I like Peggy Noonan. I’ve always thought she was a hard-working, intelligent lady. I respected her life in public service at the highest and most demanding levels. So it was with some surprise that I found myself flinging my laptop against a wall in hopes I would break it into stupid pieces. That way, I can justify getting the Macbook I so avidly covet.
“The One That Got Away,” her column concerning Donald Rumsfeld’s memoir of his life, career, and tumultuous time in government, is so bad it will be news even a month after its debut. It takes a short time to read because there is so little thought behind it; most of it is boring. At first I thought this an unfortunate flaw, but I came to see it as strategy. She’s going to overwhelm you with narcolepsy-inducing writing, with pabulum and a lack of data, she’s going to bore you into submission, and at the end you’re going to throw up your hands and shout, “I know that Peggy Noonan’s failure to give us an interesting review of Donald Rumsfeld’s book was not Peggy Noonan’s fault! I know this because I have read her cursory, tangential, stream-of-consciousness discussion, which explains at great length why there is no meritocracy in the field of paid opinion-writing.”
Fault of course isn’t the point. You’d expect such a column (all right—you’d hope) to be reflective, to be self-questioning and questioning of others, and to grapple with what Noonan believes to be the ruin of U.S. foreign policy circa 2001-08. She has been a columnist since the paleolithic era, amusing herself with the belief that she has been in the innermost councils. She heard all the conversations–before misinterpreting them. She was in on the decisions–well, at least the pretend decisions before the adults really got down to brass tacks. You’d expect her to explain the overall, overarching strategic thinking that guided her column-writing. Since some of those decisions are in the process of turning out badly, and since she obviously loves her job, you’d expect her to critique and correct certain mindsets and assumptions so that later generations will learn. When she doesn’t do this, when she merely asserts, defends and rhapsodizes, you feel overwhelmed, again, by the terrible thought that there was no overall, overarching strategic thinking. There is only a second-rate mind busily, inconsequentially at work.
Second-rateness marks the column, which is an extended effort at pretending that Rumsfeld engaged in blame deflection. Mr. Rumsfeld didn’t ignore the generals, he listened to them too much–an assertion that Noonan mocks, but is actually backed up by things like footnotes, and endnotes, and documents found online. Not enough troops in Iraq? That would be Gen. Tommy Franks–in Noonan’s mind, though Rumsfeld makes clear that he signed off on the recommendations of his generals, and therefore takes the responsibility Noonan thinks he seeks to shirk. Turkey’s refusal to allow U.S. troop movements? Secretary of State Colin Powell–which, you know, is a natural and believable conclusion, seeing as how the effort to get Turkey to allow American troop movements was a diplomatic effort, and since Powell was, you know, the Secretary of State. America’s failure to find weapons of mass destruction? “Obviously the focus on WMD to the exclusion of almost all else was a public relations error.” Yes, Noonan would say so. She goes on further to note that Rumsfeld warned early on in a memo he quotes that the administration was putting too much emphasis on WMD. But put it in context: “Recent history is abundant with examples of flawed intelligence that have affected key national security decisions and contingency planning.” Finding nothing in particular to say regarding this Rumsfeldian observation, Noonan lets it hang, her silence meant to drip with contempt.
A word on the use of memos in memoirs. Noonan tries to dismiss their historical importance, since everyone in government now knows his memos can serve, years later, to illustrate his farsightedness and defend against charges of blindness, indifference, stupidity. So people in government send a lot of memos! “Memo to self: I’m deeply worried about Mideast crisis. Let’s solve West Bank problem immediately.” “Memo to Steve: I’m concerned about China. I’d like you to make sure it becomes democratic. Please move on this soonest, before lunch if you can.” A man in the Bush administration once told Noonan of a guy who used to change the name on memos when they turned out to be smart. He’d make himself the sender so that when future scholars pored over the presidential library, they’d discover what a genius he was. What’s the point of this observation? Noonan doesn’t specify. She merely implies that just because a public servant writes a memo that shows s/he was farsighted regarding a particular issue, that memo doesn’t prove that the public servant in question was farsighted, because the farsightedness of the public servant may just be the result of sending lots of memos! Of course, the public servant can send lots of stupid memos too, which would effectively counter the public servant’s claim that s/he was farsighted, but Noonan doesn’t bother to dig out any Rumsfeldian memos she thinks were stupid, since Rumsfeld’s book “overwhelm[s] [her] with wordage, with dates and supposed data, [and bores her] into submission, and at the end she’s going to throw up her hands and shout, ‘Pudding!’” Or something. Anyway, for Noonan, thinking is hard.
