Reporting from Washington — Three GOP senators on Sunday sharply criticized the chairman of the Republican National Committee, increasing pressure on him to step down for implying that the war in Afghanistan is a lost cause.
The Republican senators, led by John McCain of Arizona, the party's 2008 presidential nominee, stopped short of calling for Michael Steele's resignation. But collectively their comments on the Sunday morning television talk shows signaled that many in the party leadership no longer supported the embattled chairman — who had already been on shaky ground because of previous comments and for RNC spending.
Steele, speaking at a Connecticut fundraiser Thursday, called the nine-year war in Afghanistan one of President Obama's "choosing." The war began under President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks because the country's rulers at the time, the Taliban, had given Al Qaeda safe harbor.
"If he's such a student of history," Steele said, referring to Obama, "has he not understood that, you know, that's the one thing you don't do, is engage in a land war in Afghanistan? Everyone who has tried, over 1,000 years of history, has failed."
Steele has since sought to clarify his remarks, which apparently were surreptitiously taped, then posted on YouTube. He has not apologized, maintaining that his comments were justified because Obama is focusing more on Afghanistan than on Iraq.
McCain said on ABC's "This Week": "I think those statements are wildly inaccurate and there's no excuse for them. Chairman Steele sent me an e-mail saying that … his remarks were misconstrued.''
But, McCain said, "I believe we have to win. I believe in freedom. But the fact is that I think that Mr. Steele is going to have to assess as to whether he can still lead the Republican Party … and make an appropriate decision."
On CBS' "Face the Nation,'' Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a former Air Force lawyer who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Afghan war is "America's war'' and Steele's comments were "uninformed, unnecessary, unwise.''
"The good news is Michael Steele is backtracking so fast he's going to be in Kabul fighting pretty soon,'' Graham said. "It's up to him to see if he can lead the Republican Party after this comment.... We will see if he can get it behind him."
Sen. Jim DeMint, also from South Carolina, went further on " Fox News Sunday.'' He demanded that Steele apologize and called on him to concentrate on promoting Republican candidates in the elections this fall.
"Chairman Steele needs to apologize to our military, all the men and women who've been fighting in Afghanistan,'' said DeMint, who is on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"He needs to refocus on electing candidates who can stop this rampage of spending and debt in Washington. Whether or not he resigns is up to other people than me, but I need to see him focused on this November election….
"This is America's war. We are in Afghanistan because they attacked us.''
The dust-up led North Dakota Republican Party Chairman Gary Emineth to tell the Washington Times that he was "seriously considering" challenging Steele for the national chairmanship after the November election. "The 2012 elections are critical, and I feel there needs to be a new approach to the RNC," Emineth was quoted as saying.
But Steele won support from Rep. Ron Paul (R- Texas), a libertarian and longtime opponent of the war. In a statement Sunday, Paul congratulated Steele. "He is absolutely right,'' Paul said. "Afghanistan is Obama's war.''