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Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Bush and the war story

The past few days has seen the White House finally engage in a critical aspect of war-making: the development of a clear war narrative. Problem is, it might be too much, too late.

For five years the Bush Administration has either been inconsistent in its articulation of why we are at war -- and with whom, and to what ends, and with what strategy -- or else just plain reluctant to engage in what it regarded as a waste of time. Taking their corporate management view of the world, they assumed that just saying "we are at war" would be sufficient for a trusting workforce of citizens who would leave things up to the central office. But plagued by both the arrogance of their managerial ideology and a lack of historical knowledge, it wasn't sufficient. War means different things to different people, and the fact that this particular war lacked historical precedence meant that people were filling the narrative vacuum with their own sense of what a "war on terror" involved. Of all the people in the Bush Administration, only Colin Powell seemed to understand that -- and he was effectively overshadowed by the lesser lights in the White House.

For those who viewed war as a total mobilization of state and society -- the Garrison State -- this was a war that required an all out commitment of troops and resources to fight the evil enemy. But these folks soon learned that its government wanted to get the economy and social life back to normal as fast as possible after 9/11. William Dobson discusses how successful this was in his article on "The Day Nothing Much Changed" in Foreign Policy.

For folks who accepted the need to get things back to normal on the domestic front, the war became an effort best left to the professionals in the military and intelligence communities. By now, however, they have been disabused of the notion that we can establish a glass wall between the homefront and the frontlines in a war in which we are vulnerable from within. That narrative just doesn't play well when we learn about wiretaps, torture, and other challenges to the very values that are supposedly being safeguarded by those professionals under orders from the White House.

An "enemy within" narrative plays well in the movies and on the TV, but it begins to chafe a bit when the inconveniences of symbolically heavy gestures (e.g., somewhat silly security checks of two-year olds at airports, people in khaki uniforms patrolling the city streets with weapons at the ready) become just too much to deal with. And after five years, the idea that these practices have been institutionalized and are here to stay certainly puts the lie to any narrative that calls for temporary sacrifices for the sake of long-term peace.

Listening to Bush over the few days, it is clear that the Administration finally gets the point that it needs to do what should have been done much sooner and with much more clarity -- to confront the American public's need for a war narrative that can be used as a reference point for understanding what the war on terror involves. But while they have finally understood the need for a clear narrative, they seem to miss the point that content matters. Their confused and contradictory storyline has not changed -- it is just more obvious now that the Administration is itself baffled about the what the war on terror entails.

Today, for example, Bush was very good at showing how the infamous CIA program(s) for detaining and interrogating the thousand or so "enemies" in the war has led to the preemption of attacks and saving lives, but in the end it was not a war narrative but a crime-fighting story which will end with the prosecution of a handful of individuals who will be brought to juridical justice. Save for a few passing (and disconnected) nominal references to Iraq and Afghanistan, there was nothing about "war" in the presentation, nothing to indicate the loss and ruin of so many lives has some rational basis. Scratch the surface of the current rhetorical offensive and you still find a narrative vacuum.

In fact, the only hope for the Bush Administration in its effort to establish a legitimate war narrative is also its worse nightmare -- another attack of 9/11 proportions....
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