Center for Strategic Communication

by Bud Goodall

One of the important challenges of President Obama’s administration is to sell the continuation of our “overseas contingency operation” (or perhaps FATAVE) in Afghanistan to an increasingly disenchanted audience at home and abroad. But there is a worrisome absence of a good narrative–a coherent collection of stories–about why we are there and what we hope to accomplish.

In recent press conferences and briefings, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Gates have maintained a consistent posture of support for a continued U.S. military presence, despite polls showing a growing lack of popularity for that posture. In a recent (September 22. 2009) Pew Research Center poll, the results were striking:

The poll shows that even though 76 percent of Americans see a Taliban takeover of the country as a major threat to U.S. security, 43 percent favor pulling out all U.S. and NATO troops as soon as possible. The number of those advocating withdrawal has increased five percent in just three months (from 38 percent in June), while the ranks of those set on ‘staying the course’ shrank by seven percent during the same period.

Since that poll was released there has been an upturn in debate over direction and policy in the White House, including a plea from General Stanley McChrystal for an additional 40,000 troops. As a Washington Post story about the apparent disagreement between McChrystal and the White House put it yesterday:

Obama may take weeks to decide whether to add more troops, but the idea of pulling out isn’t on the table as a way to deal with a war nearing its ninth year, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said. “‘I don’t think we have the option to leave. That’s quite clear,” Gibbs said.

With due respect to Mr. Gibbs, I think nothing about this decision is yet “very clear” and much of the storyline is simply “missing.”

What is missing from reports about the ongoing debate over the future of our military mission in Afghanistan? From a strategic communication perspective, it is any mention of narrative. As Scott Ruston pointed out in a previous post:

A narrative is a system of stories that hang together and provide a coherent view of the world. People use narratives to understand how their world works. Narratives contain patterns that fit the data of everyday life (events, people, actions, sequences of actions, messages, and so on), explaining how events unfold over time and how one thing causes another.

In other words, what the Obama administration is missing is a collection of stories that provides a clear explanation of our military mission in Afghanistan. We don’t have a well-imagined view of the future of the world with our troops active in Afghanistan, or absent from it. We lack a firm (or better yet passionate) resolve among our leaders not only to accomplish our mission, but also to enact a particular storyline.

Without such a coherent system of stories to provide a clear and credible narrative storyline, American and overseas audiences are left with what narrative scholars call “the presence of an absence, and the absence of a presence.” That is, what we lack is the knowledge that there is, in fact, a believable, credible storyline guiding the trajectory of political decisions and military actions in Afghanistan.

What fills this gap for audiences is increasingly made up of competing narratives, which further fragment the issues and divide citizens and politicians from each other. Our public discourse about Afghanistan is a disconnected series of conflicting news accounts and press statements, daily political opinion polls, the (often inflamed) rhetoric of commentators on the left and right, and the rantings of our opponents overseas. The gap is also filled by widespread public and political anxiety. We fear what we do not know, and in this case, what we do not know is the narrative guiding vital decisions and actions.

Meanwhile, are left with one consistent pattern, one coherent, credible and disturbing storyline. Our leadership seems impotent as an undeclared war goes on, Americans continue to die, the leadership in Afghanistan remains corrupt, the Taliban grow stronger, and our treasury is drained of resources.

This narrative–constructed out of the noise of media stories and images–is eerily similar to the one that corroded support for the White House during the Vietnam War. It eventually led to political defeat, military withdrawal, and a resulting genocide as insurgents sought revenge on those who had assisted U.S. efforts.

It does not have to be this way. The American people expect a believable, credible narrative from this White House. We have learned to expect it. We want a story that closes the gap and provides us with a hopeful view of the future, whatever policies that future must embrace. More importantly, we want to have confidence in the resulting storyline. We want to understand where and how this story ends and have some way of accurately assessing the effectiveness of the steps taken to accomplish those ends.

We will not be satisfied by “a never-ending story.” Notice how short-lived was Secretary Rumsfeld’s rhetoric of “a long war.” Nor will we be content to support characters who don’t demonstrate what we expect from our national leaders/heroes. Bravery, honesty, and justice are all qualities that depend on connecting the narrative to desired ends.

Finally, there is an important principle from narrative theory that ought to guide the reinvention of America’s role in Afghanistan: The story determines the content, not the other way around. Translated into political language this simply means that until our leadership has settled on the narrative, there should be little discussion of specific policies (those smaller stories that make up the system) in the public sphere. A narrow focus on policy absent a compelling narrative will only confuse the popular audience and anger the pundits, leading to a further division of citizens from whatever the resulting storyline might be.

So, to fill the dangerous narrative gap, our leadership must first get the story straight. Then they should keep to it, measure success against it, and demonstrate those qualities of leadership, and leadership communication, that we associate with stories worth living, fighting, and/or, even dying for.