Conservatives are piling on Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele for inaccurate and tone-deaf remarks he made about how President Barack Obama opted to go to war in Afghanistan and how the effort is doomed because land wars there tend to go badly for foreign occupiers.
"This was a war of Obama's choosing," Steele told a group of donors. "This is not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in." Rather than backing away from his comments, Steele doubled down later in a prepared statement.
"During the 2008 presidential campaign," Steele said, "Barack Obama made clear his belief that we should not fight in Iraq, but instead concentrate on Afghanistan. Now, as president, he has indeed shifted his focus to this region. That means this is his strategy."
Republican leaders, most of whom support the war in Afghanistan, aren't buying Steele's line of reasoning. And they made this clear on the Sunday talk shows.
On CBS' "Face the Nation," Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the conflict in Afghanistan "America's war," and labeled Steele's statement "uninformed, unnecessary, unwise." On ABC News' "This Week," Sen. John McCain of Arizona called Steele's remarks "wildly inaccurate" and said "there's no excuse for them." McCain said that Steele will "have to assess as to whether he can still lead the Republican Party as chairman of the Republican National Committee."
Republicans are right to criticize Steele's remarks, and even demand his job. They should have it. Where they've gone wrong, however, is that they need to be much clearer about why such comments are unacceptable so this whole unfortunate episode doesn't come across as little more than a family squabble.
It's not because, as many commentators have noted, Steele is rewriting history or has forgotten that it was a Republican president, George W. Bush, who began the war in Afghanistan. Nor is it because these comments politicize the conflict and undermine Republican lawmakers who support a war now being prosecuted by a Democratic president. Nor is it because, given the fact that Afghanistan was the launching point for the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States didn't choose this war; it chose the United States. And it's not even because any talk of failure could undercut Gen. David Petraeus and erode the morale of the brave men and women in the field.
The real reason that Steele's comments were so harmful and must be condemned is because they feed public cynicism about the American political system. Political parties already have a tough time achieving any kind of moral consistency, and individuals often arrive at a position simply because it's the opposite of what their opponents believe. Too many people are too quick to throw out their principles with yesterday's newspapers and practice situational ethics. Too often, political leaders don't just want us to adopt their point of view but also seem to be counting on the hunch that we won't hold them to what they said in the last news cycle.
It's hard to imagine that Steele would have said the same thing about the war in Afghanistan if it were still being run by Bush.
Everyone makes mistakes. And, because they're in the public eye, political leaders don't have the luxury of hiding theirs. But, whenever possible, they should avoid compounding them as Steele did when he repeated his controversial remarks. And when they decide the time has come to apologize, they should do so clearly and unequivocally.
Steele hasn't apologized. The closest he has come is to reiterate his support for Petraeus and the troops because, as he said in his statement in an abrupt about-face, "the stakes are too high for us to accept anything but success in Afghanistan." Speaking of feeding public cynicism.
Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.