Center for Strategic Communication

by Bud Goodall

Yesterday’s speech by President Barack Obama at West Point about the future of American commitment to Afghanistan contained no real material surprises for anyone paying attention to the news reports that led up to his carefully planned and executed event.  It was an Obama speech that lacked his usual rhetorical flair but came down hard on pragmatics, including a frank assessment of time, costs, and the real problem that is less Afghanistan than it is Pakistan.  But I, for one, who appreciated the President’s directness and honesty on pragmatics, was surprised by one glaring omission:  the absence of a compelling narrative that links who we are, as a people, to what we are trying to accomplish over there.

Why was I surprised?  Because in the 92 days of deliberation and considerable press build-up to the President’s address the multiple audiences for the speech–both at home and abroad–were made aware of most of the debates about the plan and, finally, the details of the plan prior to its delivery.  We already knew what the plan would be.  Press Secretary Robert Gibbs and other administration officials slowly and methodically released those details over the weekend, and on Monday Gibbs ended public and press speculation and told a war weary and economically challenged nation that “the commander in chief issued the orders” for an additional 30,000 troops for Afghanistan.

That was not “the news” in the speech.  It is the same narrative about the success of the surge in Iraq.  A surge in troops for Afghanistan, will be combined with a corresponding “surge” in financial assistance  that is required to secure neighborhoods, build schools, roads, and hospitals, and otherwise provide gainful employment to citizens who, without it,  might become (once again) insurgents.

So what did the President’s speech accomplish as a narrative?  He began by reaffirming the Bush message:  We are still after those who started this fight and who were responsible for the tragic events of 9/11.  He admitted that the distraction that led us to invade Iraq was a mistake that he didn’t support it; moreover, that our invasion of Iraq has led to a world whose once good opinion of us has been seriously tarnished.  So far, the narrative of Obama begins with 9/11, a desire for justifiable revenge, a need for securing our future against future attacks, and the support of the world against terrorism.

Next he positioned himself as the inheritor of a bad situation.  The announced new Afghanistan strategy of “a surge” and mission to turn over control to the locals, combined with a timetable for initial troop withdrawal–by July of 2011– offers a narrative sense of an “ending” to this so-far-never-ending story, if not exactly a fully articulated exit strategy.  But as far as endings go, it isn’t a very satisfying one.

Other themes in the speech were that the real problem is less in Afghanistan than it is in Pakistan, less with the Taliban than with nuclear weapons.  Also we cannot afford a longer term commitment without jeopardizing our economic strength at home.

In my mind these elements do not add up to a coherent, compelling narrative about what we are doing there.  I recently posted a blog here about this “Narrative Gap” in which I observed that

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.

Apparently this observation was shared by columnist Thomas Friedman, who, shortly after my post and for the first time used the idea of a “narrative problem” to describe Obama’s inability to provide a clear and compelling case for “nation building at home“:

He has not tied all his programs into a single narrative that shows the links between his health care, banking, economic, climate, energy, education and foreign policies. Such a narrative would enable each issue and each constituency to reinforce the other and evoke the kind of popular excitement that got him elected.

He used it again to discuss Obama’s failure to adequately provide a counter-narrative to “The Narrative” currently dominating discussions in the Muslim world:

The Narrative is the cocktail of half-truths, propaganda and outright lies about America that have taken hold in the Arab-Muslim world since 9/11. Propagated by jihadist Web sites, mosque preachers, Arab intellectuals, satellite news stations and books — and tacitly endorsed by some Arab regimes — this narrative posits that America has declared war on Islam, as part of a grand “American-Crusader-Zionist conspiracy” to keep Muslims down.

As Steve Corman pointed out, what is needed is what Friedman overlooks.  We do not simply need Muslims to speak out against The Narrative, but instead we need a president and other military, diplomatic, and interested citizens to offer the world a better narrative about ourselves.

That’s not an easy task. Nor was it one that Obama addressed in his speech.

Other commentators, including John Brown as well as a host of television and news reporters, have collectively argued that Obama’s narrative about our continued efforts in Afghanistan admittedly confronted the President with significant rhetorical and logical challenges that he needed to address at West Point.  Most importantly, as Brown observed, Obama has demonstrated an “unwillingness (some would call it a failure) to craft a clear, simple, ‘saleable’ message of ‘why we must fight’ in a little-known land, thousands of miles from our shores.”

By my own reckoning, since roughly 9/12 we have tried, and abandoned several attempts at an overarching narrative, from  “they’ve got WMDs in Iraq and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan” which morphed into “we need to rebuild Iraq and, by the way, al-Qaeda is no longer a threat,” that recently became “even though al-Qaeda is no longer a threat we still need to rid Afghanistan of the Taliban and ensure a stable government.”  All of which has coalesced, as of yesterday, to become “disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies, and … to better coordinate our military and civilian effort.”

In his blog, John Brown goes on to detail possible alternative storylines to continue our presence in the region, which he generously referred to as “oxymorons”:  “we-are-getting-in-it-to-get-out” or “we-do-it-to-avoid-it,” both of which ended up as part and parcel of Obama’s speech.  As Brown points out, narrative strategies such as these rival Woodrow Wilson’s infamous (and, as it turned out, untrue) pronouncement that our involvement in World War I would be to participate “the war to end all wars.”

At least we didn’t hear that.  But neither did we hear answers to the most important questions that still define us, as a people, to the world.  So, did Obama’s speech help to close the narrative gap?  In my view, not very much.