With respect to Libya, and the horrific reality of Benghazi, the Obama administration is searching for a narrative.
In our muddled age, narrative is the attempt to cloak crass reality in a filmy haze. Narrative has little taste for the pesky facts, and a dislike for details. Those who search merely for narrative, whether theology, history, or foreign policy, are romanticists. They want Walden Pond without the scum, fairy-populated forests without the poison ivy.
On October 17, I found myself plopped right in the middle of a brilliant Alabama autumn morning that taught me much about the nature or narrative. A beloved friend who loves the smell and feel of wood, the sound of a spinning engine, and the beauty God has invested in grand trees, invited me to his newly built sawmill.
"We have lots of tornados around here," he said, as we crunched along a path of wood chips and fallen autumn leaves. Rather than cutting down stately trees, my sawmill friend harvests the wounded logs storm-grounded in naked humiliation. He turns them again into things of beauty and usefulness, deftly maneuvering his saw like his wife – an accomplished artist – her paint brushes. "I like to restore the trees rather burning them on a trash heap," he told me.
"Let's cut some wood," he said. He started the big motor that drives the mill, and tractored a tornado-felled log onto the cutting table. I stood way back while the master of the sawmill skillfully made settings to the computerized instrument, setting pressures, torque, and the alignment of log and blade into a finely tuned state of preciseness.
Then, as they say in Alabama, he "let 'er rip." My friend released the rich aroma of the wood, cut away the gruesome tempest-caused scars, and exposed the beauty, elegance, and symmetry with which God had crafted the tree. Had it been human, the log would have beamed with the glory revealed following its surgery.
I had the cushy privilege of doing nothing more than forming narrative. I didn't have to put on hefty gloves and thick protective glasses because narrative-makers stand at a distance. But before he cut, the master of the sawmill had to tend to the small stuff that could be the big stuff of disaster – fan belts, gear grease, motor oil, a prickly jungle of lubricant points, the pressure setting on the blade, and a syllabus-full of more hard realities.
To me it was all dreamy narrative, in which I could smell the wood, see beyond the sawmill as the rising sun coated the Alabama hillside with autumn gold, and listen to the entertaining down-home stories of the sawmill master as he restored the glory to fallen oaks and maples and pecan – something me and my narrative could not do.
And that brings us to Benghazi. Narrative requires the romanticized view: The attack on the consulate was a citizens' outpouring, a Les Miserable moment, in which people righteously indignant over a film insulting Islam and Mohammed understandably struck out at whatever symbol of this unjust deed was available. Narrative clouds the facts: Terrorist threats had earlier prompted the consulate to ask for more security, and the assault was aimed at American interests specifically.
The romanticists could hear the strains of "to the barricades" from the pure and freedom-loving people trampling down the oppressive estates of power. But those up close to the "sawmill" could see the situation as it really was – a vicious terrorist assault by enemies of the United States on its institutions, representatives, and worldview.
There have been far too many romanticists in the White House and foreign policy establishments through the years. Both major parties at critical times have searched for the hazy narrative and given us hard-fisted disaster.
In his second debate, the President strained to maintain the narrative, and required reinforcements in the person of the moderator. President Obama worked hard at putting words together because rather than a straightforward, factual reply, one has to labor to artfully craft the picture that will keep gruesome actuality behind the filmy veil. This is especially important when a candidate cannot run on a record. A narrative constructed on platitude is essential.
A cynic might call the search for a narrative the pursuit of "spin" – but not that of the saw blade that recovered tornado-ripped wood on an Alabama autumn morning.