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Jul. 3 2010 - 12:52 pm | 3,333 views | 1 recommendation | 19 comments

Maybe Michael Steele is the smartest man in the Republican Party

NATIONAL HARBOR, MD - MAY 20:  Embattled Repub...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    ‘peace with honor’ in 2016…what a ribald concept. I grew up with Vietnam on the nightly news, now I’m growing old with Afghanistan on my nightly news. Those of US not already fatigued by the failure of war should be issued DAFT cards and be allowed to play in traffic.

  2. collapse expand

    Mr. Roston,

    The US troops will be mostly out Afghanistan before the general election of 2012. This is what the “surge” of 30,000 troops is all about and why Gen. McChrystal was fired. This exactly what Richard Nixon in Vietnam. He escalated the war by invading Cambodia in 1970, declared “victory” in 1971, and then negotiated a peace in early 1972 in time win the election (A peace with conditions that he could have gotten in 1968). US troops withdrew in 1973 and in 1975 Saigon fell. This is exactly the same strategy that George W. Bush pursued Iraq, escalate the war, buy-off the Sunni Insurgents, declaring victory and the US troops are coming home this summer. Gen. McChyrstal was fired not because of his inopportune interview with T/S blogger Michael Hastings but because he did not understand that his mission was to provide political and military cover for the withdrawal of US troops by not later than mid-2012. Gen. McChrystal wanted “win” the war (whatever the hell that means) and was frustrated that he was not getting enough resources to do so. That is why he was removed and why his logical replacement was Gen. Pretraeus, he knew the goal of “Operation Peace with Honor”, he had already executed it in Iraq. So come the general elections of 2012, US troops will be well along in the journey home.

    It is this reality that Chairman Steele is preparing. He knows the strategy as well as Gen. Pretaeus. Get ready for “Who Lost Afghanistan”.

    • collapse expand

      Gen. McChrystal was fired for insubordination, he should have been to busy for blatant partisanship. Just what would a “win” in Afghanistan be? My answer is that if we get attacked ever again, other counties are going to know better and hand over who we ask for, that is what started all of this.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        Hello ebizjoey,

        You wrote:”Just what would a “win” in Afghanistan be? My answer is that if we get attacked ever again, other counties are going to know better and hand over who we ask for, that is what started all of this.”

        Then I would say, we already won, in fact we won it years ago.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  3. collapse expand

    I understand what Steele was saying.
    From the get go Obama was dissing the Iraq effort and saying in every breath, the real war and enemy were in Afghanistan!
    Obama trashed the Bush Iraq policy at every turn and now this sorry excuse for a President is killing our troops in ever larger numbers because he has no plan, he orders our Marines to go out on patrol without chambering a round, they have to ask permission to fire back and call in back up, and he does nothing to eliminate the ability of the enemy to hold the high ground.
    This Constitution hating leader HAS claimed the war in Afghanistan as HIS and Michael Steele is absolutely correct! This WAR is HIS and he isn’t fighting to win. Instead Obama is giving targets for the enemy to take out at will.
    Thank you Michael Steele for attempting to protect our troops and call attention to the incompetence of this disgusting excuse of a President!
    Am I angry? YOU bet I am!

  4. collapse expand

    Michael Roston,
    Please Sir, sit down. Your head must be dizzy after doing all the spinning for Michael Steele.

    If you have not noticed Obama has already made it clear that 2011 would be when the US troops start pulling out – McChrystal was fired because he didnt stick with this script and wanted to stay there until the mythical “victory” in AFPak arrives.

    You also forgot that he is the chairman of the RNC -and as you can see Republicans will never ever campaign for a “decent defeat” in Afghanistan – the war was initially prosecuted by Bush and Co in response to 9/11, no matter how much inane nonsense Michael Steele spouts.

    When the US eventually loses in AfPak, the first person to be blamed for that would be George W Bush. After all, he prosecuted the first seven years of the war. What will the genius Mr.Steele do then ??

    The truth of the matter is the GOP is stuck supporting this war no matter how badly it goes – it can criticize Obama all it wants about the prosecution of the war but it can never advocate for withdrawal from AfPak.

    Obama will pull most of the troops from AfPak before 2012 elections so that he does not face any more headaches with the left. He was never interested in the Afghanistan war and he only kept talking about it so that he could look tough on atleast one war.

    His plan was to always get the hell out of AfPak as fast as possible – this is exactly why he waffled for 8 months to increase the troops by another 30,000 – much less than what McChystal originally wanted. All this is nothing more than a farce.

    Michael Steele is no genius – he does not even understand his own party base – if you think the GOP will jump on his bandwagon and declare this to be a war of Obama’s choice, you know nothing about the Republican party or Republicans – you probably should not be doing this journalism thingy. I receive e-mails EVERY fricking day from Tea Party Express to send money to the troops in Afghanistan and to “stop” Obama’s plans for an early withdrawal.

    Quit your spin, and try to do some serious analysis if possible, the next time around. Steele will be gone after November at the latest.

    • collapse expand

      This is an irritating comment due to the spurious assumptions you make, and the gratuitous shot at Michael near the end.

      1. McChrystal was fired for many reasons, but even Obama is backpedaling on the withdrawal date.
      2. In America, we blame the SITTING President for today. Think BP, immigration and taxes, for a short list.
      3. The GOP and Tea Party are, self expressed, unaffiliated entities.
      4. Frick – “United States industrialist who amassed a fortune in the steel industry (1849-1919)”, try fuck next time. It is in the dictionary.
      5. Michael Roston does engage in serious analysis and journalism. Read a little.

