Today, the magic is long gone. After two wars on the credit card -- $1 trillion for Iraq and $500 billion and still counting for Afghanistan -- America's credit is maxed out. But the borrowing continues at a dizzying pace to pay for global policy commitments we can no longer afford.
If Obama is re-elected to a second term, he will most probably find a way to avoid running up the war bill in Afghanistan for the current commitment of two more years through the end of 2014. And if Mitt Romney becomes the 45th president, it is hard to see him prolonging the agony of the longest war in U.S. history that involves 48 other nations -- 37 with troops -- that would like to end it ASAP.
How long can the United States put up with green-on-blue killings by Afghan troops turning their guns on their American advisers who supplied them with weapons, ammo and pay? Not much longer.
Newsweek quotes one Afghan officer who says he understands why "our men are shooting U.S. and NATO soldiers."
"I have been personally hurt by the way American forces behave toward my soldiers, our villagers, our religion and culture. Too many of them are racist, arrogant and simply don't respect us," he said.
U.S. soldiers are watching their backs against Afghan soldiers for fear of insider attacks. Once cordial relations and visits to each other's quarters have stopped. Some Afghan soldiers are Taliban guerrillas ordered to false-flag volunteer to kill U.S. advisers.
Anthony Cordesman, a leading strategic thinker at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, writes: "This is a political war where the political impact of combat, politics, governance and economics are far more important than tactical success in directly defeating the enemy. At this level, the insurgents still seem to have significant momentum and are certainly not being decisively defeated."
Current plans, says Cordesman, "ignore the fundamental realities shaping the war," which are:
-- Pakistan is not a real ally and will not become one.
-- The United States cannot fully defeat al-Qaida or the threat of Islamist extremist terrorism in Afghanistan.
-- There is little prospect of a meaningful, stable and negotiated settlement with the Taliban and Haqqani network.
-- The United States, its allies, and (Afghan forces) cannot establish security across Afghanistan or even in all of the "critical" districts by the end of 2014 or at any predictable point thereafter.
-- Development of the Afghan security forces now focuses on rushing toward unobtainable numbers of forces, without regard to effectiveness and without clear plans to address funding and self-sustainment.
-- Transition alone will not convert Afghanistan into a developed, functional democracy with effective governance, civil rights and rule of law.
-- Economic growth and development are more illusory than real and sustaining them through transition will require serious, well-planned outside aid rather than the vacuous goals and pledges of the Tokyo Conference.
For an "Afghanistan as Good as it Can Really Get," Cordesman sets credible goals for transition and makes the following major changes in the U.S. approach to the war:
-- What the United States now gets from Pakistan is all it can hope to get for a reasonable bribe price.
-- Prepare to deal with continued insurgent control in parts of Eastern and Southern Afghanistan, and significant insurgent influence in other parts of the country well after 2014.
-- Accept that there is little prospect of a meaningful, stable negotiated settlement with the Taliban and Haqqani network.
-- Accept a deeply flawed Afghan political system but still hold it accountable in areas critical to transition.
-- Focus efforts on improving the quality of central governance and the strength of provincial and district governance, while preparing for the reality that a far more divided power structure based on regional, ethnic, and tribal lines is likely to emerge.
-- Make continuing the war contingent on winning congressional, public and media support by demonstrating credible plans, and honestly communicating the risks, progress, costs and benefits of continuing the war.
Nothing is less certain in the light of more urgent strategic priorities.
The U.S. Naval Update Map for Aug. 29 shows two Carrier Strike Groups – the USS Enterprise and USS Dwight D. Eisenhower -- and the Amphibious Ready Group USS Iwo Jima , all deployed in the U.S. Navy 5th Fleet Area of Responsibility, which has headquarters in Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Operations in Afghanistan are a minor part of this deployment.
A third Carrier Strike Group, the USS John C. Stennis, is underway in the Pacific "for a surge to U.S. 5th Fleet AOR deployment."
This formidable display of air and sea power is there to deter Iran's retaliatory capabilities in the Persian Gulf if Israel decides to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities.
These U.S. defense decisions were taken before an almost $500 billion defense cut kicks in over the next 10 years.
This could double to $1 trillion unless Democrats and Republicans can agree before sequestration kicks in at year's end.
Meanwhile, Iran managed to convene the 120-nation non-aligned group in Tehran, with some 50 heads of state and government in attendance, including Egypt's Islamist President Mohamed Morsi, the first such visit in three decades.
At the same time, Iran's close ally Bashar Assad in Syria appears to be emerging as the winner in a civil war that has killed some 25,000 in 19 months, roughly the same amount his father, the late Hafez Assad, killed in less than a week in Hama in February 1982.
If Assad Jr.'s Alawite regime prevails, Iran will have kept intact its direct link with its Lebanon-based proxy, Hezbollah, and from Lebanon south to its other proxy in Gaza. An Israeli attack on Iran would automatically trigger retaliatory capabilities throughout the region.
When Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein decided to invade Iran in 1980, he told the head of French intelligence Alexandre de Marenches that the war would be over in less than two weeks. It lasted eight years and killed about 1 million on both sides.