Early this year America entered a third stage in the war that began on 9/11, when a new narrative for the conflict was unveiled: "The Long War."
In war, narrative is much more than just a story. Narrative may sound like a fancy literary word, but it is actually the foundation of all strategy, upon which all else-policy, rhetoric, and action-is built. War narratives need to be identified and critically examined on their own terms, for they can illuminate the inner nature of the war itself.
War narrative does three essential things. First, it is the organizing framework for policy. Policy cannot exist without an interlocking foundation of "truths" that people easily accept because they appear to be self-evident and undeniable. Second, this "story" works as a framework precisely because it represents just such an existential vision. The "truths" that it asserts are culturally impossible to disassemble or even criticize. Third, having presented a war logic that is beyond dispute, the narrative then serves practically as the anointed rhetorical handbook for how the war is to be argued and described.
In the Pentagon's Quadrennial Defense Review Report, the phrase is recurrent, with "long war", "long, global war" or "long, irregular war" appearing 34 times, including the title for the first chapter: "Fighting the Long War." The banner headline on the defenselink.mil announcing the report reads: "The United States is a Nation Engaged in What Will be a Long War."
The Story of War, Twice Transformed
This war-the Global War on Terrorism, or gwot-has had three distinct "stories." Or perhaps it would be better to say that the story of this war has been twice transformed. Its initial incarnation as a "war against terrorism" was a simple story of righteous retribution: kill the terrorists in their mountain lairs. The second began with the president's declaration of an "Axis of Evil." This represented a metamorphosis from "terrorist" enemy to the image of an evil league of enemy powers, and thus the entire significance of the war was elevated. At one rhetorical stroke it was now possible to assert a war narrative equal to the most protean of American struggles. The war could now be given a commanding meaning equal to the mythic claim of World War II itself. Thus it instantly became a grander enterprise, where the transformed narrative actually demanded great efforts and even greater events.
It is the collapse of this enterprise that has birthed yet another story. This third incarnation is a tortured response to debacle in Iraq, where messianic goals and millenarian promise went south. Thus the "Long War," formally unveiled in Rumsfeld's February 2006 speech to the National Press Club: "The United States is a nation engaged in what will be a long war."
But the image of a long war-a dogged, "twilight struggle"-is not particularly attractive, especially if American failure and losses in Iraq are thus implicitly translated into a slow-bleeding vision of forever war. Such a picture certainly does not make the blood rush or the pulse race. To keep this effort up for "generations" as the president is fond of saying, the purpose driving this war must be great of course. But even more-and this is its greatest challenge-such purpose must explain the need for generations of pain and sacrifice.
As a template for the narrative of the "Long War", World War II no longer works, since we continue to slog past anything like a v-j Day endpoint. The Long War needs, if such a thing is possible to imagine, a story of World War II-like significance, but with an even bigger claim on us. Thus in the president's words, this war is "the unfolding of a global ideological struggle, our time in history." The enemy is not only powerful, a "great evil", it is also, a "mortal danger to all humanity", the "enemy of civilization"-as though these men were somehow the antithesis of human and, perhaps even, inhuman. The enemy is not only "evil" (a word invoked like a litany), it also wages "war on the idea of human progress itself." Are not the "Islamofascists", in the president's words, the successor evil to "the struggle against communism in the last century?"
There is the clear suggestion here that without U.S. intervention, the radicals would succeed, and a Caliphate would reign. This is what the official Long War briefing says. If we explicitly fight "Islamofascists" we must just as explicitly oppose everyone who supports or even sympathizes with Muslim resistance-and who knows how many Muslims "sympathize" at some level: a third, the majority? We are determined to reform and rehabilitate degraded Arab and Persian worlds.
Already the narrative of the Long War has won over the faithful. Freerepublic.com is probably the biggest "red" community blog. Most talk on the war there moves quickly to declarations like: "History shows that wars only end with a totally defeated enemy otherwise they go on . . . Either Islam or us will quit in total destruction." Or another: "Will it take an American Hiroshima to awaken the majority, to mobilize our masses against the Islamic quest of world domination?"
