The Cable

Calls Intensify for Shinseki to Resign

An array of lawmakers from both parties called on Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign following the publication of a new report describing the "systemic" practice of mishandling medical appointments at a Veterans Affairs facility in Phoenix that may have led to the deaths of 23 veterans.

On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters the president is waiting for an internal review to pass judgement on Shinseki, a review Carney said is due this week. That could set the stage for Shinseki's ouster, a prospect that is increasingly likely given the breadth of Democratic lawmakers calling for his head. 

The report that sparked the original furor, an internal assessment by the VA's Inspector General, confirmed a number of allegations plaguing the Phoenix hospital in recent months. It said 1,700 veterans waiting to see a doctor hadn't actually been scheduled for an appointment or placed on a waiting list, raising questions about how many more remained "forgotten or lost" in the system. It also said that the inspector general has expanded his review to 42 VA facilities, beyond the 26 initially designated. Earlier reports found that the VA manipulated record-keeping that covered up lengthy waiting periods for veterans, some of whom ended up dying in the process. 

In a cluster of tweets and press releases hours after the report's release on Wednesday, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), House Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Jeff Miller (R-Calif.), and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) demanded that Shinseki resign. Bleeding into Thursday, a growing number of Democrats called for his resignation, including Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), John Walsh (D-Mont.), Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.),  Mark Warner (D-Va.), Ron Barber (D-Ariz.), Carol Shea-Porter (N.H.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Jeff Merkley (D-Or.), Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Mary Landrieu (D-L.A.) and Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. 

"In light of IG report & systemic issues at @DeptVetAffairs, Sec. Shinseki must step down," tweeted Udall.

For his part, Shinseki called the IG findings "reprehensible" and ordered the 1,700 veterans be immediately given care. He has said he does not plan to step down and would instead stay in his post until the problems were fixed.

For many lawmakers, that simply isn't good enough.  McKeon, for instance, praised Shinseki's long service in the military but said the retired four-star general had lost the confidence of veterans. "General Shinseki has given his life to serving this country and for that, we are in his debt. However, the problems at the Department of Veterans Affairs have grown beyond what this nation can bear," the lawmaker said in a statement. "I believe America's veterans would be best served with a fresh set of eyes on the VA system. Only new innovations and aggressive reform can get the problems at the VA under control."

Shinseki, a Vietnam combat veteran, also received praise from Miller, who called him a "good man who has served his country honorably." Still, Miller said Shinseki "failed to get VA's health care system in order despite repeated and frequent warnings from Congress, the Government Accountability Office and the IG." Miller added that Shinseki "appears completely oblivious to the severity of the health care challenges facing the department." 

McCain, who had been reluctant to ask a fellow Vietnam veteran to resign, said on Wednesday that the situation in Phoenix wasn't an "isolated" incident. 

"Every other VA is probably going to have these same influences on them, because they were trying to comply with guidelines that were laid down from the headquarters of VA which they couldn't meet," he told CNN.  "So I haven't said this before, but I think it's time for General Shinseki to move on."

The Cable

White House To Use West Point Speech To Launch New Foreign Policy Offensive

Under fire from the left and the right for its handling of foreign policy, the Obama administration is about to go on the attack with a high-profile speech at West Point designed to show that it has plans in place to deal with Islamist militants in Afghanistan, Syria, and Africa.

The speech Wednesday is unlikely to satisfy hawks in Congress who have pressed the White House to send more weaponry to Syria's beleaguered rebels, provide more military assistance to Ukraine during its standoff with Russia, and leave a larger troop presence in Afghanistan to help prevent an al Qaeda resurgence there. But the new initiatives, which rely heavily on training forces in partner nations, may serve to combat the critique that the White House is doing nothing as the world smolders. Taken together, they also highlight what has emerged as the centerpiece of administration's view of foreign policy: act  through proxies whenever possible to minimize the chances of sparking a costly and bloody open-ended conflict and set modest goals that stay away from the sweeping -- and ultimately unfulfilled -- ambitions of the George W. Bush years.

One of the most significant announcements, expected to be delivered on Wednesday, is the president's commitment to provide additional support to the Syrian opposition and Syria's neighbors. According to reports, the administration will increase its train-and-equip efforts with the Syrian opposition. While such an initiative is unlikely to mollify Obama's toughest critics, like Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), it has won rare praise from officials in the Syrian opposition.

For months, opposition leaders have requested more powerful weapons, like shoulder-fired missiles capable of downing enemy aircraft, and training in order to defend against the regime's superior firepower and combat extremist rebel groups operating inside the country. Pentagon and CIA officials, by contrast, have worried that the weapons could fall into Islamist hands and eventually be used against the West. The CIA has been trying to figure out a way around that problem by using fingerprint scanners and GPS devices.

While it's unclear what level of support the administration will provide to the rebels, Syrian opposition members, who met with the administration recently, praised the new program. "This is potentially a momentous occasion," Oubai Shahbandar, spokesman for the opposition Syrian Coalition, told Foreign Policy. "Expanded training was part of the overall request by opposition forces ... We have cause to be cautiously optimistic."

Others in Congress are less sanguine. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he's not holding his breath for more lethal aid to reach the rebels. "The hype is never followed by reality," he said in an interview. "We did nothing when the Syrian killing fields were in their infancy so we'll wait to see what happens."

But that's not the only initiative the administration is rolling out for reporters ahead of the speech. In North and West Africa, the U.S. is sending Special Forces troops to train elite counterterrorism units in Libya, Niger, Mauritania and Mali. The hope is to establish in-country units that can deal with terror threats, such as the one posed by the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram, which kidnapped almost 300 Nigerian girls last month. The African fighters will be trained by members of the Army's Green Berets and Delta Force and financed by a classified Pentagon account, according to The New York Times.  Overall, the initiative is in line with the president's goal of avoiding costly land wars in favor of training allies to develop their own counterterrorism capabilities.

Another big announcement ahead of the president's speech pertains to the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan. The president vowed on Tuesday that the American combat mission would be over by 2014. At the same time, he made clear that a force of 9,800 would remain in the country beyond 2014 for the purposes of training Afghan forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda. "Now we're finishing the job we started," said Obama in a speech in the White House Rose Garden.

It was another decision in line with Obama's preference to train rather than fight, but it satisfied neither the hawks nor the doves in Congress.

"After thirteen years at war, it's obvious that there is no military solution in Afghanistan and it is far past time to end the war and bring all of our troops home now" said Rep. Barbara Lee, a progressive Democrat from California. "At the very least, Congress should debate and vote on this agreement that will keep our troops in Afghanistan for years to come and will cost billions more in spending."

While many conservative Republicans praised Obama's decision to leave a residual force beyond 2014, such as Corker, some criticized his decision to telegraph a withdrawal date.

"Holding this mission to an arbitrary egg-timer doesn't make a lick of sense strategically," said Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, in a statement. "We leave when the Afghans can manage that threat, rather than on convenient political deadlines that favor poll numbers over our security."

Other hawkish Democrats, meanwhile, rebuked criticisms from the right. "Frankly the Republicans will criticize him no matter what he does," said Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. "If he picked up all the troops and left, they'd criticize him. If he leaves at a certain date, they'd criticize him. If he said he'll leave the troops there and decide on a date later, they'd criticize him for being indecisive."

While Congress has been highly critical of Obama's restrained foreign policy approach, a slate of recent polling has shown the public favors a less interventionist approach by large margins. In late April, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that almost half of people surveyed want the U.S. to be "less active on the global stage." Meanwhile, fewer than one-fifth called for more aggressive engagement.

This post has been updated. 

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