We rarely agree with Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank. But to his credit, Mr. Milbank nails it on the VA scandal and the need for Eric Shinseki to step down. From his latest column:
"Reports have documented the deaths of about 40 veterans in Phoenix who were waiting for VA appointments — the latest evidence of widespread bookkeeping tricks used at the agency to make it appear as though veterans were not waiting as long for care as they really were. The abuses have been documented over several years by whistleblowers and leaked memorandums, and confirmed by a host of government investigators.
That’s bad enough. Worse was Shinseki’s response when he finally appeared before a congressional committee Thursday to answer questions about the scandal. He refused to acknowledge any systemic problem and declined to commit to do much of anything, insisting on waiting for the results of yet another investigation.
“If any allegations are true,” Shinseki told the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, “they’re completely unacceptable to me.”
“If any are substantiated by the inspector general,” he said, “we will act.”
If, indeed. Watching the VA mess unfold--and the secretary's reaction--has been a study in slow-motion buffoonery. At this point, the only people who don't believe there are serious problems at the Veteran's Administration are General Shinseki, and Jon Tester, the imbecilic Senator from Montana who told an MSNBC audience that "vets love the VA," and overall, the agency is "doing a pretty darn good job." Even host Joe Scarborough called him on that one, saying that Tester may be "one of the few people in America" who believes that line of bull.
Of course, Jon Tester isn't running the VA--but Eric Shinseki is. You would assume that a former Army Chief of Staff, West Point grad and two-time recipient of the Purple Heart would understand the gravity of the crisis at his agency and take decisive action. Then again, you'd be wrong.
What we're seeing with General is a toxic blend of incompetence and hubris. First of all, a service academy pedigree and flag rank does not confer superior leadership abilities, regardless of what we're led to believe. The U.S. military has produced its share of senior duds down through the years, and Eric Shinseki may fall in that category. Put another way, I've met several retired Army officers and senior NCOs who were more impressed with his political skills than his generalship.
But there's little doubt that General Shinseki has supreme confidence in his own abilities, and probably believes there isn't a problem he can't solve, or a crisis he can't weather. He was taught a long time ago that the worst reaction to any crisis is to panic, or start lopping off heads "without the facts." In his mind's eye, Shinseki is still gathering information and will make the right decision when he has all the data.
And, as an officer who spent a number of years in the power corridors of D.C., Shinseki also understands the value of playing for time. As long as he has the confidence of the President, the embattled VA Secretary believes he can stretch out the crisis, appoint a blue ribbon panel to recommend fixes, create the illusion of reform, and leave on his own accord.
Unfortunately, that approach doesn't work well with 40 dead veterans and clear evidence of wrong-doing at various VA centers around the country. Perhaps General Shinseki should take a leadership page from General George C. Marshall, who sacked hundreds of senior officers after Pearl Harbor because he knew they couldn't get the job done. Obviously, it's far more difficult to get rid of incompetent bureaucrats than lousy generals, but the point is that Eric Shinseki hasn't even tried. Faced with the latest crisis in the VA's long history--and there have been many--the man at the top is reacting in a manner that is completely wrong.
Which brings us to another example from the annals of World War II. Despite ample warning that an attack on the Philippines would follow the strike on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. Commander in the Far East--the legendary Douglas MacArthur--reacted with confusion and disbelief. He refused to let his air commander, Major General Lewis Brereton, launch pre-emptive strikes against Japanese forces on Formosa. And when the enemy invasion came, MacArthur insisted on a "beach defense," instead of quickly withdrawing into more defensible terrain on the Bataan Peninsula.
By the time MacArthur recovered, it was too late. In April 1942, MacArthur was ordered to evacuate to Australia and what was left of his command surrendered to the Japanese. FDR awarded MacArthur the Congressional Medal of Honor for his "conspicious gallantry" in leading his forces against the invaders. During those desperate, early days of World War II, the President decided that America needed heroes, and MacArthur fit the bill. Talk about his indecision after Pearl Harbor (and the tactical blunders that followed) was either ignored or dismissed.
Watching Eric Shinseki before Congress last week, I saw that "deer-in-the-headlights" look that General Brereton and other visitors to MacArthur's penthouse witnessed in 1941. But unlike General MacArthur, there won't be a medal or promotion for Shinseki--just the wreckage of his own career, destroyed by arrogance and indecision.