This article first appeared on TomDispatch.
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.
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.