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Michael Steele: Right About Obama and the Afghanistan War?

5 years ago
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Michael Steele was right when he called Afghanistan Obama's war. Well, sort of. But what got him in hot water was committing one of Washington's greatest sins: saying what he really thinks.

From the moment Steele became chief of the Republican Party, he has been under fire for screw-ups and misstatements. Republicans insiders have consistently derided him -- with one calling him a "buffoon." He recently was snared in a brazen act of hypocrisy. Steele has even appeared almost to relish the controversies (except maybe the West Hollywood Bondage Strip Joint Caper). But his most recent misstep has him being attacked at a whole new level -- by both Republicans and Democrats.

Last week, while speaking at a GOP fundraiser in Connecticut, Steele remarked that the Afghanistan war "was a war of Obama's choosing." He also said that Obama is "such a student of history, has he not understood that, you know, that's the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan, all right, because everyone who's tried over a thousand years of history has failed?"

Democrats pounced first, insisting that it was George W. Bush who launched this war and blasting Steele for fact-free Obama-bashing. The Democratic National Committee shot out one e-mail after another decrying Steele. And then came the Republicans, who were enraged that Steele had suggested the war in Afghanistan was not winnable. Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney quickly called on him to resign. Though Steele issued a weaselly statement saying "there is no question that America must win the war on terror," the GOP incoming did not abate. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Steele "is going to have to assess as to whether he can still lead the Republican Party." Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) declared Steele's comments "unacceptable" and demanded he apologize to "all the men and women who've been fighting in Afghanistan." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) slammed Steele's remarks as "uninformed, unnecessary, unwise, untimely." Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.) called on Steele to resign.

But Steele was not so off-base. The war in Afghanistan is President Obama's war and partly of the president's choosing. Sure, Obama inherited the conflict. Bush initiated the military action in Afghanistan after 9/11 -- and then veered into Iraq before the war in Afghanistan was resolved. Yet Obama, after much deliberation, decided to change the nature of the Afghanistan war. In December, following many weeks of review, he announced he would send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, and he embraced the counterinsurgency plan proposed by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was then commanding U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

There were other options for Obama. Vice President Joe Biden had been pushing for a smaller force in Afghanistan that would focus on counterterrorism -- that is, finding and killing extremists who could do harm to the United States. Obama opted for counterinsurgency -- using the U.S. military and (maybe one day) the Afghan military to win the hearts and minds of Afghans in order to defeat the Taliban.

Even if Obama didn't start this war, he has shaped and redefined it. He has elected to ramp it up. And Steele certainly had his history correct when he pointed out that no great military power has ever succeeded in a land war in Afghanistan. Anyone want to argue with that?

These remarks offended D and R sensibilities for different reasons. Dems zeroed in on Steele's contention that Afghanistan is Obama's war so they could denounce Steele as a blame-Obama-firster (which he is). Republicans were horrified that one of their own would question the wisdom of the war (which he had).

In this instance, Steele was indeed keeping it real. His basic message -- this is Obama's war and there's no precedent for victory -- is accurate, if uncomfortable. Nevertheless, if the GOP is backing Obama in Afghanistan, Steele may not be an appropriate leader for the party. Not to worry, though; Steele is more loyal to politics than ideas. After telling GOP donors that success is unlikely in Afghanistan, in his subsequent make-this-go-away statement, he proclaimed, "Our country must give our troops the support necessary to win this war." He was trying to get back on the bus by saying stuff he didn't believe. Consequently, the GOP is stuck with a party chief who is either a war critic or a phony -- or perhaps both.

In January, I noted the quicker the GOP dumped Steele, the better it would be for the party:
It's hard to imagine Steele getting his act together and functioning as an effective party chairman in the tough slog ahead. Though there might be a cost if Republicans send him packing now, the cost will be greater if Steele is forced out later rather than sooner.
With Steele, the GOP is facing the sort of decision Obama may eventually have to confront in Afghanistan: When do you admit a mistake and cut your losses?

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.

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Oh Great One

Don't believe anything you hear about Michael Steele. He isn't a god; he is human and subject to the vagaries of life. However, as a veteran Marine Captain who served in Vietnam, I agree with Chairman Steele. If we are not in Afganistan to win, we should get out. It is obvious that any lessons learned from counter-insurgency operations in Vietnam have been forgotten or overlooked. Heck, the Army War College didn't have an FM on counter-insurgency operations until November 2006, and it was written by a retired Army Colonel. Our leaders are obviously not focused on the war and are making decisions by committee. Our servicemen are being killed and wounded by untried, untested strategies that aren't working. I have made several suggestions to the Department of Defense, none of which have been discussed or considered. What am I? chopped liver?

July 14 2010 at 11:59 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
J. R. Gilbert

"He also said that Obama is "such a student of history, has he not understood that, you know, that's the one thing you don't do is engage in a land war in Afghanistan, all right, because everyone who's tried over a thousand years of history has failed?"

Considering this statement as fact, then why in the Hell did Bush get us here in the first place?????

