Michael Steeles War Gaffe

Jul 13, 2010

By Gode Davis, political staff columnist – July 13, 2010

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele

Just prior to the Independence Day weekend, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele was lambasted by the Conservative wing of the Republican Party for questioning the logic of the American troop presence in Afghanistan. If there is one thing that Conservative Republicans can agree on, it’s the practice of war. In fact, it’d be difficult to imagine a combat scenario that the Rush Limbaugh’s of America would theoretically be opposed to. A myriad of factors may be in play regarding how Steele is perceived by those within his own party. At the least, he appears to be a lightning rod for controversy, not all of it legitimate.

Steele’s “controversial” statements were made at a Republican fund-raiser held in Noank, Connecticut on Thursday evening, July 1, 2010. A groundswell of misplaced outrage solidified the next day when a clandestine video of the event surfaced.

I’ve never been to Noank but I’m told it is an affluent coastal community east of New London where 94.3 percent of the town’s residents are Caucasian. Noankers apparently hold so-called Republican values, especially Conservative perspectives, in high esteem – hence the fund-raiser, which was closed to the press. Steele spoke about the United States being on “the wrong side of history with its conflict in Afghanistan,” a military fight he referred to as “a war of Obama’s choosing.”

“This is not something the United States has actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in,” Steele said, while also incorporating convenient sound bites such as “It was the president who was trying to be cute by flipping a script demonizing Iraq, while saying the battle really should be 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?”

While the video of Steele’s remarks was initially circulated by Democrats on Friday, July 2nd, much of the backlash to Chairman Steele’s remarks came not from Democrats – but from hawkish Republicans.

Michael Steele’s comments prompted William Kristol, leading conservative pundit and editor of The Weekly Standard, to call for Steele’s resignation as party leader.

“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,” Kristol wrote on July 2, 2010. He added, “You are, I know, a patriot. So I ask you to consider, over this July 4th weekend, doing an act of service for the country you love: Resign as chairman of the Republican Party.” Kristol continued on a factual note, “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.” Kristol concluded his remarks by characterizing Steele’s comments as “an affront … to the commitment of our soldiers” in Afghanistan.

Kristol’s scathing reaction was not an isolated case. In fact, echoes of Kristol sounded like the pitter-patter of little feet once manifest in Longfellow’s famous poem.

Erick Erickson, a leading conservative and Cable News Network (CNN) contributor piously pronounced that Steele has “lost all moral authority” and he “must resign.”
Tom Cole, House Republican from Oklahoma and a former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, asserted that Steele’s Afghanistan-related comments were “totally unacceptable,” bleating further that he should “apologize and resign.”

Liz Cheney, former Bush State Department official, daughter of the ex-Vice President, and Keep America Safe founder waited strategically until July 4th to weigh in with, “Steele’s Afghanistan comments were deeply disappointing and wrong,” and the inevitable “it is time for Steele to step down.”

Speaking on ABC’s This Week, Senator John McCain joined the chorus, emitting from his gob that there was “no excuse” for Steele’s comments and told host Jake Tapper that “Mr. Steele is going to have to assess as to whether he can still lead the Republican Party as Chairman of the Republican National Committee.”

U.S. Senator Jim Demint (R-SC) gratuitously “demanded” on the often vitriolic Fox News Sunday that Steele “apologize to our military” — adding for good measure that Republicans “need a chairman who’s focused.”

The round of Sunday morning talk shows also featured South Carolina’s significant Senatorial other. On CBS’s Face The Nation, U.S. Senator Lindsay Graham called Steele’s remarks “unwise” while reiterating that “we must win this war.”
A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, Brad Woodhouse, chimed in with a timely bit of Steele-bashing, saying that Mr. Steele was “betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan.” Perhaps because he’s a Democrat, he didn’t call for Mr. Steele’s resignation.

Reacting to all the criticism, in his defensive statement made the next day, on Friday July 2, 2010, Steele did what he does best: He “clarified” his earlier remarks with some good ole American backtracking. While not responding to calls for his resignation, he attempted to reiterate that Afghanistan is now President Obama’s war.

“For the sake of the security of the free world, our country must give our troops the support necessary to win this war. As we have learned through history, winning a war in Afghanistan is a difficult task. We must also remember that after the tragedy of September 11, 2001, it is also a necessary one,” he said. Steele added, in apparent refutation of his earlier remarks deemed nefarious, “That is why I supported the decision to increase our troop force, and, like the entire United States Senate, I support General Petraeus’s confirmation. The stakes are too high for us to accept anything but success in Afghanistan.”

It should be noted that the current U.S. involvement in an undeclared war in Afghanistan, which has entered its ninth year, was initiated by Obama’s predecessor in the Oval Office, George W. Bush, ostensibly in response to the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil occurring on September 11, 2001. While Barack H. Obama indeed shifted the focus of the war on terror from Iraq to Afghanistan and announced an escalation of 30,000 troops there in 2009, to refer to the Afghanistan conflict as “a war of Obama’s choosing” is at best disingenuous rhetoric.

But no matter how ill-advised, unwinnable, or akin to a never-ending story, it remains heresy among the entire herd of “official” Republican voices, to state the obvious. Added Kristol, “There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan, and they’re certainly entitled to make their case. One of them shouldn’t be the chairman of the Republican Party.”

