How the Financial Crisis Has Undermined US Power

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.

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