THE BLOG
12/01/2005 02:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Nancy Pelosi, the Shinseki Myth and things that really piss me off

One of the things that drives me batshit about Washington is a bipartisan inability among pols to be satisfied with a wholly truthful, but still winning, talking point. Instead, all too often they exaggerate, presumably for overkill.

Take, for example, the Shinseki myth.

It goes like this: Then-Army Chief of General Staff Eric Shinseki was fired from his post (or “retired” as John Kerry put it in a presidential debate last year) because he testified before Congress that an occupying force of “several hundred thousand soldiers” would be required in Iraq.

The latest Democrat to spread this myth was House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. Appearing on The Daily Show Wednesday night, Pelosi said:

I remind you the president – when General Shinseki said that you need 300,000 troops in order to get the job done and come home safely and soon, he was fired. So this president saying that he listens to the commanders in the field, I don’t know about that.

Here’s the problem with that story: It’s not true. Shinseki wasn’t fired. He wasn’t retired early. He retired from the Army after serving out his full term.

Now, it’s true that the Bush administration scoffed at and undercut Shinseki. As I noted in Salon last year: “The Pentagon's civilian leadership responded with speed and force -- against Shinseki. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told the House Budget Committee that Shinseki's estimate was ‘wildly off the mark.’ Having rejected Shinseki's estimate -- not his alone but the work of the Army's top planners -- Wolfowitz laid out a different scenario. Iraqis would greet allied forces as ‘liberators ... That will help us to keep requirements down.’ Rumsfeld gave a similar formulation to reporters: ‘The idea that it would take several hundred thousand U.S. forces I think is far off the mark,’ he said.”

It’s true that word of Shinseki’s successor was leaked 14 months before the end of his term, making him a lame duck. (The Washington Monthly’s Kevin Drum has an excellent run-down of all this on his blog here.)

So it would have been perfectly true and perfectly effective for Pelosi to say: When General Shinseki said that you need several hundred thousand troops in order to get the job done and come home safely and soon, he was mocked and undercut.

But why settle for the truth when there’s a better sound bite in our midst?

UPDATE (2:55 PM): To answer progdem's question -- the Joint Chiefs serve fixed, four-year terms. Shinseki was sworn in as Army chief in June of 1999 and retired in June of 2003. He served his full term.

Was he -- choose your term -- beheaded/castrated/undercut/etc? Absolutely. And I'm not defending the DoD on that. (Again, see my Salon pieces last year and this year on DoD screw-ups in war planning.) But remember that the laming of Shinseki -- the leak that General Keane would succeed him (though of course Keane didn't in the end) -- came almost a year before Shinseki made his "hundreds of thousands" comment.

But the broader point here is that Pelosi knows -- or should know -- all of this but still perpetuates the myth because it's a good talking point. Our elected officials shouldn't be allowed to play fast-and-loose with the facts, regardless of whether we agree with the point they're trying to make.

I find disquieting and a bit perplexing (though I suppose not surprising) the posts that accuse me of picking nits, splitting hairs and playing the "definition of is" game. Perhaps dynapro, samizdat, OldNorm, et al might answer this: Suppose instead of an anti-war Dem, I had taken to task a pro-war GOPer? Would you swing to their defense as well? Is it OK for our public officials to make factually incorrect statements, or is it only OK if the official is on the proper side of the debate?