Daring to question the wisdom of the conflict in Afghanistan, one of the longest military engagements in U.S. history,

Gallup Poll on Obama Troop Removal

A majority of Americans (58%) favor President Barack Obama's timetable that calls for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan beginning in July 2011. Most of the 38% of Americans who are opposed reject the idea of setting any timetable rather than setting one with an earlier or later date.

is simply verboten if you are a Republican. While a recent USA Today/Gallup poll found that 58 percent of Americans agree with President Obama’s stated timeline of July 2011 to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, most Republican strategists believe that American involvement in both of President George W. Bush’s elective conflicts should continue indefinitely, although support among Republicans for the ill-advised conflict (especially our residual troop presence and establishment of permanent military bases) in Iraq may finally be waning.
In fact, although Steele attempted to cloak his initial opinions in politicized anti-Obama language, his basic premise made sense. Questioning U.S. involvement in a dubious commitment of “American resources and treasure,” even if voiced for all the wrong reasons, should have been praiseworthy.

The wisdom of the “war” in Afghanistan should certainly face scrutiny, if not also vigorous dissent. Most Americans may not realize that NO conflict has been declared to be a war by both houses of Congress since World War II. While that point may seem beside-the-point, it should be noted that in both Iraq and Afghanistan, every reason put forward by hawkish forces to justify warfare has evaporated like so much virga trailing from cumulonimbus.

What of Osama bin-Laden and the Mullah Omar? Is the Taliban still perceived as an unrelenting evil? How many Afghan civilians must die as tokens of American superiority? How many U.S. and British soldiers must be consigned to oblivion? Can Hamid Karzai and his one-time allegiance to Texas oil be worth the sacrifice of an unknown number of additional lives?

Ah, but there is always a purported reason for being there. Hawkish rhetoric now justifying our continued presence in god-forsaken Afghanistan’s often desolate and typically treacherous terrain can be boiled down to one notorious phrase: Al Qaeda.

Better to face bin-Laden’s phantom fighters in Afghanistan then in New York City, so the argument goes. Except that when CIA Director Leon Panetta admitted on June 27, 2010 that the number of Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan may be down to as few as 50 — virga once again protruded like fibrous filaments from our bellicose sky.

While he isn’t exactly in Steele’s position as official shepherd of the Republican Party, CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria dared to connect the dots, in effect, stealing Steele’s thunder. Zakaria criticized our Afghanistan presence vividly in harsh terms on his CNN program aired July 4, 2010. “The whole enterprise in Afghanistan feels disproportionate, a very expensive solution to what is turning out to be a small but real problem,” Zakaria asserted.

“If Al Qaeda is down to 100 men there at the most,” Zakaria asked, “Why are we fighting a major war?”

Why indeed. Zakaria noted that the war is costing our nation a fortune in both blood and treasure. “Last month (June 2010) alone there were more than 100 NATO troops killed in Afghanistan,” the CNN host said, “That’s more than one allied death for each living Al Qaeda member (assumed to be in Afghanistan by the current CIA director) in just one month.”

Budget projections paint a price tag for the Afghanistan war in excess of $100 billion for 2010 alone. Ringing the same chime, “That’s a billion dollars for every member of Al Qaeda thought to be living in Afghanistan this year,” Zakaria surmised.

To critics who counter that we need to continue fighting the war against the Taliban because some of them are allied with Al Qaeda, Zakaria replied, “This would be like fighting Italy in World War II after Hitler’s regime had collapsed and Berlin was in flames just because Italy had been allied with Germany.”

“Why are we investing so much time, energy, and effort when Al Qaeda is so weak?” Zakaria concluded, “Is there a more cost effective way to keep Al Qaeda on the ropes than fighting a major land and air war in Afghanistan? I hope someone in Washington is thinking about this and not simply saying we’re going to stay the course because, well, we must stay the course.”

On the Maryland Republican Party’s web site, Steele spoke of his family’s success in overcoming economic hardship as the basis of his identification with the Republican Party. “We are examples of what can happen when people are given opportunities, not handouts.”

Steele might privately wonder what conservative Republicans are thinking when they disparage dissent about a protracted conflict that the U.S. is involved in for all the wrong reasons. Perhaps he’s already glimpsed the virga.


1. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/03/us/politics/03steele.html?_r=1 G.O.P. Leader Draws Criticism Anew, The New York Times

2. http://www.examiner.com/x-56847-Hartford-Conservative-Examiner~y2010m7d6-Republican-National-Committee-Chairman-Michael-Steele-asked-to-resign-over-comments-made-in-CT Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele asked to resign over comments made in CT, Hartford Conservative Examiner

3. http://blogs.alternet.org/speakeasy/2010/07/04/leading-conservatives-call-for-steele-to-resign-for-daring-to-question-war/print/ Leading Conservatives Call for Steele to Resign for Daring to Question War, Alternet.org

4. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/07/04/fareed-zakaria-criticizes_n_635170.html Fareed Zakaria Criticizes ‘Disproportionate’ Afghanistan War on CNN (Video), Huffington Post

5. http://www.answers.com/topic/michael-steele Michael Steele Bio, Answers.com

6. Photo Source – Steele for Chairman

7. Gallup Poll – http://www.gallup.com/poll/141068/Majority-Americans-Favor-Obama-Afghanistan-Timetable.aspx


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