Naming Eric Shinseki as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, which came as a surprise to most observers, was among the most astute and farsighted political decisions announced by the Obama transition team to date. By definition, a retired four-star Army general is qualified for this post, and this particular general carries a powerful symbolic value because he stood up publicly against the Bush administration’s flawed occupation plan for Iraq and paid a price for it.
But the meaning of the Shinseki appointment goes well beyond any retroactive criticism of the war (although Obama supporters troubled by the seemingly hawkish character of the new national security cabinet will surely appreciate that aspect).
By selecting a nonpartisan flag officer who clashed directly with the Bush White House over his concern for the troops — a Vietnam veteran who returned to duty despite a partial amputation injury – Barack Obama paid tribute to every soldier, sailor and marine, retired or active, officer or enlisted, who spoke up against the abuse of the military and its traditions by the departing administration. The first Asian-American four-star is “held in high regard” by his comrades, as Paul Rieckhoff of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America noted in welcoming the appointment.
So the president-elect is telling veterans, their families, and their communities that he gets it. With that clear message he will continue a process that began during the past eight years: breaking the Republican lock on the partisan preferences of the military, at all levels and in every branch. If he succeeds, that will be among the most significant political shifts in the years ahead.