TCS Daily

The Story of This War

By Michael Vlahos - November 6, 2003 12:00 AM

Editor's note: This article is the second of a two-part series.


All wars have stories. Moreover a war's story is not necessarily the same as a war's strategy. The story tells how a war is broadly understood and remembered. It is a form of literary narrative.


What about this war? We have many themes for a story: from terrorism to WMD, from fighting evil to building democracy. But after two years of fighting and two countries taken, what is the story?


The moderate Islamists (Part I) gave us a story with very different themes:


  • What we think of as a war on terrorism is really a struggle within Islam over change and the future of the Muslim World

  • The US is bringing change to Iraq. But instead of American-style democracy this change may end up as something very different and very Islamist.

  • Through its occupation of Iraq the US is actually making the radical Islamist case -- that we are invading Islam -- encouraging the Muslim World to unite against us


This is not a story the Administration likes. But it represents a coherent alternative narrative made more compelling by recent events. It also suggests that new narratives of the war and its future are emerging, and that the Administration no longer has a competing story to offer. The recent Rumsfeld Memo makes this plain.


But there was a story once, a complete narrative of things to come on which the Administration had come to rely. What happened to this story of the future? What new narrative will come to succeed it?


How the Future Got Made


The future may not exist, yet its prospect alone -- especially in a war -- can have authority over our lives. We give it authority by collectively accepting a particular story of the future as the preferred reality to be. The American people, by supporting the Administration and the war, accepted just such a story of the future in 2002.


The future of Iraq and of Islam itself was spun in the spring of 2002. A small but highly placed and dedicated circle, whose names are now well-known -- including key administration figures like Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and Douglas Feith, and influential Washington commentators like Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol -- concluded that "terrorism" was linked to a bigger struggle within Islam. What they called "radical Islam" was the real enemy. But radical Islam could only be defeated if the US fundamentally changed the Muslim World.[1]


They defined winning as bringing the two essential Muslim societies into the American Way through democratic conversion. These societies are central in their respective worlds, and each -- as the main sources of radical Islam -- is also a threat to the US. They are Iran and Saudi Arabia (seat of Wahhabism). But a strategy against the sources of radical Islam was thought too sensitive to layout openly as the official story. Thus a very different narrative was needed. If Iran and Saudi Arabia were to be converted, then the path to their conversion lay through Baghdad


So in that spring a literary narrative of prospective history began to emerge. The narrative focused on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but invading Iraq was really just the means to a much bigger end. To realize that end, US invasion of Iraq had to do three things:


  • The dramatic theater of war itself must be staggering, like a force of nature, something so majestic and irresistible as to paralyze the will. This requirement was later codified by the shibboleth "shock and awe," meaning, of course, shock and awe among Iranians and Saudis -- and perhaps Syrians as well -- and not simply Iraqis. It also was intended for the world as a whole, to create the impression that even the thought of resisting future US action was futile.

  • The majestic drama of war must be succeeded by the exultant drama of liberation. Here the active, if mixed metaphor was The Good War: like the Liberation of Paris, the film rolling would be of flowers in the gun barrels; and like the occupation of Germany and Japan, inevitable democracy and permanent friendship would surely flow. Twin outcomes -- of an Iraqi embrace of American liberators, and dutiful Iraqi compliance to democratic tutelage -- were essential to create democratic pressure on Arabia and Iran.

  • The drama of the US going it alone, with only its fastest friends at its side, would eventually serve both to shame those who scolded and hung back and create the foundation for future US interventions for the good of the world. The dramatic power of the experience and its obvious benefit to humankind would transform "preemption" into a new working model for world security. Iraq would legitimate American Empire.


But as this literary narrative became History, History quickly revealed its flaws. The paradox is that although we were told the invasion achieved all of its goals, it achieved them just that much short of expectation so as to create the impression that it had failed on all three counts:


  • American military majesty was irresistibly demonstrated, but the succeeding guerilla campaign showed that it was still possible to effectively confront the US in alternative military venues. Moreover, the persistence of the campaign has raised the possibility that in these venues the US might even be defeated. Thus resistance is paradoxically encouraged.

  • Initial scenes of liberation did not live up to flowery expectations. But more important the failure to get Iraqi infrastructure up and running -- combined with the collateral mayhem of the guerilla war -- squandered initial goodwill. Not only was the bloom off -- now popular opposition to the US has begun. Americans have come to look like occupiers, and just as important, are universally portrayed as such in Muslim media.

  • The US succeeded in acting preemptively. But instead of acquiescing to the inevitability of American power, the failure of both military and liberation as media drama encouraged American allies to coalesce against us. In future they will at the very least extract regulating concessions before any future intervention is legitimated. Now the expectation is that US unilateral action, if it is undertaken, will succeed only at the level of brute force -- hardly a happy norm for the American electorate.


Why the Future Was Undone


Asserting the future through presumptive literary narrative is an essential part of policymaking -- particularly for a policy of change. Successfully initiating change and securing some new historical outcome depends on presenting a story that wins over key audiences -- electorate, allies, and those in the policy target zone itself.