Obama inherited this freakin mess. If we leave now the Repubs would have a field day and if we stay the Repubs will have a field day. The saddest part of this is that the Repubs should have won the last election. Now they can point the finger at Obama when THEY WERE THE ONE'S THAT GOT US HERE IN THE FIRST PLACE!!!!!!

The once PROUD PARTY OF LINCOLN is now the pathetic Party of Limbaugh.

July 10 2010 at 9:51 AM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply

Let's get the facts right... President Obama campaign promises were to pull our troops out of foriegn countries as soon as he was elected. Where are all the people that constantly slammed President Bush verbally and legally... making it practically impossible to allow our troops to do their jobs? Counterinsurgency? Wake up people. The only way this is going to end, without constant threats to our land and people is going to be seek out and destroy the threat. Pres. Obama realizes this, why do you think our troops are not back yet? I believe he is waiting for something big to happen, causing the American people to get upset so he can get the backing to do what is needed.

July 10 2010 at 7:24 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
Nothing Tangible

Mr. Corn, do you actually believe the words you have written here!?! You are playing even more loose with the facts than Steele! There is no way Afghanistan is Obama's war except that he is now Commander in Chief and he inherited all of Bush43's indulgences. Obama had three choices for our actions in Afghanistan... choice one, pull out immediately regardless of the conditions, choice two, keep the war going for another 8 years and leave it to the next POTUS or, choice three, the route he chose, to try and win this fight against the Taliban and bring the war to an end. Do you personally think Obama is wrong for trying to end this war and bring our troops home?

July 09 2010 at 11:05 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

Thank you, Michael Steele for being a Republican! You have served them well and will continue to do so, all the way to the next Presidential election! The Republicans' reality check-----Michael Steele!

July 09 2010 at 2:23 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

The war in Afghanistan will not be won by our dedicated troops, a Change of Command, or another "new" strategy. This is a war of"Jihad..a RELIGIOUS war. This means that extremist muslims will stop at nothing, even maiming and killing of their own or whoever else gets in the way, in fighting for their senseless cause. America's "Pride of War" attitude has senselessly killed our troops and will continue to do so until we realize that it's time leave Iraq and Afghanistan NOW. WE are in Vietnam era Deja Vu.
And yes, I will continue to wave the "Support Our Soidiers" banner...I SUPPORT OUR SOLDIERS COMING HOME.

July 09 2010 at 11:29 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Excuse Me!! I believe that the war in Afghanistan was raging along for a number of YEARS prior to the Obama presidency. When Obama took office, thousands of our kids were there, engaged in a murderous struggle for their lives, and had been for YEARS. The promise made to our nation following 9/11, if anyone can still recall, was that we were there to get OSAMA, DEAD OR ALIVE. What happened to that? Now, the business of extricating our personnel is dangerous indeed. That doesn't make this war an Obama Creation! Michael Steele's record is still intact. Wrong Again!

July 08 2010 at 1:51 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

This war would have been won years ago if George Bush did not decide to invade Iraq. He split our forces, and we lost coalition countries that were helping us in Afganistan. If Steele is such a history buff he should have told Bush to learn from the mistakes of Napolean and Hitler. Do not split your army with two fronts. finish one war, before adding another.

July 07 2010 at 4:13 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

These comments aside, Steele should resign. He does not have a clear vision and message for the Republicans, which is something the Republican Party needs this year if they are to win back the House and the Senate.

July 06 2010 at 10:27 PM Report abuse +4 rate up rate down Reply

Accepting defeat before you are defeated is not "keeping it real," it is being cynical. There is nothing real about something that hasn't happened yet. Just because others have failed in Afghanistan doesn't mean we will too. It is irresponsible to have such a defeatist attitude when we have soldiers fighting this war. Imagine the impact this would have on our soldiers' morale if people sat back (as the author of this article) and accepted Mr. Steele's reckless comments.

Perhaps Mr. Steele needs to broaden his scope on history a bit because if he had any kind of knowledge of history he would know that noone stays undefeated forever.

Not all Afghans are terrorists or share the same point of view as the Taliban. I see nothing wrong with sending ground troups and trying to win those people over by giving them an ally rather than dropping bombs and giving them a faceless new enemy to despise.

Whatever the outcome of the president's plan, it was important that we attempt this, because contrary to what Mr. Steele and his supporters believe, the only way to know for sure if something would work, is to try it.

July 06 2010 at 9:38 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to SEAN's comment

If we did the right thing and pulled out of Afghanistan, we wouldn't have to worry about troop morale. That is the right thing to do. If the politicians really cared about our troops they would end our total involvement and bring out sons and daughters home. But the Republican party proved that troops are nothing but cannon fodder. And collateral deaths of innocent people is acceptable in their efforts to maintain America's military standing on the world stage. I think Obama wants to pull the troops out. However, if he does he will have to face republicans bemoaning the soldiers who have died in vain.

July 08 2010 at 12:42 AM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply

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