WASHINGTON — Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele suggested the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is “a war of Obama’s choosing” and history should have told President Barack Obama that a ground war is unlikely to succeed with the current strategy.
Steele’s comments drew sharp criticism on Friday — including from a top conservative backer of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — as the Republican leader weathered the latest gaffe of his tenure. In remarks captured Thursday by camera and posted online, Steele had harsh words for the Democratic president and his handling of the 9-year-old war begun by Republican President George W. Bush in response to the Sept. 11 terror attacks against the United States.
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“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’s tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed,” Steele said. “And there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan.”
Republican officials confirmed Steele made the comments at a fundraiser in the northeastern state of Connecticut. Reporters were not allowed to attend the gathering.
“This was a war of Obama’s choosing,” Steele said. “This is not something the United States has actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.”
The United States and allies overthrew Afghanistan’s Taliban government after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York and Washington. The war lagged as the Bush shifted its focus to Iraq, but Obama shifted the focus back to Afghanistan and planned to send 30,000 more troops there.
Steele did not say whether he agreed with that increase.
The Republicans have come under criticism from outside and within the party because of previous Steele gaffes during his 1½ years as party chairman. Elections in November will choose all 435 members of the House of Representatives and 36 of the 100 senators; such off-the-wall blowups would be unlikely to help Republican candidates.
“The chairman clearly supports our troops but believes that success of the war effort in Afghanistan requires the ongoing support of the American people,” committee spokesman Doug Heye said in a statement.
“The responsibility for building and maintaining that strategy falls squarely on the shoulders of the president. Like so many Americans, Chairman Steele wants to hear an explanation from President Obama on what his strategy is for winning the war in Afghanistan.”
Steele’s comments come as Obama’s new chief in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, earned Senate confirmation and arrived on Friday to take over the war. Obama dismissed the previous commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, last week after Rolling Stone magazine published unflattering comments by McChrystal and his aides about senior U.S. officials.
Steele called the dismissal a “very comical” event that shows the frustration military members have with Obama.
“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,” Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse said. “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.”
Steele has been prone to gaffes that have enraged congressional Republicans. In the last year, he predicted the Republicans will not will not win control of the House of Representatives in the elections. He also drew ire from the party when he criticized fellow Republicans in a book that party leaders did not know he was writing until it was published. In-party critics were irked further when he told them to “get a life” and “shut up.”
Earlier this year, his oversight of the RNC was called into question because of lavish spending, including money to entertain donors at a lesbian bondage club in Los Angeles.
The criticism of the latest incident did not end at the political party level. Conservative leader Bill Kristol, writing for his Weekly Standard newspaper, said it was time for the chairman to step down.
“There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan, and they’re certainly entitled to make their case,” wrote Kristol, a consistent supporter of the Afghanistan war. “But one of them shouldn’t be the chairman of the Republican Party.”