Eric Kleefeld at Talking Points Memo:
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele may be misremembering exactly how and when the Afghanistan war began.
At a Republican Party fundraiser in Connecticut on Thursday, Steele declared that the war in Afghanistan “was a war of Obama’s choosing” that America had not “actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in,” in a response to an attendee’s question about the resignation of Gen. Stanley McChrystal — which Steele called “very comical.”
“The McChrystal incident, to me, was very comical. And I think it’s a reflection of the frustration that a lot of our military leaders have with this Administration and their prosecution of the war in Afghanistan,” said Steele. “Keep in mind again, federal candidates, this was a war of Obama’s choosing. This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.”
“It was one of those, one of those areas of the total board of foreign policy [“in the Middle East”? — Note: The audio is not quite clear in this section.] that we would be in the background, sort of shaping the changes that were necessary in Afghanistan as opposed to directly engaging troops,” Steele continued. “But it was the president who was trying to be cute by half by flipping a script demonizing Iraq, while saying the battle really should be in Afghanistan. Well, if he’s 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 has tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed. And there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan.”
Bill Kristol at The Weekly Standard:
You are, I know, a patriot. So I ask you to consider, over this July 4 weekend, doing an act of service for the country you love: Resign as chairman of the Republican party.
Your tenure has of course been marked by gaffes and embarrassments, but I for one have never paid much attention to them, and have never thought they would matter much to the success of the causes and principles we share. But now you have said, about the war in Afghanistan, speaking as RNC chairman at an RNC event, “Keep in mind again, federal candidates, this was a war of Obama’s choosing. This was not something that the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.” And, “if [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?”
Needless to say, the war in Afghanistan was not “a war of Obama’s choosing.” It has been prosecuted by the United States under Presidents Bush and Obama. Republicans have consistently supported the effort. Indeed, as the DNC Communications Director (of all people) has said, your statement “puts [you] at odds with about 100 percent of the Republican Party.”
And not on a trivial matter. At a time when Gen. Petraeus has just taken over command, when Republicans in Congress are pushing for a clean war funding resolution, when Republicans around the country are doing their best to rally their fellow citizens behind the mission, your comment is more than an embarrassment. It’s an affront, both to the honor of the Republican party and to the commitment of the soldiers fighting to accomplish the mission they’ve been asked to take on by our elected leaders.
There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan, and they’re certainly entitled to make their case. But one of them shouldn’t be the chairman of the Republican party.
You love, we know, war. Love it. Always trying to get America into new and bigger ones. It’s your thing. We get it.
But we think you’re being unfair towards RNC Chairman Michael Steele. Sure, he was wrong when he said that Afghanistan “was a war of Obama’s choosing” and “not something that the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.” But as you correctly note, his entire term has been marked by “gaffes and embarrassments” — such as telling African Americans they “don’t have a reason” to vote Republican, by suggesting Republicans are “drinking that Potomac River water” and “getting high,” and telling the public that it has “no reason, none, to trust” the GOP. But none of this produced from you the slightest peep of protest.
You express concern that Mr. Steele breaks from Republican orthodoxy by voicing his criticisms of the Afghanistan war. But when Mr. Steele broke from Republican principles and expressed his view that abortion should be an “individual choice,” we didn’t hear your call for his resignation. (In fact, your publication defended him.)
What really irks you is that Mr. Steele has the temerity to suggest that the continued war in Afghanistan is not a good idea — which is a debate worth having. It’s therefore no surprise that the one thing that should motivate you to call for the resignation of Mr. Steele is his suggestion that it’s a bad idea for the U.S. to continue to “engage in a land war in Afghanistan.”
For the crime of questioning an American war, you feel that Mr. Steele must pay. This shouldn’t be a political issue — members of both parties have concerns about the current course in Afghanistan, and members of both parties should be having this debate. Not just Democrats.
