Conflict between states is a collective affair, and the psychology behind a successful war is Us vs. Them. We may be aware of who some of our specific leaders happen to be, but ultimately "there is no 'I' in 'team'". Nor are we too aware of who the other side's specific leaders happen to be -- they're just Them, a collective blob.
An earlier post looked back at America's long history of imposing its will on its adversaries, from our founding up through WWII. The whole time, we had -- and still have -- almost no awareness of who the other side's leaders were at an individual level. There were "the Indians," "the Spanish," "the Japanese," and so on. Even when we did know one of their names, like Geronimo, we didn't believe that he was a single-handed dictator of his tribe -- "the Apache" -- but was just one of their leaders.
In the early 20th century, we invaded and occupied the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, and a host of other places in Central America and the Caribbean -- did we know who their leaders were, and focus on them? No. They were just "the Cubans" or "Cuba" as a whole country. Only after WWII when our imperial power began to decline, did we start obsessing over individual leaders on the other side -- Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, Papa Doc Duvalier, Noriega, etc.
We did use collective names like "the Sandinistas" and "the Contras" in our failed intervention in Nicaragua, but those do not refer to state-level actors or whole ethnicities or nationalities. Those were just two political factions.
When we were fighting "the Japanese" in the Pacific theater of WWII, where most of our concern was directed, there was no all-consuming focus on "stopping Hirohito" or "sending a message to Tojo". Most Americans today wouldn't even recognize those names. (The fixation on Hitler in the European theater is a ret-con.) Only after WWII when we could no longer carve out our sphere of influence in East Asia did we fixate on individuals -- Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and now Kim Jong Un in Korea, Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Pol Pot in Cambodia, and Chairman Mao in China. All those names still ring a bell.
We have never imposed our will in the Middle East, as our interventions there all came after WWII. So there's no comparison case of how we referred to a place that we took over as a client state by force. Our failed interventions in Iraq, Libya, and now Syria have all been accompanied by obsessions with the individual leaders -- Saddam, Qaddafi, Assad. When we were more heavily involved in the Israel-Palestine conflict, we focused not just on the PLO but on its leader Yasser Arafat.
And in Iran after the Revolution, there was a fixation on Ayatollah Khomeini and now Khamenei ("the Supreme Leader"), along with Ahmadinejad. Only Trump is unconcerned with who their particular leader happens to be, and refers to them collectively ("Very tough negotiators, the Persians"). And that's not because he sees it as Us vs. Them, but as Us getting along with Them. Cooperation is just as collective as conflict is.
Indeed, our allies and clients in the region are referred to as entire nations -- Israel / the Israelis, Egypt, Jordan, the Saudis, etc. We are sometimes aware of who is leading these nations, but generally not, and we do not think that our cooperation is linked to a specific individual leading their country -- or our country. It's a relationship between two nations, regardless of who the leaders happen to be.
Our allies "the Kurds" are referred to collectively, with no awareness of who any of their leaders are. They may not be a nation-state, but they are big enough to act as a quasi-nation or at least a confederation of small states.
On our side, who remembers who the President was when we successfully incorporated the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba into our sphere of influence in the early 20th century? Do most Americans know that it was Truman rather than FDR who was President when we dropped the atomic bomb on Japan? Or which President was responsible for subduing which Indian tribe? Those were all accomplished by "America" or "the Americans," not particular Presidents.
Our failed interventions are tied very closely with the individual leader at the time -- Kennedy and Castro, Johnson and Ho Chi Minh, Carter and the Ayatollah Khomeini, Reagan and the Sandinistas, Bush and Noriega and Saddam, Clinton and Milosevic, Bush Jr. and Saddam and the Taliban, Hillary Clinton and Qaddafi, Obama and Assad.
The only danger I see for Trump is becoming too focused on "this guy" "the maniac" in North Korea. Most people on either side do seem to believe that Kim Jong Un is the be-all end-all of the North Korean state, but that view has always been factually wrong and a predictor of a failed intervention. Our fixation on that one individual means we should just get out of that conflict altogether, and let "the Koreans" deal with each other, perhaps letting "the Japanese" do their own thing too.
It's ironic that in all these examples, we accuse the other side of practicing a cult of personality, yet we do the same thing -- only attributing bad god-like traits and powers to the leader, who in our eyes is a devil rather than a god.
One of the main things we accuse the other side's leader of, to prove what a devil he is, is that he treats "his own people" horrifically. Right there we've taken the side of the majority of the nation that we're supposed to be at war with. We're not fighting "the Iraqis," we're liberating the Iraqi people from Saddam. We're liberating the Cubans from Castro. We're helping the Iranian people from the control of the Supreme Leader.
That is the opposite mindset of Us vs. Them, and shows how surely we are going to lose that war. We were not liberating the Japanese people from Hirohito or Tojo -- we were fighting them from top to bottom, military leaders to lowly citizens.
We have no quarrel with Syrian society writ large, so why the hell are we trying to destroy it? If we're going to take it over to enrich ourselves, we need to take the whole thing over -- and not even the Pentagon is pursuing that ambitious of a goal.
As imperial decline sets in, we get lazy and think that we can enrich ourselves by acquiring another state by regime change, leaving all else in place for us to enjoy. "Make any nation your client by taking out this one weird guy". Right, I'm sure the rest of the society is just going to sit there and let itself be taken over by a force that is not even targeting the entire society. Rather, they see regime change and all the factions decide to strike while the iron is hot, and fill the power vacuum. Then it will be that internal faction or their own foreign allies who will control the flow of resources, still leaving us out of the game.
Individual-focused regime change only ends up handing over the ultimate prize to some faction who is not beholden to us. No better example than targeting Saddam for decades, only to hand Iraq over to the Shia majority and the sympatico Iranians. Focus on entire societies, or do not concern yourself with them at all.