Monday, February 26, 2007

The American Narrative

I cannot praise this article by Michael Vlahos in The American Conservative highly enough. In it the author attempts to understand what it is about us and our national character that led us to over-react so badly to the 9/11 attacks, to the point at which we are now mired in a war (and a "war") that it is impossible to argue has made us any safer, stronger, or freer. But the author's words are better than mine. Here are some cogent excerpts:

We are losing our wars in the Muslim world because our vision of history is at odds with reality. This is a well-established condition of successful societies, a condition that inevitably grows more worrisome with time and continuing success.

A nation’s evolving storyline gives concrete form to an accumulation of success and translates this into an assurance of transcendence...This self-styling grows into a collective conviction that the once-national, now-imperial, soon-to-be-universal narrative is not only an inevitable story but is actually coterminous with history itself.

Later, when threats seem to come out of nowhere, society is surprised, affronted, and deeply apprehensive because the presence of such threats symbolically suggests that the narrative might be false. All threats are then mortal threats—not because they put at risk the viability of the society itself but because they threaten the sacred symbolism of history that has become inseparable from national identity. They are a chilling announcement that the story is about to meet a bad end, or worse—be replaced by someone else’s story.

Thus the 9/11 attacks were a frontal assault on the American narrative.

Our vision, our "narrative" as Vlahos calls it, is one of a nation triumphant over its enemy at the end of the Cold War, a nation that dominates the world economically, culturally, and militarily. But the shock of the 9/11 attacks awakened us to a world that doesn't share the same vision we do, as Vlahos explains:

“The Promise of American Life” flung out to the world was to be a future of universal human redemption and transcendence. Americans might argue bitterly over how to achieve this, but before the war there was no argument over the desirability of the goal.

Now two-thirds of humanity is moving away from us and from our vision of one world.

Universal integration is no longer the human prospect but a black split between “us” and a “surplus humanity.” Globalization has become the privilege of those lucky few billions in the formal labor market. But what about the other half on their way to becoming the other two-thirds? What happens to our universal redemptive narrative in a world where modernity ends forever at 40 percent of humanity?

Our response to the 9/11 attacks, the ham-handed "diplomacy", the detention of foreigners in shadow prisons without fundamental human rights, the crusade-like invasion of Iraq, have only alienated the rest of the world from us:

The Great Muslim War advances this transformation. They say that the dark side is only evil radicals—and their supporters. But listen closely: except for the tiny handful of “moderate Muslims” we anoint, all Islamists and their communities are declared evil radicals.And if hundreds of millions so sympathize, then truthfully, is not the dark side the entire Muslim world? To make sure the point is not missed, war commentators are quick to add that Islam’s civilization is decayed and failed.

But this is no simple fight with the Muslim world and Islamic civilization. This is a global war, and the very survival of our civilization is at stake. Us versus them is not Americans versus Muslims but civilization and its enemies.

But the conflation of our war on radical Islamic terrorists, with a more fundamental struggle with Islam and its allies, will be our undoing:

Instead of us reaching to the ends of the earth with the promise of American life, our promise is contingent on submission: “You are either with us or against us.”

This is promoting strong counter-movements among “the global other.”

Our Islamofascist branding makes every movement of Muslim resistance an attack on us. Yet most resistance instead speaks to local yearnings. By seeing an enemy of civilization in every Muslim non-state actor, we unthinkingly widen the struggle.

The bigger we make the enemy, the bigger they become. Ours is the complicity of backhand legitimization. Whether we admit this or shout the reverse, effectively our war narrative works to set up superpower defeat—even if at first it seems only a drama of defeat played out in the media—because with one stroke, our narrative itself will have become a lie.

To me, this characterization is dead on. As an example of the failure of this approach, see our support of Ethiopian forces that ousted the Islamic Courts Union in Somalia recently about with Nat-Wu has ably written. It is absurd to imagine that the ICU presented any real threat to us; were a rag-tag band of militants really going to carry their war across the Atlantic to us, when they were in the process of consolidating power at home? But no matter. The Bush administration conflated them with Al Qaeda, accused them of harboring Al Qaeda leaders, permitted Ethiopia to depose the ICU, and sent our special forces on a wild goose chase after members of Al Qaeda who may or may not have even been in the country. Yet all this was done almost instinctively, without any question of the wisdom of whether we should go provoking conflict in a region that was settling into some measure of stability, and whether the ICU were truly our enemies, or simply...something else.

And witness the reaction of those right-wing nationalist bloggers and pundits, who appluaded ecstatically our attacks on ICU forces even when we failed to capture or kill any Al Qaeda terrorists, all as part of this "war on civilization." Something is wrong with our national attitude when rounds fired from a lone hovering gunship, or the incursion of a small force of soldiers is considered a major strike in the "war on terror."

Vlahos sees only defeat in this path. When you in essence declare war on over a billion Muslims the world over, and alienate your own allies in the process, how can there ever be a victory? But as Vlahos notes, the undoing of our myth, and our power, may in fact bring respite from war and continuing national anxiety over the threat of radical Islam. But that is years distant, and that's only the upside to the degradation of our standing in the world.

I for one do not believe we have permanently undermined our place in the world with the disastrous war in Iraq. But that is premised on us committing no more mistakes in our "war on terror." I think many people have begun to seriously reconsider the vision of a war against evil (evil Muslims at least) as they've seen that it's taken us only further away from something that could be considered a "victory" in the last four years, and towards greater and greater uncertainty about which allies still stand with us, who are true enemies are, and the shifting balance of power in the world. As Nat-Wu and I were talking today, there's still time yet to undo the damage done...but even that hope will be utterly destroyed by an attack on Iran. Such an attack will be a shifting point in the world, a point at which we will have utterly abandoned whatever moral authority permits us to act as the world "hyperpower", forced our allies to abandon us, and sucked us even deeper into the traps of our enemies.

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