Moreover, pushing the mythic card to its fullest has worked in Washington politics. Its authority has trumped all opposition. Woe to Democrats (or even Republicans) who question the American mission in a great war. It has been narrative as fiat and law, and as fiat and law it has served this administration well.
The Long War-and its spectral subtext of a war of civilizations-clearly targets the American domestic audience. But what does it promise to achieve in the Muslim world? It has already achieved this: it has helped to recreate or, perhaps rather, resurface a deeply coded Muslim counter-narrative. This counter-narrative is also apocalyptic in nature, going back to Islam's 7th century origins. Today America takes on the role of great evil, of the Dajjal. By almost unwittingly becoming the "Dark Side" threatening Islam, the United States plays into the hands of the Takfiri cause by making us Islam's enemy. Do Muslims think more kindly on us when AM-talk-boosters of the Long War, like Dennis Prager, relentlessly insist that America is in a fight to the finish with only 100 million Muslims?
Moreover the Long War narrative threatens also to forever alienate civil Islamists. Non-violent-or even armed but non-Takfiri Muslim revolutionaries-are the umma's essential change agents. But the Long War posits a black and white choice between secular (or at least, "moderate") Muslims on one hand, and pure "Islamofascists" on the other. In this choice there is no place for non-Takfiri, more community-based Islamists in the American camp.
The great, lost opportunity of American hopes for reform in the Arab world was with non-violent Islamists. That opportunity has now been fully squandered. In societies ruled by tyrants, quietist Islamists had come to represent an alternative hope for their communities. But in our chosen Iraqi showcase we set about, perhaps unwittingly, to alienate the very Islamists on whom our successful rule relied. Now they identify themselves as resisters of American occupation. They have become a model of Muslim political resistance-but these are not Takfiri fighters, rather they are honest, committed Muslim authority. Such Islamist fighters represent a range of community resistance: from carefully quietist-like Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood-to civil militias-like the Shi'a in Iraq and Hezbollah in Lebanon-even to groups at the margins of governance- like Hamas or the Somali Courts Union.
Through this alienation we also move a traditionally more passive majority-who are not necessarily Takfiri enthusiasts-closer in sympathy with resistance. In Muslim places currently under foreign occupation popular support for resistance runs very high. Such resistance begins to develop a civic dimension, as in the popularly elected Hamas, or the various community-based militias of Iraq and even Somalia. Thus resistance goes beyond Takfiri action and is moving into the realm of legitimate civic action.
At the same time, liberals in the Islamic world are now at risk of looking like collaborators. Since we have so strongly championed liberal Muslim reformers, we have equally put them at risk of being seen as our agents in helping to subvert Islam. We codified a nascent "collaborator" model through our extravagant and extra-official electoral support for Iyad Allawi-efforts rewarded by the miniscule vote he received. The "Cedar Revolution" is a media- backfire case in point-morphing as it did into an extended political coming-out party for Hizballah.
When we have sought to empower liberal politics in Iraq, we instantly also signified that they were anointed agents of the American Design. Like the "Mayor of Kabul", they must scramble desperately to show their Islamist bona fides, all the while guarded by blond American (or South African) praetorians. Meanwhile, the entire Islamic world has seen to what extent the United States is truly interested in the "triumph of democracy." Where is all the democratic reform among America's "friends and allies in the region?" In Egypt, where a twenty-year emergency law was arbitrarily extended? The all-powerful Egyptian state now has 15,000 uncharged prisoners in the tender mercy of its jails. If magistrates protest, they, too, are thrown in prison. The 88 Muslim Brothers now in Parliament are becoming Egypt's only democratic alternative. Throughout it all the U.S. government has almost nothing to say; but for more than thirty years it has had something to give: more than $2 billion every year to the Pharaoh's regime.