So Mr. Kristol, instead of calling on Mr. Steele to resign, challenge him to a debate on Afghanistan to discuss your foreign policy views. And as for Mr. Steele, we hope he stays.
The Think Progress team
Erick Erickson at Redstate:
I have heard Michael Steele’s comments regarding Afghanistan and the President.
I have read the RNC’s statement on the matter.
The RNC statement is indecipherable in the context of what Michael Steele actually said.
The war in Afghanistan is not a war of Barack Obama’s choosing. It is a war of Al Qaeda and the Taliban’s choosing. We responded.
Michael Steele must resign. He has lost all moral authority to lead the GOP.
The statement from DNC spox Brad Woodhouse, just out:
RNC CHAIRMAN MICHAEL STEELE BETS AGAINST OUR TROOPS, ROOTS FOR FAILURE
“Here goes Michael Steele setting policy for the GOP again. The likes of John McCain and Lindsey Graham will be interested to hear that the Republican Party position is that we should walk away from the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban without finishing the job. They’d also be interested to hear that the Chairman of the Republican Party thinks we have no business in Afghanistan notwithstanding the fact that we are there because we were attacked by terrorists on 9-11.
“And, the American people will be interested to hear that the leader of the Republican Party thinks recent events related to the war are ‘comical’ and that he is betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan. It’s simply unconscionable that Michael Steele would undermine the morale of our troops when what they need is our support and encouragement. Michael Steele would do well to remember that we are not in Afghanistan by our own choosing, that we were attacked and that his words have consequences.”
The DNC argument for using this script is that Dems rarely attack Republicans as being against the troops, while Republicans go after Dems this way on a nearly daily basis. They would insist that the strong language really is warranted. Steele said that history suggests we can’t win there — this is what the DNC describes as “betting against our troops.” And Bill Kristol agrees that this is an “affront” to them.
Are liberal Dems who have made much the same case about Afghanistan also “rooting for failure” and “betting against our troops”? The DNC would argue that this is a different situation — that Steele’s argument isn’t in good faith. It cuts against what he himself has said in the past — that we must win — and is at odds with his entire party. Also, they’d argue that coming from a party leader, his words really do have consequences for troop morale and for the war effort.
But Steele didn’t “root for failure” anywhere. And he isn’t really “betting against our troops.” He’s saying that this an inherently unwinnable situation, however brave and tough the troops are. I don’t know if that’s what he believes, but that’s what he said.
Clearly, Dems are opting for strong language to break through on a Friday before a holiday weekend in the belief that this does raise real questions about Steele’s candor. But this is Karl Rove’s playbook. I don’t care how often Republicans do it — this blog is not on board with this kind of thing from either party.
The DNC is taking a hit at Steele, but it’s not really a fair one because he isn’t alone in being a Republican who is expressing doubts about continued American involvement in Iraq. George Will said pretty much the same thing, albeit much more eloquently than Steele, back in September. And, earlier this year, The Cato Institute hosted a forum in which several conservative intellectuals and Members of Congress essentially endorsed the idea that America needed to drastically scale back it’s involvement in Afghanistan. So, to say that Steele is bucking his own party on this issue simply isn’t true.
At the same time, though, Steele’s assertion that Afghanistan is a war of “Obama’s choosing” is simply absurd. For one thing, the war itself was started, and continued, under a Republican President. Moreover, while it’s true that the President did make the idea of concentrating on Afghanistan instead of Iraq part of his campaign, he was hardly alone in arguing that we needed to continue our involvement in Afghanistan. In fact, it’s hard to say what would be different in that war if John McCain had won in 2008 instead of Barack Obama. So, calling it a war of “Obama’s choosing” is simply ridiculous.
And while it is refreshing to hear Republicans questioning the war, I have to wonder if they’d be saying the same thing if the President had an R after his name.
Actually, I don’t have to wonder.
David Frum at FrumForm:
So I feel like an idiot.
About a week ago, one of the young staffers here proposed an article: “What happens if Republicans bug out on Afghanistan?” I nixed it. “Let’s not deal with hypotheticals.” Oops.
