How the Financial Crisis Has Undermined U.S. Power

How the financial crisis has undermined American power, despite the President's popularity abroad

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Chuck Kennedy / White House / CNP / Corbis

Last year, Obama projected himself as the global peacemaker in Cairo.

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The crucial moment came during last year's deliberations over Afghanistan, a nation that was supposed to be a test case for the virtues of smart power. Not only would Obama send more troops, but he would send agricultural experts to give Afghan farmers an alternative to opium. Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, both fervent devotees of a counterinsurgency doctrine that emphasized winning hearts and minds, were all in. All they requested was a willingness to sustain these efforts for as long as it took.

The answer they got was no. Under pressure to go all in on making smart power work in Afghanistan, the White House — according to Jonathan Alter's new book, The Promise — responded with a fierce counterattack. Obama brought Office of Management and Budget chief Peter Orszag into Afghanistan-strategy meetings to explain how much escalation might cost. Obama reportedly insisted on a date certain for beginning to withdraw U.S. troops and told his generals not to settle in for a long war. He also ratcheted down what victory in Afghanistan meant. Whereas the U.S. had once aimed to destroy the Taliban, its new goal, according to the National Security Strategy, is merely to "deny the Taliban the ability to overthrow the government and strengthen the capacity of Afghanistan's security forces." In foreign policy terms, that's like deciding that because you can't afford a Hummer, you'll drive a Hyundai instead.

In some ways, Afghanistan was unique. Karzai's decision to steal an election certainly helped convince Obama that it wasn't the place to double down. But the spirit underlying Obama's decision is manifesting itself in other ways as well. On Iran, the diplomatic offensive of Obama's first months in office has been replaced by a bid for new sanctions. But quietly, the Administration seems to be realizing that a nonnuclear Iran may be another Bush-era goal that the U.S. cannot achieve. In April, the New York Times got hold of a memo from Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggesting that it was time for the White House to begin serious preparations for how to contain Iran if it builds a bomb. Obviously, the Obama Administration still hopes that economic and diplomatic pressure will persuade Tehran to switch course. But it seems clear that Team Obama would rather dial back the Bush Administration's commitment to prevent Iran from going nuclear than enmesh itself in a war that could force American foreign policy deeper into the red.

A few weeks before the Administration released its National Security Strategy, Gates went to the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kans., to offer the bluntest statement yet of Obama foreign policy 2.0. The choice of venue was not accidental. Ike took office at another moment when the U.S. had assumed vast new obligations around the world. Containment, which in the late 1940s had been a modest doctrine aimed at helping Western Europe rebuild economically after World War II, had become by the early 1950s a global commitment to fight communism anywhere on earth. Behind that commitment lay a belief — propagated by Keynesian economists like Leon Keyserling, the head of Truman's Council of Economic Advisers — that the U.S. could assume an almost unlimited set of overseas military burdens because in an economy as dynamic as America's, debt was nothing to worry about. Eisenhower disagreed with every fiber of his penny-pinching Midwestern being. As Gates noted, Ike steered clear of lengthy, direct military interventions in Vietnam and the Middle East because he didn't want to spend money America didn't have. For Ike, debt was almost as frightening as communism because, as Gates explained, the U.S. "could only be as militarily strong as it was economically dynamic and fiscally sound."

The terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, Gates told the Abilene crowd, "opened a gusher of defense spending ... The gusher has been turned off and will stay off for a good period of time." He might have noted that 9/11 also opened a gusher of new U.S. overseas military commitments: ground forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, new military bases across Central Asia. The Obama Administration, it is now clear, is trying to cap that gusher as well and is struggling against a uniformed military leadership that doesn't want to back down from a fight and a sea of right-leaning pundits who are itching to accuse Obama of appeasement. Capping gushers, as Obama has learned, is difficult work. But somewhere, Eisenhower is watching, rooting him on.

Beinart is an associate professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. This piece is adapted from his new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris

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