Republican chairman Michael Steele drew criticism from within his own party Friday, including calls to resign, after saying the 9-year-old commitment of U.S. troops to Afghanistan was a mistaken "war of Obama's choosing."
As criticism swelled, Steele issued a statement stressing his support for U.S. troops, but he did not acknowledge his factual error about a war launched by former President George W. Bush in response for the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A senior official in Bush's administration said it would be impossible for the Republican National Committee to speak with credibility on foreign policy if Steele remained chairman.
For Democrats, looking at a difficult environment ahead of November's midterm elections, the gaffe was an opportunity to test their strategy of attacking the Republican Party with its members' own words.
Conservative columnist Bill Kristol, writing for The Weekly Standard, was among the first to say Steele should resign.
"There are, of course, those who think we should pull out of Afghanistan, and they're certainly entitled to make their case," wrote Kristol, a consistent supporter of the Afghanistan war. "But one of them shouldn't be the chairman of the Republican Party."
In remarks captured Thursday on camera and posted online, Steele criticized President Barack Obama and his handling of the Afghan war and suggested the war cannot be won.
"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's tried, over a thousand years of history, has failed," Steele said. "And there are reasons for that. There are other ways to engage in Afghanistan."
Republican officials confirmed Steele made the comments at a Connecticut fundraiser, which was closed to the news media. The remarks, at odds with the views of most members of the Republican Party, were caught on camera and posted on the Internet.
"This was a war of Obama's choosing," Steele said. "This is not something the United States has actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in."
The United States and allies overthrew Afghanistan's Taliban government after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington. The war lagged as the United States shifted its focus to Iraq, but Obama shifted the focus to Afghanistan and planned to send 30,000 more troops to the country.
Dan Senor, who was an adviser to Bush and the provisional governments in Iraq, said that Steele was wrong to combine politics with foreign policy and that he would no longer attend a scheduled foreign policy event with Republican donors in coming weeks.
"I think as far as Republican and conservative foreign policy experts and advisers, I don't see how they can be associated with the RNC or with Steele in any meaningful way after he says something like this," said Senor, who weighed a U.S. Senate run from New York state.
"There's no way I can."
Looking to mitigate the political fallout, Steele issued a statement saying, "There is no question that America must win the war on terror. ... And, for the sake of the security of the free world, our country must give our troops the support necessary to win this war."
He said, "The stakes are too high for us to accept anything but success in Afghanistan."
Steele's comments came as Obama's new chief in Afghanistan, Gen. David Petraeus, arrived in the country Friday to take over the war. Obama last week dismissed his previous commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, because of disparaging remarks he and his aides made about administration officials in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
Steele called the dismissal "very comical" but said it shows the frustration members of the military have with Obama.
Erick Erickson, the editor of the popular conservative website RedState.com and an opinion leader among younger Republicans, also called for Steele's ouster.
"Michael Steele must resign. He has lost all moral authority to lead" the Republican Party, Erickson said.
RNC spokesman Doug Heye said in a statement that Steele "clearly supports our troops but believes that success of the war effort in Afghanistan requires the ongoing support of the American people. The responsibility for building and maintaining that strategy falls squarely on the shoulders of the president."
Democrats, who earlier in the week pounced when House Republican leader John Boehner compared Democrats' efforts at Wall Street overhaul to using a nuclear weapon to deal with an anthill, were clearly in campaign mode ahead of November, when voters will pick 37 governors, 36 senators and the entire 435-member U.S. House. Every time a conservative figure questioned Steele, Democratic operatives highlighted the division to reporters.
Democratic National Committee spokesman Brad Woodhouse said it was "simply unconscionable that Michael Steele would undermine the morale of our troops when what they need is our support and encouragement. Michael Steele would do well to remember that we are not in Afghanistan by our own choosing, that we were attacked and that his words have consequences."
Steele has been prone to gaffes that have enraged congressional Republicans. In the last year, he predicted the Republicans won't win House control this fall. He also drew Republican ire when he criticized fellow Republicans in a book that party leaders didn't know he was writing until it was published. His Republican critics were irked further when he told them to "get a life" and "shut up."
Earlier this year, his oversight of the RNC was called into question because of lavish spending, including money to entertain donors at a lesbian-themed bondage club in Los Angeles. That incident led to the departure of a key Steele adviser, the party's finance chief and the top committee staffer.