA Secretary James Peake and his predecessor, Jim Nicholson, to reduce delays. The department also is scrambling to upgrade technology systems before millions of dollars in new GI benefits takes effect next August.

Upon leaving his post in June 2003, Shinseki sternly warned against arrogance in leadership. "You must love those you lead before you can be an effective leader," he said in a farewell speech.

Obama's choice of Shinseki is the latest indication that the president-elect is making good on his pledge to have a diverse Cabinet.

In Obama's eight Cabinet announcements so far, white men are the minority with two nominations - Timothy Geithner at Treasury and Robert Gates at Defense. Three are women - Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security, Susan Rice as United Nations ambassador, and Hillary Clinton at State. Eric Holder at the Justice Department is African-American, while Bill Richardson at Commerce is Latino.

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