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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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