The literary narrative of 2002, however, ignored the war story's three rules:


  • Renounce wish fulfillment

  • Narrative must correspond to strategy

  • Do not lose control of the change narrative


"Wish fulfillment" becomes dangerous narcissism if the change outcome preferred becomes the change outcome announced -- and in the case of Iraq, announced loudly many times in advance.


The wish fulfillment announced was that everyone at heart wants what America has: not simply its "good life" but also its "democratic values" and "system." The storytellers assumed American democracy to be not only a universal good but also a universal good "fit" for all cultures. Thus any society that is oppressed can be liberated and converted in short order into an American "eaglet." The problem with this existential assumption is not that it is wholly wrong. Most Muslims want democracy and pluralism, too. But their democracy might look very different from ours; and just as important, Muslims might actually want to make it themselves rather than simply accept it from us.


The narcissism reached its pinnacle in prewar discussions. The rebuilding of Iraq was compared prospectively to the occupation and democratic transformation of Germany and Japan. Yet these had been great enemies that we had beaten down and broken in apocalyptic struggle. Our achievement was surely great but it was inextricably tied to the overwhelming experience of the war itself.


Invoking the occupation of Germany and Japan could be compared to ancients bringing out their sacred fetishes of mythic tribal achievement, ritually parading them to find strength and to seek divine support for the great enterprise ahead. But Iraq at most was a tiny colonial-style campaign to overthrow a tin pot potentate in a few weeks -- not a mighty war of years where our very survival was on the line.


The Iraq narrative misappropriated sacred elements of the mythic national narrative to burnish and amplify its own significance. It was to be a war for democracy -- like the two great wars of the 20th century -- and it was to be a war against a great evil - like Nazism.


But it was not. Worse yet, such a narrative claim was quite removed from actual Administration strategy.


Narrative and strategy must correspond or risk at some point losing public confidence in either the narrative or the strategy -- or both. This is exactly what happened with the Iraq War.


Likening the war to the great wars of America's past created the impression that the Administration was truly interested in the redemption of the Iraqi people, and that this would be but a first step to uplifting all those Muslim societies living under tyranny.


But this simply had not been its actual strategy. In contrast, it had publicly announced only that we were engaged in a "Global War on Terrorism," and thus, that the strategy of the war was "tracking them down and bringing them to justice." Truth was that the Administration had come to accept that this outcome, narrowly defined, could never be attained. Therefore the emergent strategy was one of undermining radical Islam -- meaning, undermining its primary sources, Iran and Saudi Arabia.


At the same time, however, the Administration could not bring itself to make radical Islam the focus of its public strategy. This explains the 2002 focus on WMD in the celebrated "Axis of Evil" speech. By shifting the problem from radical Islam to WMD the Administration could at least identify Iran for future regime-elimination, and also signal that it could approach the Saudis through Baghdad. North Korea was thrown in to throw the scent off an all-Muslim impression.


This approach had the virtue of skirting volatile political shoals, but it violated the rule that actual strategy and its literary narrative of historical change must correspond as closely as possible.


Thus the American people came to expect first that the invasion of Iraq was somehow central to the war on terrorism -- either in terms of terror-sponsorship, WMD, or general evilness. Americans were actually quite uncritical and accommodating -- in contrast to US allies -- because they believed that the Administration's literary narrative was actually its strategy as well. For example, speaking right before the war the President said:


"A liberated Iraq can show the power of freedom to transform the Middle East, by bringing hope and progress into the lives of millions.


"The world has a clear interest in the spread of democratic values...Success in Iraq could also begin a new stage for Middle Eastern peace, and set in motion progress toward a truly democratic Palestinian state.


"It will be difficult to cultivate liberty and peace in the Middle East ... [yet] we trust in the power of human freedom to change lives and nations."[2]


The great narrative was in place. The American people had been told that military victory would bring a sense of liberation whose energies would create a wave of democratic change. They had come to expect this outcome.


Its absence in terms of the literary narrative thus has come to imply American defeat. Yet from the Administration standpoint -- whose strategy differs from the public narrative it sold in some significant respects -- the war has been a success. Saudi Arabia has been pressured and is coming around, and Iran is talking (maybe even secretly negotiating).[3]


But the failure of its narrative has served to encourage opposing narratives from both the enemy and the Administration's domestic opposition. Most important, this means that the Administration and its Washington circle have lost control of the change narrative.


Losing control of the change narrative may not seem as calamitous as losing control of the strategic initiative, but it must be remembered that strategy and its public story are intertwined in democratic war efforts. We remember how tight this weave was in our own mythic wars, like the "Great War" and the "Good War." But we can also see how strategy foundered in Vietnam, when story and strategy were de-coupled. The US narrative -- defense against Communism -- began to lose out to the competing enemy narrative -- of a local civil war between a corrupt US-backed regime and an authentic movement that had been fighting for national liberation for 25 years.[4] Thus to lose control of the narrative can mean perceived loss of strategic initiative, which may in the end lead to its actual loss.


The storytellers of 2002 believed not only that the US could bring world-historical change to the Muslim World, but also that it could control such change. Therefore it made sense to openly assert that this would be a controlled process, because that assertion would broadcast Administration confidence and thus by extension increase public confidence in the Administration.


