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RNC's Steele backtracks after Afghan war remarks

Perry Bacon discusses Michael Steele's Afghanistan gaffe on "Top Line."

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 2, 2010

Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele is trying to quell controversy over his comments that the war in Afghanistan was of "Obama's choosing" and his suggestion that it may not be winnable, remarks that put him at odds with much of his party.

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On Friday, after a video surfaced of Steele's remarks at a Connecticut fundraiser the night before, some conservatives fumed and Democrats pounced.

A spokesman for Steele quickly issued a statement clarifying that the chairman supports the troops, and Steele himself soon followed up by saying that "for the sake of the security of the free world, our country must give our troops the support necessary to win this war."

Steele's tenure at the helm of the RNC has been marked by controversies, including over his criticism of -- and subsequent apology to -- Rush Limbaugh and the committee's spending money at a bondage-themed nightclub in California to entertain donors.

But his war remarks were a rare instance in which Steele articulated views on a key policy issue that differed from the party line. Most Republican members of Congress strongly supported President George W. Bush's decision to start the war in Afghanistan in 2001 and have backed funding and troop increases there, even as many Democrats have cast doubt on the war policy.

On the video, Steele is seen saying of Obama: "It was the president who was trying to be cute by half by flipping a script demonizing Iraq, while saying the battle really should be in Afghanistan. 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 a land war in Afghanistan? All right, because everyone who has tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed. And there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan."

In a piece on his magazine's Web site, William Kristol, editor of the conservative magazine the Weekly Standard, wrote: "There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan, and they're certainly entitled to make their case. But one of them shouldn't be the chairman of the Republican party."

"The war in Afghanistan was not 'a war of Obama's choosing,' " he added. "It has been prosecuted by the United States under Presidents Bush and Obama. Republicans have consistently supported the effort."

Democrats gleefully circulated both video of Steele's remarks and the criticism from Kristol.

"Michael Steele would do well to remember that we are not in Afghanistan by our own choosing, that we were attacked and his words have consequences," said Brad Woodhouse, the Democratic National Committee spokesman.

Erick Erickson, who runs the influential conservative blog Red State said: "Michael Steele must resign. He has lost all moral authority to lead the GOP."

Former South Carolina GOP chair Katon Dawson, who finished second to Steele in the race for the chairman's post early last year, said Steele should now be ousted, CNN reported. Dawson is a frequent critic of Steele but has not until now called for him to resign.

"The RNC should do the responsible thing and show Steele the door," Dawson told CNN. "Enough is enough."

No prominent conservative lawmaker or member of the RNC has called for Steele's resignation. The former Maryland lieutenant governor is one of the most prominent African- Americans in the GOP, and Republicans have seen major electoral success since he became chairman.

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