Narrative and National Security Policy

Narrative and National Security Policy

Tim Aistrope

National security is often regarded as ‘high politics’ – partisan machinations and populist appeals stop at the water’s edge, the old adage insists. In this account, rational analysis and the national interest drive policy making about the grave issues of war and peace. In this context, formal analysis has tended to focus on effectiveness, cost/benefit, feasibility and the like, while policy formation has been addressed through behind-the-scenes research that traces process and engages with key stakeholders. Yet close analysis of national security documents often reveals the presence of loaded narratives, ripe with emotive language and heavy connotation, and deeply rooted in the surrounding political culture. Such narratives seem to belie the characterisation of unsentimental and hard-headed policy making and suggest that a wider array of influences impact the policy formation process.

In the discipline of International Relations much ink has been spilt analysing the logics, assumptions, exclusions, and priorities of such narratives. In this article I focus on the way narratives can also act as an access point for engaging with the ideological context in which national security policy is constituted. In doing so, I want to show how narratives can be traced back through various contexts and intersection points in the wider culture, and suggest that this process can help us understand the power and significance of specific policies, as well as their likely consequences. In order to demonstrate the point, I draw on my own previous research into what I call the ‘Muslim paranoia narrative’, which was a recurring feature of United States (US) government policies (and surrounding security discourse) that sought to address the underlying drivers of Muslim radicalisation.

In this narrative, cultures of conspiracy and misinformation, particularly about US power in the Middle East, were said to render Muslim populations vulnerable to radicalisation and recruitment. Here anti-Americanism was positioned as the outgrowth of a wider malaise present in the Muslim world: resentment towards the US was based in feelings of humiliation, decline, and despair about political and economic circumstances, as well as the international status of Muslim countries. In this context, so the narrative goes, Muslim people see US foreign as nefarious and malign – its impacts are magnified beyond all proportion, and its role in the failure of Muslim states plain to see.

There is little doubt that the paranoia narrative had an impact: it supplied a series of starting point assumptions about Muslim people, the societies they live in, the character of political discourse therein, and the precursor role of dangerous ideation. From the National Security Strategy 2006, through US State Department public diplomacy programs, to the Obama Administration’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) agenda, this narrative helped explain the progression from ordinary person to violent anti-American and position ideas as an important site for security interventions. Polices predicated on this explanation have variously sought to debunk inaccurate views about US policies, tell the story of American liberal democracy more effectively, and discredit the purveyors of propaganda and disinformation.

While discursive analysis is an important way to interrogate such narrative, they are also more than just their assumptions, plot lines and logics. Narratives emerge out of rich cultural contexts with significant historical and ideological depth. This is particularly the case for national security policy where identity and difference, self and other, are articulated in relation to foreign adversaries and the threats they may pose. From an analytical standpoint, following narratives back to this deep context can provide a window into the unarticulated, unthinking, latent meanings that circulate around security policies and that are enacted through them. This is certainly the case with the Muslim paranoia narrative in US national security policy – a brief sketch of its historical and ideological connections will suffice to make the point.

Paranoia first emerged as a subject of political concern in the US in the early 1960s with the rise of McCarthyism and the Goldwater presidential campaign. Famously characterised by Richard Hofstadter  (but also fleshed out in the social psychological register by Harold Lasswell and others) this post-war discourse positioned paranoia as the irrational delusion of the political fringe, inconsequential by itself but dangerous when amplified and co-opted by demagogues. Part of a powerful post-war liberal discourse, that diagnosis relied on a contrast between paranoid populism (emotive, irrational, and radical) and the political centre (sober, rational, and ordered), where the normal processes of bargain and compromise take place. This periphery/centre dynamic has shaped the way paranoia has been understood in US political culture ever since. Right wing extremism has been associated with paranoia: Timothy McVeigh, responsible for the mid-90s bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, was widely characterised as part of a broader militia culture motivated by conspiratorial views about the role of government and international organisations like the United Nations. The activist left has likewise been characterised as paranoid in their perception of elite power and the national security state, and paranoia has been associated with the violent actions of left wing anarchist and terrorist. It is against this backdrop that paranoia has made its way into contemporary debates about Muslim radicalisation and Islamist terrorism in the US.

