Maybe Michael Steele is the smartest man in the Republican Party
President Obama’s talk on Afghanistan has always been smarter politics than policy. It’s hard to imagine, come 2012, that there will be any serious national security debate to be had with the President’s Republican opponent. After all, no one can say that he hasn’t been repeatedly launching air strikes on the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan and Pakistan and deploying troops as and where they are needed to fight threats over there. While conservatives can make fine-pointed distinctions about why President Obama has made us less secure, a candidate Romney or a candidate Pawlenty will be incapable of credibly making the case that Obama has failed overseas when the President rattles off the number of terrorists upon whom he has rained death from above. Polls appear to bear this out, as 50% in a Gallup survey in late June approve of how the president is handling the mission.
But as a policy, Obama’s moves can’t possibly last forever (and forever seems to be where the mission in Afghanistan goes). At some point the bloom falls off the rose – probably after 2012, and a majority of American voters will start asking, “What does winning in Afghanistan mean?” When you compound the difficulty of actually ‘winning’ with the fact that our military engagements over there are certain to mean more plotting of terrorist attacks over here a la Faisal Shahzad’s failed Times Square car bomb attempt, it means that there will be more and more fatigue from the American public over our mission in Afghanistan.
Which brings us to Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele’s ‘gaffe’ that commanded the news cycle headed into the holiday weekend. To recount, if you didn’t see it, via Fox News:
“This was a war of Obama’s choosing,” Steele said. “This is not something United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.”
The war in Afghanistan began shortly after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, in the first year of President George W. Bush’s first term. Obama, at the time, was a state senator in Illinois.
“It was [Obama] who was trying to be cute by half by flipping a script demonizing Iraq, while saying the battle really should be in Afghanistan,” Steele said in his delivery, which was posted on YouTube. “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 land war in Afghanistan? All right, because everyone who has tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed.”
This led to all manner of condemnations and calls to resign from William Kristol and Liz Cheney, and the like, which would lead you to expect that MoveOn.org would immediately start fundraising to help Steele keep his job. But mostly on the left, I think there is a sense of chuckling bemusement as the right once again try to eat one of their own who has committed some heresy.
The truth is, the right should really be celebrating Steele for committing an act of Nixonian political brilliance. He may have started the long, slow process of putting the GOP on a viable long-term political path where national security is concerned.
I say Nixonian because it was President Richard Nixon who promised ‘peace with honor’ to withdraw America from Vietnam. That war was also one that America at first had to ‘win’ at all costs, whatever ‘winning’ meant in that case, too. But it became clear that there was no such thing as victory in Vietnam, only a withdrawal that made sense politically at home. And Lyndon Johnson and the Democrats, like Obama now, had committed themselves to the war in Vietnam as a means of establishing their national security credentials.
By the time Nixon took over, it was clear that the war was politically toxic, and the spoils of political victory would go to whichever side could credibly establish a plan to withdraw from the war without making America look like a ‘loser.’
Obama cannot withdraw from Afghanistan – ever. Any attempt to do so will be pilloried by the likes of Kristol, Cheney, etc. as making America weaker and less secure. But a Republican candidate will be able to draw strength from Steele’s contention that there is no such thing as really ‘winning’ in Afghanistan. Perhaps in 2012 but more likely in 2016, a GOP standard-bearer will be able to position his or herself as the leader who can win a political ‘peace with honor’ in Afghanistan. They’ll be able to run against the war while also running against the Democrats, who will have little recourse but to defend their commander-in-chief’s mission and handling of it.
So while conservatives are condemning Steele reflexively out of short-term political convenience (and I’ve written before of the constant efforts from the right to sabotage the RNC’s first African-American chairman), Republicans who are interested in the party’s long-term political prospects might want to think more fondly about the long bet he’s making. He just fired the first shot in a long battle to dissociate the GOP from a foreign engagement that will inevitably become very unpopular. And that’s why I think he might be one of the smartest political thinkers in the Republican Party.