      Like I said, this comment is irritating.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
    • collapse expand

      Maybe I need to work on my journalism thingy a bit, but I’d suggest you have a more urgent need to head on down to your nearest Sylvan Learning Center and work on improving that reading comprehension thingy given that I at no moment wrote that “the GOP will jump on his bandwagon.” Indeed, I argued that Michael Steele is thinking beyond the GOP’s existing base of support, which wants to cling unwisely to America’s endless foreign entanglement until the Republican Party gets tainted by it just as much as the Democrats are bound to. Steele isn’t getting the credit he deserves for trying to change the GOP’s direction. But at every step, from the moment he was elected the RNC’s chair, Republican activists have tried to ruin him. Now they’re doing it again. Maybe you’re right, and he’ll be on his way out this time around.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        This is a new take on Steele’s supposed stupidity. It’s an intriguing idea. He has been branded “stupid” because he deviated from the prescribed path. Palin is a hero, despite her obvious mental and emotional challenges, because she does not deviate from the message. Maybe Michael Steele is an administrator who disagrees with his controllers, from time to time. That might get a person a failing grade, in spite of their motivations.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
  5. collapse expand

    I quote, ” 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.’”

    The truth is that we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, by bowing to the Beltway mavens of political genius. In other words, we were winning, and the NVA visit to Paris made that abundantly clear, but Kissnger and Nixon had a better plan, quit on our terms, just when the USA was about to win! We had the NVA and Hanaoi on their knees because of our carpet bombing and air attacks….think not? check it out!

    What transpired in Vietnam in ‘73 was hardly peace with honor. And our departure in ‘75 was a disgrace to the memory of the South Vietnamese who beleived un us and most of all, the 58,000 US military who gave their lives so honorably.

    JFK got us into that mess in a dishonorable fashion. LBJ continued the charade and Nixon piled more dishonor on top of the heap. An all together disaster from day one. This is what happens when politicians get involved in unwise wars, or adventures. We can win in Afghanistan, but it will piss off alot of folks, to which I say, TOUGH! We should never send our military in harms way unless we seek victory. And that means taking the handcuffs off our military and get after the enemy at all costs and with every assset available.

    • collapse expand

      I can hear you on the front that America could have ‘won’ the war. What I’m speaking of has only to do with the politics of the engagement in America, and nothing to do with the conditions faced by our soldiers on the ground. On a day like July 4, I wouldn’t dare to say that our proud men and women in uniform sought anything other than to be honorable. ‘Peace with honor’ always referred to Nixon’s effort to make the political case that he had won the war in a way that was good for his side of the political aisle.

      That said, there were certainly many South Vietnamese who ‘believed in us,’ but there were also so many who believed in the north and its Communists rulers. What we were doing over there was choosing sides in a local condition on the ground, and that almost never turns out well. It is a shame so many American men and women had to die honorable deaths in pursuit of a mission that had no true honorable purpose.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
  6. collapse expand

    This is fun! To be honest, I have no comprehension thingy. I wear my ADHD badge proudly on my sunken chest.

    I do however agree that Steele is either a political genius or an ideological moron -or when both combined makes a very successful book-writer.

    You’d think his first surprise publication would have caused him some consternation by the GOP -lest we not forget: The GOP makes no mistakes. They just gloss over the infraction.

    Now, with his latest Gaffe -which I’m look forward to Jon Stewarts take on this, the hub-bub is probably going to raise enough pupularity to give rise to another book.

    Book sales is the new tech evolution, like 40’s are the new 50’s. Who needs politics to further your agenda when a quick brush with politics can lead to a huge writing career?

    Just ask Sister Sarah? Half-time Governer, part-time politician, and full-time author- and how long does it take to write a book?

    Hell, I don’t know. That’s probably something we can ask Michael Steele in the future with the release of his new best seller -with which I’m sure will be chocked full of explanations for his Afghanistan, Obama’s war of choice -gaffe.

    I think there’s an opening as a a commissioner on the Parks and Recreations board in Winter Park, FL. Me thinks I need to run for the seat, make some stupid remarks, quit half term and write a book.

    It’ll begin with bla -I was born. It will cresendo with bla-I got elected and said stupid shit. It will end with -bla-I’m writing a book.

    Publishers will probably salivate over the opporunity -because the more stupid and crazy -the better.

    Now -that’s entertainment!

  7. collapse expand

    Yeah, like any patriotic United Statesian feels we need a viable Republican or Democratic party for whatever reasons. Let them die, Republicans first.

  8. collapse expand

    That politics was what determined the course of action by Nixon, etal, goes without saying. I only wanted to contrast that with what should have been the driving force behind our actions then and especially now!

    McChrystal was faced with an untenable situation and finally decided to let the world know, so he allowed access by an unequivocal left wing scribe from Rolling Stone.

    We now know that the ridiulous rules of engagement and the ineptitude of the Obama Administration are likely to result in another Vietnam-type failure. Very sad.

  9. collapse expand

    Do any of the commenters read the article? Sometimes I feel like Alice. “Who the fuck is Alice?”. If you don’t read what the man says, shut the fuck up. Thank you, and I apologize a posteriori.

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