Paul Greenberg: A general's farewell salute

Eric Shinseki spent a lifetime serving his country before being ill served by a vast bureaucracy with deep-seated dysfunctions beyond even his ability and dedication to cure.

A four-star general, former chief of staff, and a combat veteran who left part of one foot in Vietnam, his most notable service may not have been on the battlefield but in the counsels of war, which can be just as treacherous and exasperating.

The general spoke truth to power only to see his prescient advice ignored by a president and the incompetents around him as they dealt with the continuing threat Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq had become. And remained even after that dictator had been overthrown, for the remnants of his army launched a deadly guerrilla war of suicide bombings and improvised explosives with but one object: chaos.

It was Gen. Shinseki who tried to warn his commander-in-chief that it would require many more troops to occupy that morass of a country than it had taken to overrun it. Misled by his generals and by armchair generals like a secretary of defense who was better at making quips than strategy (Donald Rumsfeld), George W. Bush brushed off the warning. He chose to rely on other generals and various time-servers -- rather than the one man in his inner circle who had dared level with him.

That president learned better in time, but not before Iraq was thrown into chaos, and the American occupation was proving a disaster.

Instead of just giving up and leaving Iraq to its bloody fate, and the Middle East with it, George W. Bush finally cleaned house. And decided to go with the one commander who knew what he was doing -- the way Lincoln finally found Grant after enduring one bloody debacle after another.

That general's name was David Petraeus, and he'd written the book on counter-insurgency. Given command, Gen. Petraeus would devise the Surge in Iraq that turned everything around, and transformed defeat into success. After a whole pack of pols had said the Surge would never work, it did. (Leading the the pack was a young senator from Illinois named Barack Obama and an always ambitious one named Hillary Clinton.)

In the end, Gen. Petraeus would be undone not by the enemy but by his own indiscretions, but before that he was able to hand over a restored Iraq with a fighting chance to survive and even prosper. Even if his work and foresight would soon enough prove in vain after a president who thought he knew better (the selfsame Barack Obama) withdrew the American troops there and left the country to its worst elements.

As for Gen. Shinseki, he retired to civilian life, and was given an impossible mission: Straighten out the Veterans Administration and its multitude of problems, which had metastasized over the years -- over the decades. Gen. Shinseki made a manful effort to do just that, and actually carried out some long overdue reforms, like shortening patients' waiting times and trying to deal with the homelessness many disabled vets had fallen into.

But in the end the VA's inspector general had to report that the talk of scandal was all too true. Veterans were being left to die while they awaited treatment, and a double set of books was being kept here and there to make it appear they were being scheduled for treatment when they weren't.

When all that was revealed, Gen. Shinseki was made a scapegoat for the VA's many failings. He had to know his time as its head was over when even John McCain, the war hero who never minces words, and who had been the general's most stalwart defender in the Senate, admitted it was time for him to go. And last week he went. Not because he was directly responsible for each and every shameful failure that has riddled the VA for years, but because, as an officer and a gentleman, he remembered the first duty of a leader: A commander is responsible for all that his unit does -- and fails to do.

Eric Shinseki was not about to take refuge in that most shameful of modern excuses: "I only work here." Well done, general. Again.

. . .

Meanwhile, shocking news arrived: Jay Carney is quitting as White House press secretary. What an irretrievable loss.

Who now will mislead the country, repeat the most transparent cover stories, back and fill and generally hem and haw to his boss' immense satisfaction, and do it all in this president's own disingenuous style?

Mr. Carney was our own contemporary version of Ron Ziegler, R. Nixon's bumbling spokesflack. And now he's chosen to leave his all too fillable post. Some of us will miss him and all the insight he's provided, if unintentionally, into how this administration's PR operation works. Or doesn't.

The job of White House press secretary isn't easy to do with any intergity. Has there been a straight-shooter in that post since Tony Snow? How he did it -- practicing candor with the American people and demonstrating loyalty to his boss, George W. Bush, at the same time -- still mystifies. But we're not likely to see another such soon or any time.

Instead, the next Jay Carneys wait in line like so many megaphones, ready to amplify whatever a smooth-talking president says. I can hardly wait.

(Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. His e-mail address is pgreenberg@arkansasonline.com.)

(c) 2014 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.

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