Earlier this month, I happened to turn on the PBS NewsHour and caught a roundtable discussion on President Obama’s decision to send another 450 military “advisers” to help train the Iraqi army in its fitful fight against ISIS. One of the panelists was Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich, author of The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, among other books. Also on the panel were Ret. General Anthony Zinni, former commander of U.S. Central Command, Michele Flournoy, former undersecretary of policy at the Department of Defense, and Leon Panetta, former secretary of defense. Zinni, Flournoy, and Panetta were all supportive of sending more advisers and even expanding the scope of the rules of engagement. Not surprisingly, Bacevich was skeptical. As he saw it, whatever skills the U.S. military might instill in Iraqi forces, they will not “be able to transfer the will to fight, which would seem to be the fundamental problem.”

Panetta was hawkish and optimistic about an expanded U.S. military mission. He seemed to think that the Shiite-led government in Baghdad could be pressured into arming its Sunni and Kurdish partners in the north. “We’ve got to push the Iraqis,” he said. No one asked why we would have more leverage with the Shiites now than we did when we had a hundred thousand troops in Iraq. Panetta insisted that ISIS posed a grave threat not just to U.S. interests abroad, but to our domestic security. Bacevich responded that Panetta was “vastly exaggerating” any threat ISIS might pose to the United States. Given the disasters of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, we “ought to be a little bit humble” about thinking that U.S. military can fix problems in that part of the world. Bacevich observed that we had in fact created many of those problems by invading Iraq in 2003. “The evidence is quite clear,” he said. “U.S. military intervention in this region creates greater instability, not stability.” 

Isn’t that a simple statement of fact? Evidently not to Panetta. He reads recent history quite differently. “The fact is, we’re good at counterterrorism,” he said. “The reality is that we know how to do this without deploying the 101st Airborne or a large number of brigades.”

I confess to being nonplussed by that statement. Does Panetta honestly think Iraq and Afghanistan have been rousing counterterrorism success stories? I suppose that might be true if the goal was to occupy both countries indefinitely. But there are limits to American dominance, and limits to what we should ask of our men and women in the armed forces.

To his credit, Bacevich was having none of what Panetta was selling. “With all due respect,” he answered the former secretary of defense, “we don’t know how to do this.”

What does it mean when a former secretary of defense, a man widely respected in Washington, is unable to recognize military failure? How can mistakes be corrected or avoided in the future if denial is the only acceptable posture for those in whom the public has placed its trust? Panetta is convinced that without more aggressive U.S. involvement in Iraq ISIS will triumph. His confidence that this involvement will not eventually require U.S. ground forces defies logic and recent history.

Panetta is clearly in the grip of what Bacevich has called the “illusion” of America’s unique moral authority and strategic competence (“The Illusions of Managing History: The Enduring Relevance of Reinhold Niebuhr”). Bacevich reminds us that rather than seeking the sort of unobtainable preeminence Panetta envisions, Niebuhr urged the United States to seek geopolitical stability. “Given the competitive nature of politics and the improbability (and undesirability) of any single nation achieving genuine global dominion,” Bacevich writes, Niebuhr “posited ‘a tentative equilibrium of power’ as the proper goal of U.S. policy. Among other things, he wrote, nurturing that equilibrium might afford the United States ‘an opportunity to make our wealth sufferable to our conscience and tolerable to our friends.’”

We won the Cold War, Bacevich writes, because our goal was to contain the Soviet Union, not vanquish it. As a consequence, other nations trusted us. “Equilibrium not dominance, served the economic and security interests of both the United States and its allies,” Bacevich writes. “As a result, those allies tolerated and even endorsed American primacy. The United States was the unquestioned leader of the Free World. As long as Washington did not mistake leadership as implying a grant of arbitrary authority, the United States remained first among equals.”

After 9/11, the United States was determined to exercise arbitrary authority in the fight against terrorism. Predictably, failure has been the result. “Niebuhr once observed that the wealth and power of the United States presented ‘special temptations to vanity and arrogance which militate against our moral prestige and authority,” Bacevich writes. “In formulating their strategy for the so-called global war on terror, President Bush and his lieutenants succumbed to that temptation.”

In my opinion, President Obama has tried hard, if with mixed results, to resist that temptation. Panetta was secretary of defense under Obama, and a stern critic of the president’s alleged timidity in handling Iraq and Afghanistan and in foreign policy generally. Reinhold Niebuhr, the president has said, is an important influence on his thinking. Obama also has frankly conceded that he does not yet have a “complete strategy” for defeating ISIS. His critics claim that it is a lack of a strategy, not the limitations on what the U.S. alone can or should do, that explains ISIS’s success and the failures of the Iraqi government. But it should be clear by now that anyone who claims to know what it will take to fix Iraq is blowing smoke. Whether Obama will feel compelled to commit ground forces to the battle will reveal how lasting Niebuhr’s influence on the president really is.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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