As Republicans conclude questioning of the Obama administration’s narrative of the anti-U.S. Libyan violence that culminated in the fatal attack of September 11, 2012, the most disturbing question remaining is perhaps the least cynical: “What if the Obama administration actually believes its own narrative?”
In other words, what if, from day one of NATO’s Libya intervention, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon really did believe in the primacy of a “strong counter-narrative” (or as Sidney Blumenthal put it in an email to Secretary Clinton, his “babbling rhetoric about ‘narratives’”)?
What if the aloof requests by Ambassador Chris Stevens’ Washington taskmasters for “public messaging” solutions in the months before the Benghazi attack were sincere?
What if U.S. Embassy in Cairo was simply taking the White House’s “theory of change” to its logical conclusion when it took time out of its lively morning on September 11, 2012, to tweet, “We consistently stand up for Muslims around the world and talk abt how Islam is a wonderful religion”?
What if, by National Security Council (NSC) standards, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey’s time really was best spent on September 12, 2012, calling a Florida pastor to request he adjust his messaging to the Muslim world?
And what if the NSC brain trust really does believe that Islamist violence can be countered by “supporting alternatives to extremist messaging and greater economic opportunities for women and disaffected youth,” as the 2015 National Security Strategy defines its primary counter-terrorism objective?
Such would provide a coherent explanation for the perennial tragedy of the U.S. fight against Islamist violence from Libya to Nigeria to Iraq to the “gradual progress” (reported for the nth time) of U.S. efforts in Afghanistan. The narrative of stock villains exploiting the woes of would-be model citizens is the Panglossian formula of every front of the White House’s global war with “extremists.” Indeed, the name of the strategy alone – Countering Violent Extremism – is a nod to the philosophy of seeing problems not as they are but as one wishes them to be.
The NSC sums up this narrative-centric strategy with the motto, “Don’t do stupid shit,” as if the U.S. is the problem, and the solution is a re-branding campaign. Unfortunately the NSC spends billions of dollars on refraining from doing stupid shit in precisely the kind of fundamentalist Islamic societies that would most benefit from adopting the NSC’s motto themselves.
For example, complicating the U.S.’s post-Qaddafi messaging push in Libya was the fact that 41 percent of Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa support executing the messenger if the messenger is someone who left Islam. The “opportunities for women” message, in particular, has limited mileage: 87 percent of the region’s Muslims believe a woman must obey her husband, and 60 percent of Muslims in Egypt favor stoning as a punishment for adultery. To support women’s rights in this region, in other words, is to be extremist. Yet even with the UN reporting in August that “the scale of human suffering [in Libya] is staggering,” the Obama administration refuses to follow Europe in recognizing the anti-Islamist government in Libya, content with tweeting, “International community stands ready to support Libyan people, the leaders they choose.”
Likewise, complicating the U.S. strategy to tweet its way to the rescue of the school girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in north-eastern Nigeria in April of 2014 is the fact that nearly 20 percent of the region’s population supports Boko Haram’s ideology. For those who do not, U.S. messaging rings hollow: since April 2014, hundreds have been abducted and thousands killed. Meanwhile, as the U.S. frets over the “legitimate concerns of the people” that fuel “Boko Haram’s appeal,” Boko Harm exploits the illegitimate concerns of the people, such as outrage over the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. And for every statement the NSC releases about Boko Haram denying Nigerians “unfettered access to education, health care, and economic development,” Boko Haram has a more compelling beheading video.
As for Iraq, recall the Sunni Awakening of 2007, which Obama administration officials ascribe not to the problematic U.S. troop surge, but to solution-oriented Iraqi elders getting fed up with “extremism.” The Islamic State’s massacres since the fall of Mosul in 2014 exceed even Zarqawi’s “extremism,” but where are those fed up elders now? Is it possible that their criteria for a legitimate grievance differs from ours? As we narrate our concern for Iraqis’ grievances, the Islamic State expands its legitimacy with every public school Islamified, child marriage notarized, and infidel death certificate printed.
But nowhere is the U.S. faith in the power of the narrative more tragic than in Afghanistan, where the United Nations reported a record level of civilian casualties in the first eight months of 2015. Last month, amidst the deadly tug-of-war for the key city of Kunduz and more American fatalities, the U.S. Army rejected the appeal of a soldier who is being kicked out for beating an Afghan official who laughed off concerns about his child sex slave. As one U.S. Army officer put it, the soldier’s fault lay in risking “a catastrophic loss of rapport” with the Afghan officials. At some point, the price of rapport exceeds its value, and the white lies of narrative-crafters outlive their utility.
The White House’s public messaging approach to dealing with Islamists is premised on a profound concern for what the Islamic world thinks of the U.S. It is time for the Islamic world to express a similar concern for how the world thinks of it.
Patrick Knapp is a graduate of Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs. He has worked in Afghanistan and Iraq in a civilian aid capacity, and recently completed an Army Reserve tour at US Africa Command.