But by invading the heart of classical Islam, the United States asserted a grand strategy of change. From an historical vantage this was a breathtaking gambit -- because creating such space for change insures eventual loss of control. The trick is somehow to lose control only after major goals have been achieved, or to lose control with change galloping off in the desired direction. But their future for the Muslim World depended at every turn on an almost prodigy-like control -- which they lost almost immediately.


It is tempting to believe that controlled change is possible, especially when it is introduced into a world that has not seen real change for decades. Thus, for example, most people in the mid-1980s thought Gorbachev would succeed in his reforms. After all his was a frozen, sclerotic world, we thought. Change could only come, bit by bit, to a place so unused to it.


But the Soviet World had a powerful, pent-up longing for change: so opening up space for change sent instead a very different signal. Once permission for serious change was granted it was like public klaxon blaring that the controllers had lost control, that anything now was possible, and that the only way to find this out was to push hard and keep pushing. The pushing didn't stop until the whole thing had come apart.


New Futures Rising


Likewise, opening up space for historical change in Islam is today creating a similar surge in Muslim expectation. Ironically too, it was only the US that had the authority to make such an opening. The radicals' insurgency could bite and claw and pinprick but it had yet to topple even one of the old tyrants.


Now the US has taken down the first one; and it was not intended for the Jihadi's benefit but for that of all Muslims who seek change. But how the story has actually unfolded -- in contrast to its promise -- now primarily benefits the Jihadis. The US has unwittingly elevated them to being the actual (rather than merely rhetorical) defenders of an Ummah under attack. The mythic story they have craved -- their own awaited literary narrative -- is being created for them by us in Iraq, just as it was by the Soviets in Afghanistan.


In other words the failure of the Washington storytellers' narrative has insured the emergent authority of competing narratives of the future. Thus Administration strategy must contend with very different and rising expectations that draw authority not just from the failure, but also from the paradoxical gift that in failure it has given to others.


For example the Jihadis now have a narrative that leads to imminent victory if the Administration is defeated in next year's election. The mere defeat of a sitting President in the midst of a great (if poorly explained) war would constitute strategic defeat. It would electrify the Muslim World and forever enshrine the Jihadis as its defenders. Had they not challenged the US Commander-in-Chief, had he not thrown the might of the US against them -- and was he not now defeated, his cause in ruins?


Likewise the Administration's domestic opposition now also has a narrative that leads to imminent victory for them -- a narrative it will pursue even if Administration defeat is the functional equivalent among Muslims to American national defeat as well. Here we see all too clearly that failure of a narrative thus becomes more important than actual success of a strategy -- if the people's expectations of that strategy are dashed.


The Administration's strategic problem now centers on rehabilitating or recreating its narrative of the future. Although strategy itself can be put into high gear, in the absence of a good story that explains what high activity means and promises, the strategy itself cannot succeed.


Here we come full circle to the dilemmas of the moderate Islamist. Because there is no place for the moderate in his own literary narrative -- the story of the future is no longer his. The Administration now has very little time to come up with a good story that is also a true story. Increasingly, belief and its authority are migrating to new narratives. Thus like the moderate Islamist, for this Administration the story of the future is no longer theirs.



[1] It is appropriate to call it a "circle" but hardly a "cabal." They represented a widespread worldview within both Washington and the Administration. The worldview of this school of thought is covered in iconic if sympathetic terms by Avi Shavit in "White man's Burden," from Haaretz (May 4,2003). A similar treatment also appeared in The New York Times, Todd S. Purdum, "The Brains Behind Bush's War," (February 3, 2003). A Los Angeles Times story "Democracy Domino Theory 'Not Credible'"(March 14, 2003), which quotes Paul Wolfowitz as saying that Iraq could be "the first Arab democracy," which would "cast a very large shadow, starting with Syria and Iran but across the whole Arab world." He quotes Richard Perle as saying that a reformed Iraq "has the potential to transform the thinking of people around the world about the potential for democracy, even in Arab countries where people have been disparaging of their potential." William Kristol was always the most outspoken about the need to address the threat of radical Islam. Shavit's interview of Kristol characterizes his thinking like this: "his opinion is that it is impossible to let Saudi Arabia just continue what it is doing. It is impossible to accept the anti-Americanism it is disseminating. The fanatic Wahhabism that Saudi Arabia engenders is undermining the stability of the entire region. It's the same with Egypt, he says: we mustn't accept the status quo there. For Egypt too, the horizon has to be liberal democracy." At a Congressional hearing in May 2002, Kristol said, "For we are now at war - a war with terror and a war with terror's main sponsor in the world, radical Islam."

2 Note how his language resonates with the storytellers'. The President paid public homage to their contribution on this occasion: "At the American Enterprise Institute, some of the finest minds in our nation are at work on some of the greatest challenges to our nation. You do such good work that my administration has borrowed 20 such minds."

3 See the ongoing commentary of Stratfor, which stresses the nexus in US Iraq strategy with collateral objectives vis-à-vis Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. This recent report is available online:

4 The British Empire faced similar problems of story/strategy de-coupling in both the Crimean and Boer Wars.


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