WASHINGTON -- So, Donald J. Trump has now exercised his powers as commander in chief, sending Tomahawk missiles to destroy parts of the al-Shayrat air base used for Syrian chemical weapons. This young White House was preening with pride, yet it turned quickly to ambivalence.
Before 24 hours had even passed, the press and the military started asking: Does this attack foreshadow a strategy? Why weren't the runways destroyed? Is this mini-attack a prelude or a one-time shot?
President Trump explained ignoring the base's runways because they are so easy and inexpensive to rebuild (not worth our time, really). But these few seemingly innocent words missed the point.
For our, if you will, public relations interests, the world's TV screens that day should have been featuring Syrian planes and runways in shambles and the Syrian killer-base in ruins. Bashar al-Assad, still safely ensconced in his palaces in Damascus, should have looked like a prisoner encircled by his enemies. Instead, we see business as usual.
And once again, our leaders are being taken in by the American temptation in times of trouble to:
-- believe that a tentative and essentially ineffective strike, like this one, will change any military balance;
-- misunderstand the importance of public relations to warfare;
-- above all, have no idea whatsoever of what the Syrian regime is all about.
Think about it from the inside out: America has such fabulous riches and accomplishments -- from its scientific research to its universities, to its accomplished professionals, working men and women and military. There has never been a country like it in history.
But too much of its world standing is judged today by what people SEE of our international actions. Thus, much of our reputation is being damaged or sometimes even destroyed -- nearly half a century after the humiliating end of the Vietnam War in 1975 -- by the fact that we keep getting into so-called "small wars" where our political and military leaders have no idea how history defines and moves the peoples involved.
Places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia are "countries" with crazy borders left over from the European colonialists' desperate last-gasp mapmaking before they sailed home. Yet, from Vietnam and Laos to Libya and Syria, we haven't been able to realize, for starters, that peoples who have been colonized will fight to the death against supposed "new colonialists."
Don't misunderstand me: We have individuals in politics, in the Congress, in the universities and in the military who do understand the histories of other nations and how their people are moved (or not moved). For just military examples, take Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, now our hope in the White House, and Gen. James Mattis, secretary of defense. And we have cultural anthropologists and historians galore.
Yet no institutional mechanism exists to bring these individuals together into a group that would be taken seriously and listened to by the men and women actually planning tactics and strategy -- from the invasion of Iraq to the bombing of the Syrian base.
An example: The Trump administration originally talked optimistically about working WITH the Russians against ISIS in Syria. Yet, the quite obvious fact is that the Russians, with the Iranians and their tens of thousands of militiamen on the ground in Syria, have not the slightest intention of working with us on anything.
Shouldn't there have been a group in the Pentagon, the State Department or the White House capable of analyzing nations and peoples that should have foreseen that fact?
Impossible, you say? Never been done, you say?
In 1944, as the wars in Europe and in the Pacific wended their bitter ways to an end, Gen. Douglas MacArthur was aware that he would be tapped to take over the rebuilding of Japan. Not exactly a general who went to his staff for advice, he nevertheless was wise enough to form a group in the War Department to study the psyche of Japan and to provide for him the pattern for how he should rule Japan, as he effectively became its substitute emperor.
The group, mostly anthropologists headed by the brilliant Ruth Benedict, had never been to Japan, yet it came out with a report that became the book "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword," which showed MacArthur exactly how to rule in the occupation. His was an astounding success, while the book remains today the basis for all studies of the Japanese people.
Pentagon military thinkers, they say, are especially fascinated by the ancient writings on war by the wise Chinese tactician Sun Tzu. "If you know the enemy and know yourself," he wrote centuries ago, "you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. ... If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."