07/02/2014 11:29 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2014

The Mental Block and the Broadside

Analysis of foreign affairs problems often ends in a mental block. As we have seen in each of our recent crises -- Somalia, Mali, Libya, Syria, Iraq, the Ukraine and Iran -- "practical" men of affairs want quick answers: they say in effect, 'don't bother us with talk about how we got here; this is where we are; so what do we do now?' The result, predictably, is a sort of nervous tick in the body politic: we lurch from one emergency to the next in an unending sequence.

This is not new. We all have heard the quip: "ready, fire, aim." In fact those words were not just a joke. For centuries after infantry soldier were given the rifle, they were ordered not to take the time to aim; rather, they were instructed just to point in the general direction of the enemy and fire. Their commanders believed that it was the mass impact, the "broadside," that won the day.

Our leaders still believe it. They think that our "shock and awe," our marvelous technology measured in stealth bombers, drones, all-knowing intelligence, our massed and highly mobile troops and our money constitute a devastating broadside. All we have to do is to point in the right direction and shoot.

So we shoot and then shoot again and again. We win each battle, but the battles keep happening. And to our chagrin, we don't seem to be winning the wars. By almost any criterion, we are less "victorious" today than half a century ago.

Professionally, I find it disturbing to keep repeating such simple observations. Like some of my colleagues, I had hoped that the "lesson" of Vietnam would be learned. It was not. Indeed, the guru of the neoconservatives, Samuel Huntington, memorably proclaimed that there was no lesson that could be drawn from Vietnam. He led the way, but today he has had many acolytes. They are still acting as guides of our government and the media.

So what do they tell us? Like Huntington, they say that we have nothing to learn from the expenditure of our blood, sweat and tears -- not to quibble about the trillions of dollars. As each crisis explodes, our guides told us that it is unique, is not to be seen in a sequence of events and decisions. It just is. So it requires immediate action of the kind we know how to take -- a broadside.

Also never-mind what motivates the "other-side." What they think might be of interest to ivory-tower historians or a few curious members of the chattering class, but in the real world they do not command attention. Real men just act!

Examples abound. Take Somalia: those wretched people are just a bunch of terrorists living in a failed state -- the pirates of the modern world. Simple. We knew what to do about them! That "appreciation," as they say in the intelligence trade, was reached some years ago, and we are still doing "our thing."

As a few of us pointed out, "our thing" did not stop out-of-work, hungry and able men from doing "their thing." When fishermen found their fishing sites virtually destroyed by industrial-scale fleets, armed with sonar, radar and mile-long drag nets and, being unable to catch fish, they faced starvation, they discovered piracy. Since they already had boats, were good sailors and were near a major cargo-shipping lane, transition to that new trade was easy. We knew the answer: military force. However, we have seen that sending the Navy is expensive and it did not stop desperate men. No one considered stopping the overfishing before the fishermen turned pirate.

Also, in Somalia, we smugly talk about the "failed state." But, as the Somalis see themselves, they are not a state at all; rather, they are a collection of separate societies living under a shared cultural-religious system. That, in fact, is how all our ancestors lived until the nation-state system evolved in Europe. Now most of us find it almost inconceivable that the Somalis do not adopt the system we adopted. Why are they so backward? If they would just shape up, piracy would end and peace would come. So we try to attach our institutions to their social organization. But, when the Somalis stubbornly try to retain their system, we try our best to modernize, reform, subvert or destroy it. We are still trying each of these or all of them together.

Variations on the Somali theme can be witnessed around the world as we jump from one crisis to the next. We prove to be good tacticians but not strategists, shooters but not aimers, and, above all, loud talkers but poor listeners. The broadside was our answer everywhere. In my next note, I will look at Syria.