Steele’s Afghanistan criticism highlights Democrats' mixed message on war

Michael Steele’s criticism of the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan may be creating a headache for the Republican National Committee, but it’s also shining a spotlight on the Democrats’ mixed message on the war.

The Democratic National Committee pounced on the RNC’s chairman’s comments at a GOP fundraiser, accusing Steele of “betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan.”

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Just hours earlier, however, a majority of the House Democratic caucus voted to require a timeline for the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan and to restrict funding if President Barack Obama deviates from his drawdown plan.

The vote came on one of three antiwar amendments to an appropriations bill providing $33 billion in funding for the war. Liberal Democrats demanded the opportunity to register their opposition to the war, and the least restrictive measure, offered by Reps. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and David Obey (D-Wis.) garnered 153 Democratic votes. Ninety-eight Democrats voted against it. A stricter proposal that would provide funding only for a withdrawal of troops won 93 Democratic votes, while 22 Democrats supported a third measure that would have stripped the war funding entirely.

While the House ultimately voted to approve the war funding without conditions, the amendments underscored the deep divisions within the Democratic Party over Afghanistan policy.

In his comments caught on camera at a fundraiser in Connecticut, Steele said Afghanistan was “a war of Obama’s choosing” and “not something the United States had actively prosecuted or wanted to engage in.” He also questioned Obama’s strategy. “If he's such a student of history,” Steele said, “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.”

The DNC jumped on the remarks, sending out more than two dozen e-mails to its press list highlighting coverage and criticism of Steele. It’s a strategy the Democrats have employed with success in recent weeks, as they have sought to exploit controversial statements and gaffes by leading Republican Reps. John Boehner (Ohio) and Joe Barton (Tex.).

“The American people will be interested to hear that the leader of the Republican Party thinks recent events related to the war are 'comical' and that he is betting against our troops and rooting for failure in Afghanistan,” the DNC communications director, Brad Woodhouse, said in a statement. “It’s 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 later issued a statement saying he supports the president’s strategy in Afghanistan. “The stakes are too high for us to accept anything less but success in Afghanistan,” he said.

Democratic officials pointed out the DNC is functionally the political arm of the White House and responsible for advocating the president’s policies. They also argued there was a difference between House members urging Obama to put forward a timeline for withdrawal and Steele’s comments, which they characterized as tantamount to calling the war unwinnable.

An RNC spokeswoman declined to comment on the DNC attack, referring instead to Steele’s statement giving his full backing to the war effort.