At the same time, the narrative also intersects with long-running colonial narratives about the perceived characteristics of subject peoples. Edward Said famously co-opted the term ‘orientalism’ to capture the way caricatures accumulated through the colonial encounter continue to provide an interpretive latticework through which policy makers understand the Muslim world. For our purposes, Said makes two points that are especially important. First, he highlights the way orientalism presents the Muslim world as pre-scientific, suspicious, untrustworthy, and prone to flights of passion and impulsiveness – a framework that has continued on in US foreign policy thinking since the colonial era, not least in references to endemic cultures of paranoia and misinformation in the Muslim world. Here is Said highlighting this characterisation in the world view of Henry Kissinger, paragon of US national security orthodoxy:

“…Kissinger may not have known on what fund of pedigreed knowledge he was drawing when he cut the world up into pre-Newtonian and post-Newtonian conceptions of reality. But his distinction is identical with the orthodox one made by Orientalists, who separate Orientals from Westerners. And like Orientalism’s distinction Kissinger’s is not value-free, despite the apparent neutrality of his tone. Thus, such words as “prophetic,” “accuracy,” “internal,” “empirical reality,” and “order” are scattered throughout his description, and they characterize either attractive, familiar, desirable virtues or menacing, peculiar, disorderly defects.” (Orientalism, page 48)

Second, as the above excerpt makes clear, for Said knowledge about the orient always existed in relation to an idealised western identity (as the standard or civilization and the bearer of moral duties towards benighted peoples). This identity politics worked alongside the strategic and economic motivations for empire, embedding them in powerful cultural narratives about self and other. Interestingly, an influential explanation for the origins of 9/11 taken up by the Bush Administration (prominently advanced by Bernard Lewis and Fareed Zakaria) mobilised precisely these themes and dynamics in a sweeping account of Muslim civilization and its problem with modernity. An important thread in this explanation was that, in the face of these circumstances, Muslim people were apt to blame their problems on others and embrace conspiratorial fantasy about malign foreign interference.

With this deep ideological context now in view, it should be clear that the presence of certain narratives in national security policy portend much more than a set of assumptions and logics. Tracing the Muslim paranoia narrative back to its intersecting roots shows that our own political culture can never be separated from the kind of world we encounter. It shows that national security policy is constituted not simply by responding to threats out there beyond the borders of the sate, but also within a discursive field that helps shapes the identification of threats, their character and properties, and the appropriate range of responses. In this sense, the Muslim paranoia narrative is a marker for unacknowledged ideological conditions – entwining liberal and orientalist imaginaries – that is inextricably implicated in US national security discourse regarding radicalisation and the ideational motivations for violence. It indicates that while specific words like ‘irrational’, ‘paranoid’ and ‘conspiracy theory’ have palpable delegitimizing connotation, they are just the high peaks of an extensive ideational cartography that can position whole regions and their peoples in the pejorative.

It also indicates a powerful process of ideological reproduction underway. When Muslim people are said to be paranoid about US foreign policy, that policy is positioned as benign and misunderstood. When Muslim culture is said to be irrational and dysfunctional, western modernity is positioned as the obvious standard for the good life. This justifies the continuation of foreign policy as usual and narrows the range of policies that seem appropriate.

I began this article by contrasting the common perception of policy making in the high citadels of the national security state with the recurring presence of potent narratives rooted in the surrounding political culture. The key point that I have been making is that such narratives can be useful access points into the deeper ideological conditions in which specific national security policies are constituted. It should be emphasised, though, that this approach works best in tandem with a focused analysis of the structuring dynamics, logics, assumptions, priorities, and exclusions that constitute the narrative itself.  With this in mind, it is critical to acknowledge that although the Muslim paranoia narrative does powerful work in US national security policy on radicalisation, it has nothing much to do with the way a great many Muslim people, from a diverse range of contexts, actually understand themselves. In this regard, it is not particularly helpful for counter-radicalisation policies aimed at engaging with Muslim communities and building common ground against terrorist propaganda. More broadly, it is important to remember that research on radicalisation is at best inconclusive and that there is no consensus on terrorist profiles or pathways from ‘dangerous ideas’ to violent action.


Tim Aistrope is postdoctoral fellow in Australian Centre for Cyber Security and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, UNSW Canberra. He is the author of Conspiracy Theory and American Foreign Policy, Manchester University Press, 2016.