Michael Steele has been a terrible chairman of the Republican National Committee. His job is to encourage confidence and contributions. He discourages both, often by saying impolitic things on purpose.
So after a hapless tenure in which he has let his ego and mouth race ahead of common sense, it is ironic that he may finally be done in by a private utterance that was caught on tape at a Connecticut fundraiser.
The added irony is that what he said about the Afghan war was not entirely wrong.
But he was certainly wrong in asserting that this is a “war of [President] Obama’s choosing.”
It wasn’t even a war of George W. Bush’s choosing. The ruling Taliban was responsible for letting the Arabian Muslims of al Qaeda launch the Sept. 11 attacks. Lobbing in some cruise missiles, a la Bill Clinton in 1998, would not have sufficed.
Bush might have begun a drawdown after the successful Afghan elections of 2004, but instead opted to apply his Iraqi “forward strategy of freedom” (also known as nation building) in Afghanistan too.
So Obama inherited the war, which was stumbling on to an uncertain objective when he took office.
Centrally governed Iraq, with professional and middle classes to embrace the idea of peaceful nationalism, has proved more fertile ground for the “government in a box” approach favored by ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Even so, with political leaders being executed left and right and the Iranians doing maximum mischief, we’ll be lucky to get out of Iraq when Bush said we would, let alone when Obama promised as he was schmoozing the American electorate. But it still seems possible that history may judge that the 4,396 American troops killed in Iraq died in service of liberty.
In Afghanistan, which vies with Somalia as the worst country in the world, American and allied troops are now dying at a pace of 100 a month, and the chances of building a stable, self-sustaining nation seem remote. Doing so in the next year, as President Obama has arbitrarily decreed, is universally acknowledged to be impossible.
So the war was not one of Obama’s choosing, but the strategy certainly is. Obama led four months of meetings to decide what to do. He certainly had other choices. His own vice president suggested a limited force to fight al Qaeda instead of the 100,000 troops who are supposed to subjugate and civilize the Taliban.
Obama’s generals had called for an even bigger surge of closer to 120,000 troops. Obama rejected that too. Afraid to be called a coward and unwilling to devote his political capital to a war instead of socialized medicine, he opted for nation building on the cheap -- a smaller surge with a deadline.
So in saying the war was of Obama’s choosing, Steele gave the wrong impression of the president’s most consequential decision. If you have any doubts, listen to the president’s downcast speech announcing his strategy at West Point in December. Obama backslid into his compromise war strategy out of a desire to avoid political consequences.
But a choice made unwillingly is still a choice.
It is also Obama’s choice to have rules of engagement so strict that we surrender much of our primary military advantage -- complete air supremacy -- in the name of avoiding civilian deaths. Trading American lives for Afghan ones is an explicit part of the Obama strategy.
The part about which Steele was obviously right is that Afghanistan is dangerous territory for powerful nations. A decade of Soviet occupation and a century of British oversight could not make a real country out of Afghanistan.
Steele is technically wrong that everyone who has ever tried a land war in Afghanistan over 1,000 years of history has failed. Beating the Afgans is easy – they’ve been taking beatings since Alexander showed up 2,300 years ago – but no one has succeeded in occupying them. But we still get Steele’s point.
The Afghan hawks of the Republican Party are calling for Steele to step down. They are of an opinion that America must do anything necessary to build a real nation in Afghanistan and, presumably, Pakistan in order to prevent terrorists from having safe havens.
Certainly politicizing a war to that degree that Steele did is a distasteful thing. Explaining to candidates how to use Obama’s failing war strategy to win races is as ugly as it was when Democrats exploited American losses in Iraq as part of their 2004 and 2006 election strategies.
But that’s not why Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney are calling for Steele’s head. They want him out because they understand that Obama’s mishandling of Afghanistan may turn Republicans away from the Wilsonian nation building of the second Bush term and put them on the path of the quasi-isolationism of their political forefathers.
Steele should go. His statements are yet more proof that he misunderstands the job of Republican National Committee chairman.
But he shouldn’t be sacked for having a dissenting view of the Afghan war. He should go because he expressed any view at all.