America's New Vietnam in the Middle East

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America's New Vietnam in the Middle East

A Civil War Story About the Islamic State Might Spark a Peace Movement

Vietnam War protesters in 1966 (Photo: AP/Bill Ingraham)

It was half a century ago, but I still remember it vividly. “We have to help South Vietnam,” I explained. “It’s a sovereign nation being invaded by another nation, North Vietnam.”

“No, no,” my friend protested. “There’s just one Vietnam, from north to south, divided artificially. It’s a civil war. And we have no business getting involved. We’re just making things worse for everyone.”

At the time, I hadn’t heard anyone describe the Vietnam War that way. Looking back, I see it as my first lesson in a basic truth of political life -- that politics is always a contest between competing narratives. Accept a different story and you’re going to see the issue differently, which might leave you open to supporting a very different policy. Those who control the narrative, that is, are likely to control what’s done, which is why governments so regularly muster their resources -- call it propaganda or call it something else -- to keep that story in their possession.

Right now, as Americans keep a wary eye on the Islamic State (IS), there are only two competing stories out there about the devolving situation in the Middle East: think of them as the mission-creep and the make-the-desert-glow stories. The Obama administration suggests that we have to “defend” America by gradually ratcheting up our efforts, from air strikes to advisers to special operations raids against the Islamic State. Administration critics, especially the Republican candidates for president, urge us to “defend” ourselves by bombing IS to smithereens, sending in sizeable contingents of American troops, and rapidly upping the military ante. Despite the fact that the Obama administration and Congress continue to dance around the word “war,” both versions are obviously war stories. There’s no genuine peace story in sight.

To be sure, peace activists have been busy poking holes in the two war narratives. It’s not hard. As they point out, U.S. military action against IS is obviously self-defeating. It clearly gives the Islamic State exactly what it wants. For all its fantasies of an apocalyptic final battle with unbelievers, that movement is not in any normal sense either planning to attack the United States or capable of doing so. Its practical, real-world goal is to win over more Muslims to its side everywhere. Few things serve that purpose better than American strikes on Muslims in the Middle East.

If IS launches occasional attacks in Europe and tries to inspire them here in the U.S., it’s mainly to provoke retaliation. It wants to be Washington’s constant target, which gives it cachet, elevating its struggle. Every time we take the bait, we hand the Islamic State another victory, helping it grow and launch new “franchises” in other predominantly Muslim nations.

That’s a reasonable analysis, which effectively debunks the justifications for more war. It's never enough, however, just to show that the prevailing narrative doesn’t fit the facts. If you want to change policy, you need a new story, one that fits the facts far better because it’s built on a new premise.

For centuries, scientists found all sorts of flaws in the old notion that the sun revolves around the Earth, but it held sway until Copernicus came up with a brand-new one. The same holds true in politics. What’s needed is not just a negative narrative that says, “Here’s why your ideas and actions are wrong,” but a positive one that fits the facts better. Because it’s built on a new premise, it can point to new ways to act in the world, and so rally an effective movement to demand change.

At their best, peace movements in the past always went beyond critique to offer stories that described conflicts in genuinely new ways. At present, however, the U.S. peace movement has yet to find the alternative narrative it needs to talk about the Islamic State, which leaves it little more than a silent shadow on the American political scene.

Vietnam Redux

That’s not to say that the peace movement is stuck story-less. One potentially effective narrative that might bring it back to life is sitting in plain view, right there in the peace activists’ most common critique of the U.S. war against the Islamic State.

IS is not making war on the U.S., the critique explains, nor on Europe. Its sporadic attacks on those “infidel” lands aim primarily to radicalize Muslims living there in hopes of recruiting them. Indeed, all IS strategies are geared toward winning Muslims to its side and gaining more traction in predominantly Muslim lands. That’s where the vast majority of IS-directed or inspired violence happens, all over what Muslims call dar al-Islam, “the home of Islam,” from Nigeria to Syria to Indonesia.

The problem for the Islamic State: the vast majority of Muslims are just not buying its story. In fact, IS is making enemies as well as friends everywhere it goes. In other words, it is involved in a civil war within dar al-Islam.

Every step we take deeper into that civil war is a misstep that only makes us more vulnerable. The stronger our stand against the Islamic State, the more excuses and incentives we give it to try to attack us, and the easier it is for IS to recruit fighters to do the job. The best way to protect American lives is to transcend our fears and refuse to take sides in someone else’s civil war.

That’s the positive narrative waiting to be extracted from the peace movement’s analysis. One big reason the movement has had such a paltry influence in these years: it’s never spelled out this “Muslim civil war” narrative explicitly, even though it fits the facts so much better than either of the war stories on offer. It radically shifts our perception of the situation by denying the basic premise of the dominant narrative -- that IS is making war on America so we must make war in return. It points to a new policy of disengagement.

And it’s a simple, powerful story for Americans because it’s so familiar. It sends us back half a century and half a world away -- to Vietnam. At that time, my friend and (a bit later) I, too, embraced the narrative that Vietnam was indeed gripped by a civil war. That explanation would play a major role in boosting the success of the Sixties peace movement. Within a few years, many millions of Americans, citizens and soldiers alike, saw the conflict that way -- and not so many years after, all U.S. troops were gone from Vietnam.

The peace movement's story then was both simple and accurate. No, it said, we’re not the good guys protecting one independent nation from invasion by another nation. Nor are we fighting an enemy intent on doing us harm. Boxing champion Muhammad Ali got it right when he said: “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong.”

Intervening in Vietnam’s civil war cost us more than 58,000 American lives and did untold damage to the vets who survived, not to speak of what it did to millions of Vietnamese. It showed us that, no matter how superior our technology, we could not swoop in and win someone else’s civil war. Our intervention was bound to do more harm than good.

