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Afghanistan: Barack Obama's war and Michael Steele's truth

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, July 13, 2010

"Facts are the enemy of truth," Don Quixote tweeted so very long ago -- and as if to prove his point, the Democratic Party in all its tawdry glory unloosed a barrage of facts in the direction of the slyly brilliant Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee who is almost certain to someday take his place in the conservative cable TV firmament. For saying that the war in Afghanistan is "a war of Obama's choosing," he was, for a brief and shining moment, stating the absolute truth.

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That moment has passed. Steele has softened his critique. These uncharacteristic second thoughts followed mortifying questions about his inner Republicanness by, among others, Sen. John McCain, Sarah Palin's irritable Geppetto, who created her out of discarded principles and furious opportunism. Steele has his own principles, however, and declared that he is not going to quit. "I ain't going anywhere," he said. And he hasn't.

Of course, Steele was right from the start. His truth was the larger one, which is that enough time has elapsed so that the war in Afghanistan can be seen as Barack Obama's. It began, as we all know, under the illustrious George W. Bush, who then got distracted by all those weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and veered off toward Baghdad. But these are mere details, pesky facts with which we need not concern ourselves. The truth is that Obama found this war on his doorstep, took it in, nursed and even escalated it, and swaddled it in his own clothes: more troops, and still more on the way.

One can appreciate how Steele got his "facts" wrong. It is how possession of the Vietnam War moved from Lyndon Johnson to Richard Nixon even though they both lacked absolute belief in the cause -- whatever exactly that once was. Nixon, in fact, even had a secret plan to end the conflict and was furiously de-escalating, rapidly Vietnamizationing and frantically trying to disentangle himself and the nation from the war. Still, when demonstrators gathered outside the White House, it was not to praise his peace efforts but to denounce him as a warmonger. The rule in all these cases seems pretty apparent: Either end the war or own it.

As Steele intuited, Obama now reluctantly owns the war in Afghanistan. He has embraced it with all the enthusiasm of a father of the bride at a shotgun wedding. The president is no happy warrior -- not much of a warrior at all, to be upfront about it -- and so his fellow Democrats have resorted to ugly demagoguery to keep kicking the war back to where it began, the administration of the suddenly cherished Bush. To this end, Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, accused Steele of "betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan" -- an ugly smear for which my colleague E.J. Dionne Jr. has already administered a well-deserved reprimand.

But the abominable Woodhouse is Exhibit A in what, looking back, will be seen as the overselling of this particular war. The very mention of the troops, as with the invocation of the hallowed word "fan" by the con artists of professional sports, is evidence that something awful is afoot. A war that is self-evidently right, that is unquestionably worth the lives of Americans, does not have to be hyped or defended in such a squalid fashion. There was even a bit of hype in the testimony of Gen. David Petraeus in his recent star turn before the Senate Armed Services Committee. After stating that al-Qaeda had retreated to the "tribal areas of Pakistan," he explained that we nonetheless have to keep fighting in Afghanistan where, to paraphrase the general, al-Qaeda ain't. His testimony did not parse. The reality is that we fight because we have been fighting.

Steele has since moved on. He had intruded truth into partisan babble -- not merely a sin but a truly bad career move. Only one GOP chairman has gone on to the White House and that was George H.W. Bush, a multiplex of a public servant (president, vice president, congressman, CIA director). Times have changed, though; the media crave their fix of quotes from almost anyone, and Steele is glad to oblige. For an entire news cycle he had Afghanistan just right and then, castigated by faded facts, he backed down. A glorious career as a conservative yakker was on the line. He was right on Afghanistan, but he would rather be rich.

cohenr@washpost.com


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