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
is bringing change to US . But instead of American-style democracy this change may end up as something very different and very Islamist. Iraq
- Through its occupation of
the Iraq is actually making the radical Islamist case -- that we are invading Islam -- encouraging the Muslim World to unite against us 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
They defined winning as bringing the two essential Muslim societies into the
in that spring a literary narrative of prospective history began to
emerge. The narrative focused on the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but
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
action was futile. US
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
and Germany , 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 Japan Arabiaand . Iran
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.
would legitimate American Empire. Iraq
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:
military majesty was irresistibly demonstrated, but the succeeding
guerilla campaign showed that it was still possible to effectively
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. US
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
has begun. Americans have come to look like occupiers, and just as important, are universally portrayed as such in Muslim media. 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. US
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
The wish fulfillment announced was that everyone at heart wants what
The narcissism reached its pinnacle in prewar discussions. The rebuilding of
Invoking the occupation of
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
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,
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
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
"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
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.
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.
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
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
The storytellers of 2002 believed not only that the
But by invading the heart of classical Islam, the
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
opening up space for historical change in Islam is today creating a
similar surge in Muslim expectation. Ironically too, it was only the
In other words the failure of the
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
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.
 It is appropriate to call it a "circle" but hardly a "cabal." They represented a widespread worldview within both
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