Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele ticked off President Obama, most Democrats, nearly all Republicans, and much of the military brass. Steele's sacrilege was to tell a partial truth about the war. It has become Obama's war, if not by choice as Steele says, at least by default. Steele's aim was to heap blame on Obama for waging a drifting, listing, and lethal, costly, and at times confused war without end. It was yet another naked Steele partisan political attack on Obama. At first glance, it seemed strange though for Steele to sound like an antiwar dove. And GOP war hawks let him know that when they screamed for his resignation. But Steele gambled that he could float the attack line since polls show that a majority of Americans consistently either oppose the war or are befuddled by it. Steele, no surprise, backpedalled fast after the heat of howls of protest, and screamed for more troops to win the war. But Steele's point about Obama and the war is valid.
On two occasions as a presidential candidate, and once before he became a presidential candidate Obama said or strongly suggested that escalation of the Afghan war would be in the cards if he was elected. In his anti-Iraq war speech at Chicago's Federal Plaza on October 2, 2002, Obama went on the attack. He blasted the war, called it a drain on American resources, and a foreign policy nightmare. He repeatedly called it a dumb war. The "dumb war" characterization implied that there are wars that are worth waging. He made it clear that he was not a reflexive opponent of all wars. The US was simply fighting the wrong war, in the wrong place. He demanded that Bush fight an all out, no holds barred war against terrorism. Though he did not mention Afghanistan directly, in the speech it didn't take much to connect the terrorism dots to Afghanistan.
Six months after he announced his presidential candidacy, in a speech in August 2007 at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Obama left no doubt that Afghanistan would be his number one target for attack if he was elected.
He made an impassioned promise to wage what he dubbed the war that had to be won. He spelled out in minute detail his plan of attack. It was virtually identical to the plan he laid out in his West Point speech. He vowed to drastically increase troop strength, ramp up spending on an array of military related programs such as mobile special forces, pacification teams, intelligence operations, and to beef up military aid to Pakistan. He vowed to take the war to the Taliban in Northwest Pakistan. Eleven months after his Wilson Center speech, Obama was still only the "presumptive" Democratic presidential candidate. Yet, in a CBS Face the Nation interview, he promised to "finish the job" in Afghanistan. These are the exact same words that he used to sell escalation in interviews in the build-up to his West Point speech.
In the time he's been in the Oval office, Obama has hardened on the military option, and repeatedly pledged that he'll redeploy troops as fast as he can from Iraq to Afghanistan. Obama has never cited Pentagon pressure as his reason for upping the military ante in Afghanistan, even during the flap with ousted general Stanley McChrystal. The Pentagon has certainly hammered hard for troop escalation. But the massive troop increase and billions more in spending on it is clearly his call. A call he made and firmly decided on long before he ever got to the White House.
Some hopeful Afghan war critics blame the Pentagon, GOP war hawks, defense contractors, and oil interests, for arm twisting Obama to escalate. This helps to rationalize their bitter disappointment at the president's escalation decision. The truth though is that Afghanistan is the war that Obama passionately believes is the right war to fight and win. Steele got that much right, but despite his reversal under fire, Steele is still the consummate political animal, and the war like much else about Obama and the GOP's assault on him oozes with political malice. As the battle casualties mount, and the public head scratching grows over the inability to deliver anything resembling a knock-out punch to the insurgents, and the in your face corruption of the Karzai regime continues to grate, public protests frustrations and protests over the war will rise. Steele and the GOP will loudly remind any and all that Obama put his indelible stamp on the conflict, and if it's a muddle, then it's a muddle that he made.
Three failed and flawed wars and the publics distaste for those wars helped topple two sitting Democratic presidents, and hopelessly discredited a Republican president. Steele would love nothing better for the same public distaste for the war to politically damage Obama. That's the wrong part of Steele's initial outburst. The peril to Obama, though, of his turning Afghanistan into a single minded crusade remains.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He hosts a nationally broadcast political affairs radio talk shows on Pacifica and KTYM Radio Los Angeles.
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