04/05/2013 01:58 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2013

Of Hubris and Humility

Pope Francis has wasted little time setting a new tone for his institution and those who follow it. Eschewing the usual trappings of material wealth - the papal apartment, the limousine, the fancy shoes, etc. - he is leading in the example of his namesake to remind this generation of clergy and his church of the central teachings of the founder of his religion, among them the empowerment of the poor and other underprivileged as well as, no doubt, some introspection about church behavior. It seems humility may be coming back in style, and not a moment too late, at least for some of us.

Just the other day, I participated along with three other retired colonels in a panel discussion at the Reserve Officers Association to relate a bit of our own experiences in the planning, preparation for, and participation in the greatest American strategic blunder of our time - the Iraq War. Now a decade in the rearview mirror, I reflected on this moment of national hubris and concluded: "We lost the war in Iraq, because we failed to win the peace."

Or, as George Friedman of STRATFOR put it the day before the discussion: "...the United States has emerged from the post-Cold War period with one towering lesson: However attractive military intervention is, it always looks easier at the beginning than at the end. The greatest military power in the world has the ability to defeat armies. But it is far more difficult to reshape societies in America's image."

Whether this is translating into a more humble approach to our engagement with the rest of the world remains to be seen. Given the complete refusal of the neocons and many on the right to even hint at admission of error gives reason to believe it could be a while yet before we reach national conciliation as well as consensus on how we get involved in wars like Iraq and conflict in general. In fairness, though, it may be in good part not because of the war as much as our divided politics, which may in fact hamper our ability to avoid repeating the same mistake.

Besides knowing and accepting our limitations, you would think, after a decade of perpetual war in Iraq and Afghanistan that has added 4-6 trillion dollars to our national debt with little to show for it, that we would finally realize that wars and other conflicts are best resolved by civilians than soldiers.

The military can help shape the conditions that bring about peace, but the peacebuilders, by and large, are the civil society actors who win the peace and help prevent conflicts from getting out of hand in the first place. You would think that these capacities would receive at least some of the kind of political and financial support in Washington that warfighting programs still do.

Perhaps that may come, given Defense Secretary Hagel's warning the other day at the National Defense University that the Pentagon needs to plan for long-term cuts. But if you go by what some on Capitol Hill have been saying the past couple of weeks, that may not be as soon as we think - or as needed.

Pride may once again be going before the fall. Senators John McCain and Carl Levin of the Senate Armed Services Committee are calling for the U.S. to "degrade the Assad regime's air power and to support Turkey if they are willing to establish a safe zone inside of Syria's northern border." This leaves unheeded retiring CENTCOM Commander Marine Gen. James Mattis's hesitancy about giving arms to the Syrian opposition because "the situation is so complex" and because of the need for "some degree of confidence that the weapons that we would... [give] would not be going to" the wrong people - alluding to a lesson mainly from Iraq about "unintended consequences."

Some members of the House, meanwhile, have drafted the even more ambitious Free Syria Act of 2013, featuring "appropriate military assistance, including arms, training, and intelligence support, for Syrian opposition" who are "appropriately vetted and are directed only to forces that support the establishment of a democratic and peaceful Syria."

All fine and well, perhaps, but what's the "exit strategy" that gets us to peace? My friend and colleague Col. (ret.) John Agoglia, during the panel discussion, pointed out that the all-important question when planning to get involved in conflicts is: "What type of peace" do we want to help achieve?

Walter Pincus, in his piece in the Washington Post, likewise has the right focus:

Let's for a moment forget how difficult or costly providing military support to the "good" Syrian opposition would be and concentrate on post-Assad Syria. Also, let's remember the issues that arose from a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and post-Gaddafi Libya. And, of course, there are the current issues in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Those lessons should be central to any talk about Syria, but they are not.

This is not to say that any military option in situations like Syria are not good. What it does mean, however, is that, as in Iraq, why you go to war is the single most important determinant before committing blood and treasure in pursuit of national interests and that the reasons should be more than compelling. The use of force should be the last of resorts.

Pointing out that there are no "good" options for the U.S. in Syria, limited military options, and no clear and predictable end state, Anthony Cordesman also reminds us that "if Iraq and Afghanistan were not enough, Syria is yet another warning that it is a fantasy to assume that the fall of an authoritarian rule that involves massive economic and political inequalities in nations with deep ethnic, sectarian, and tribal divisions will somehow lead to stable democratic rule and economic development."

Managing expectations is the foremost way to moderating our national strategic ambitions.

Drawing on my experience in Iraq, I gave the small group of Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine officers I led a few years ago in Liberia, performing the kind of real-world, small-footprint multinational security cooperation mission our military will be finding itself more and more involved in for years to come, three watchwords: "professionalism," "discipline," and "humility."

The first two are relatively easy to understand as advice for military officers, but the third incorporates the maturity of balance that is as important at the collective as the individual level: "Everyone here knows you belong to the biggest, baddest, military in the world," I told them. "Don't advertise it - instead, come in low and surprise them by giving them more respect than perhaps they deserve, because what you're doing is building political capital that you may someday have to draw on." It was a new way of applying Theodore Roosevelt's adage a century ago to "speak softly and carry a big stick," to think globally and act locally, or think strategically while acting tactically.

Humility is an act of strength, not a sign of weakness, because it reflects confidence in the future more than a fear enslaved by the past. Isn't that, after all, what America should be most about?

And if humility was good enough for Jesus, as the Pope is helping us to remember, then shouldn't it also be good enough for us?