Fifty years later, we are repeating the same self-defeating mistake. Military action against the Islamic State is leading us into another Vietnam-like “quagmire,” this time in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere across the Greater Middle East. Once again, we have enmeshed ourselves in a complex civil war abroad with no strategy that can lead to victory. It was wrong then. It’s wrong now.

To put it mildly, the U.S. has a less than stellar track record when it comes to intervening in other people’s civil wars. We’ve also interfered quite selectively.  In the last two decades, we stayed out of brutal conflicts in places like the Congo and Sri Lanka. So a decision not to intervene militarily in a foreign civil war should be familiar enough to Americans.

To become neutral is not to condone the grim brutality and reactionary values of the Islamic State. It’s hardly likely that twenty-first-century peace activists will give the IS anything like the sympathy many Vietnam-era protesters offered the insurgents of that moment. In this case, becoming neutral merely means suggesting that it’s not Washington’s job to fight evil everywhere. Its job is to adopt the strategies most likely to keep Americans safe.

That’s a view most Americans already hold to quite firmly. So the “Muslim civil war” story just might get a sympathetic hearing in the public arena.

The Bewildering Maze Of Muslim Civil War

Of course, the Islamic State is not involved in what we conventionally think of as a civil war, in which two sides fight for control of a single nation. Even inside Syria, the number of factions involved in the struggle, including the oppressive government of Bashar al-Assad and rebels of every stripe from al-Qaeda-linked to Saudi-linked to U.S.-linked ones, is bewildering. Since IS is fighting for control not just of Syria but of all dar al-Islam, many other movements, factions, and forces are involved in this Muslim civil war as well.

Some observers are too quick to simplify it into a battle of “traditionalists versus modernizers.” In the U.S. mainstream media that usually translates into a desire for us to intervene on behalf of the modernizers. Thomas Friedman of the New York Times is probably the best-known advocate of this view. Others simplify it into a battle between Sunnis and Shi’ites. Since Iran is the leading Shi’ite power, those in the media tend to favor the Sunnis.

All these simple pictures are painted to build support for one side or another. The only kind of peace they aim at is one that leaves their favored side victorious.

In fact, no simple dichotomy can capture the tangled maze of struggles in dar al-Islam. Sunni traditionalists battle other Sunni traditionalists (for example, al-Qaeda versus IS). Modernizers join traditionalists to fight other traditionalists (for example, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in an uneasy alliance to weaken IS). Sunnis and Shi’ites become allies too (for example, Kurdish Sunnis and Iraqi Shi’ite militias allied against IS). The U.S. supports both Shi’ites (like the government of Iraq) and Sunnis (like the oil-rich Gulf States), while it resists the growing power of both Shi’ites (like Iran) and Sunnis (like IS).

By emphasizing the true complexity of the Muslim civil war, a peace movement narrative can cast that war in a different light. Precisely because there are not two clearly demarcated sides, it makes no sense to cast one side as the good guys and launch our planes and drones to obliterate the bad guys. It’s bound to lead to incoherence and disaster, especially in this situation, where the Islamic State, however repugnant to most Americans, is arguably no worse than our staunch allies, the royal family of Saudi Arabia.

Given the confusing, some might say chaotic, maze of intra-Muslim conflict, it is equally senseless to go on promoting the American fantasy of imposing order. (“Without order,” Friedman has written, “nothing good can happen.”) Taking this road so far has, since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, actually meant unleashing chaos in significant parts of the Greater Middle East. There’s no reason to think the same road will lead anywhere else in the future.

Bring the Boys, Girls, and Drones Home

The Muslim civil war story leads directly to a radical change in policy: stop trying to impose a made-in-America order on dar al-Islam. Give up the dubious gratification of yet another war against “the evildoers.” Instead, offer genuinely humanitarian aid, with no hidden political agenda, to the victims of the civil war, especially those fleeing a stunning level of violence in Syria that the U.S. has helped to sustain. But cease all military action, all economic pressures, and all diplomatic maneuvering against any one side in the Muslim civil war. Become, as we have in other civil wars, a genuine neutral.

To call this change of narrative and policy a tall order is an understatement. There would be massive forces arrayed against it, given the steady stream of verbal assaults the Islamic State levels against Washington, which have already inspired oneterrible mass killing on American soil. We don’t know when, or if, other attacks will succeed in the future, whether organized by IS or carried out by “lone wolves” energized by that outfit.

The important thing to keep in mind, however, is that none of this is evidence of a war directed against America. It’s mainly tactical maneuvering in a Muslim civil war. For the Islamic State, American lives and fears are merely pawns in the game. And yet this reality in the Middle East runs against something lodged deep in our history. For centuries, most Americans have believed that our nation is the center of world history, that whatever happens anywhere must somehow be aimed directly at us -- and we continue to see ourselves as the star of the global show.

Most Americans have also been conditioned for decades to believe that what’s at stake is a life-or-death drama in which some enemy, somewhere, is always intent on destroying our nation. IS is at present the only candidate in sight for that role and it’s hard to imagine the public giving up the firmly entrenched story that it is out to destroy us. But half a century ago, it was difficult to imagine that the story of Vietnam would be just as radically transformed within a few years. So it’s a stretch, but not an inconceivable one, to picture America, a few years from now, ringing with cries that echo those of the Vietnam era: “U.S. out of dar al-Islam.” “Bring the boys -- and girls and bombers and drones -- home.”

And if anyone says the analogy between Vietnam and the current conflict is debatable, that’s just the point. Rather than a rush to yet more war, it’s time to have a real national debate on the subject. It’s time to give the American people a chance to choose between two fundamentally different narratives. The task of the peace movement, now as always, is to provide a genuine alternative.

Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder and author of Mythic America: Essays and American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea. He blogs at

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