Michael Steele’s Afghanistan-skeptical comments seem to have been unscripted, but who knows. FrumForum’s Tim Mak placed an immediate call to the RNC to ask whether the chairman had perhaps been misunderstood or had possibly misspoken. The RNC had no comment. The comment is not being walked back, not today anyway.
Some thoughts in reply:
1) The time to make the case against an enhanced commitment to Afghanistan was a year ago, before that commitment was made. Back then, however, Republicans almost unanimously supported the president’s decision. Indeed Republicans pressed the president to make the decision and upbraided him for taking too long. Karl Rove and Sarah Palin, among others, myself included, signed a letter pledging bipartisan support for an Afghan surge. Back then, as I remember it, the main Republican criticism of the president was that he should not have mentioned a deadline for the Afghan surge.
2) Maybe as time passes people change their minds. Fine. But if they do change their minds, they should acknowledge that is what they have done. They should not revise history so that a strategy that was broadly supported by all becomes “Obama’s war.”
3) Maybe the strategy is genuinely wrong. Maybe the Afghanistan commitment is not worth the costs. Maybe instituting a stable central government in Afghanistan is an over-ambitious project. Again: fine. But with the guns firing, that’s a point of view to advocate in a serious and considered way, as part of a debate over national interests, not to score political points. The debate should be aimed at finding a resolution in Afghanistan that is maximally successful for the U.S. and partners, not the way that is maximally humiliating to the president. Obama may fail in Afghanistan. But if he does, the whole country fails with him
There is a lot to catch up after the last week away, but I thought I would start by saying a few things about Michael Steele’s Afghanistan remarks. They have predictably drawn the ire of Bill Kristol, who has called for Steele’s resignation, but Steele’s continued tenure at the RNC doesn’t interest me very much. What I do find interesting is how the utterly shameless, reflexive Republican opposition to everything Obama touches has finally run into the brick wall of one issue that most Republicans and mainstream conservatives consider to be completely non-negotiable. Incorrigible misrepresentation of every other foreign policy initiative Obama undertakes is permitted, but staking out a relatively less hawkish position than the administration is simply not tolerated.
Obviously Steele’s Afghanistan comments are not derived from any serious principled objection to an American presence in Afghanistan, and they certainly don’t reflect any fundamental opposition to foreign entanglements. As far as I can tell, Steele has rarely given these questions any attention at all until now, and he was a reliable backer of the Iraq war all along just like virtually every other aspiring Republican office-seeker and elected official. Steele evidently believes that Afghanistan is now a political liability for Obama, and he wants to take advantage of this, but far from being a potential “turning point” it is just another example of how clueless and hopeless Steele is when it comes to serving in a leadership capacity for Republicans. I can hardly wait to hear how Steele’s cynical posturing is another sign of the rise of antiwar Republicanism.
However, even if Steele were sincere and principled in his objections, it would be important to explain why he is wrong. It is true that last year Obama chose to increase the number of soldiers in Afghanistan, where the war effort had been chronically under-manned and under-resourced for most of the last decade, but this has been the one war in the last fifteen years that the U.S. did not choose to enter. It probably grates on many Republicans that the one war that comes closest to anything resembling a just or necessary war in the last decade is the one that they quite deliberately starved of resources and manpower. It is also probably discomforting that they did this to pursue a war in Iraq that has consumed far more lives, both American and Iraqi, and which had not even the remotest connection to American interests. Steele says that there are “other ways to engage in Afghanistan,” which confirms that he has no desire to disengage fully from the country, but if other “antiwar” Republican arguments are anything to go by he means that we should bombard Afghanistan from afar and hope for the best. Steele doesn’t really mean what he’s saying, but even if he did we shouldn’t take it seriously.
UPDATE: Ann Coulter at Human Events
Andrew Sullivan on Coulter
Tom Maguire on Coulter and Sullivan