Noonan believes that most memos prove nothing. She is disturbed that so many Bush-era memoirs rely so heavily on them. Noonan won’t tell us which ones, or why a written document can’t prove anything, or why it is disturbing that a memoir might rely on archival material to back up the claims found within the memoir. But she can assert like no one’s business.
But the terrible thing about the Noonan column, and there is no polite way to say this, is the half-baked nature of the thinking within it. The quality of analysis and understanding of history is so mediocre, so insufficient to the moment.
Which gets me to the point at which I tried to feed my laptop to a rhinoceros.
Noonan believes that if you asked most Americans why we went into Afghanistan in the weeks after 9/11, they would answer, with perfect common sense, that it was to get the bad guys—to find or kill Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda followers, to topple the Taliban government that had given them aid and support, to destroy terrorist networks and operations. New York at the time of the invasion, October 2001, was still, literally, smoking; the whole town still carried the acrid smell of Ground Zero. The scenes of that day were still vivid and sharp. New York still isn’t over it and will never be over it, but what happened on 9/11 was fresh, and we wanted who did it to get caught.
Noonan tells us America wanted—needed—to see U.S. troops pull Osama out of his cave by his beard and drag him in his urine-soaked robes into an American courtroom. Or, less good but still good, to find him, kill him, put his head in a Tiffany box with a bow, and hand-carry it to the president of the United States.
Noonan believes that it wasn’t lust for vengeance, it was lust for justice, and for more than justice. She argues that getting Osama would have shown the world what happens when you do a thing like 9/11 to a nation like America. She believes that it would have shown al Qaeda and their would-be camp followers what kind of unstoppable ferocity they were up against. She posits that it would have reminded the world that we are one great people with one terrible swift sword.
The failure to find bin Laden was a seminal moment in the history of the war in Afghanistan, as far as Noonan is concerned. And it was a catastrophe in Noonan’s mind, since she continues to believe that the American war effort was directed against one man, rather than against a network of terrorism. From that moment—the moment he escaped his apparent hideout in Tora Bora and went on to make his sneering speeches and send them out to the world—from that moment everything about the Afghanistan war became unclear to people like Noonan, who train their myopic eyes upon a single person, rather than training them upon a terrorist organization, causing life outside the world of “pudding!” to become unfocused, murky and confused. Noonan’s focus shifted, she took her eye off the facts, and her column is now what it is.
You’d think, nearly a decade after the events of Tora Bora, that Noonan would put things in perspective. But since Rumsfeld’s opinion is not the same as Noonan’s, she believes that the baby Jesus is going to cry. Needless to say, Tora Bora was not considered anyone’s “fault” by Rumsfeld, but Noonan pretends otherwise, with quotes like “Franks had to determine whether attempting to apprehend one man on the run” was “worth the risks,” quotes that prove about as much regarding Rumsfeldian blame-casting as Noonan believes that governmental memos do about farsightedness. Needless to say “there were numerous operational details,” all of which likely “overwhelm[s] [Noonan] with wordage, with dates and supposed data, [and bores her] into submission, and at the end she’s going to throw up her hands and shout, ‘Pudding!’” So she won’t talk about what those operational details were, and why they might have been important. And of course, in a typical Noonanian touch, she says that Rumsfeld later learned CIA operatives on the ground had asked for help, but “I never received such a request from either Franks or Tenet and cannot imagine denying it if I had.” Noonan can. She likely can also imagine unicorns, leprechauns with pots of gold, and the Cubs winning the World Series in at the end of the 2011 baseball season, none of which imply that unicorns, leprechauns with pots of gold, and/or a giant tickertape victory parade down Chicago’s famed Michigan Avenue in October or November of this year are in the offing.
(Hopefully, they are in the offing. Unicorns are lovely, pots of gold are delightful, and I would like to see the Cubs win at least one World Series before I die of Methuselahan old age. But I digress.)
Osama bin Laden was not “one man on the run,” in Noonan’s eyes. Except, you know, he was. And still is–unless he is dead. He is the man who did 9/11, which does not change the fact that he was, and still is “one man on the run,” assuming that he is not dead. He had just killed almost 3,000 people at the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, in a field in Pennsylvania. He’s the reason people held hands and jumped off the buildings. He’s the reason the towers groaned to the ground. He also had lots of people helping him, people Noonan ignores. Lots of those people got captured or killed, but Noonan believes that war is a chess game, and that it doesn’t matter if you capture all of the pawns, the rooks, the knights, the bishops, and the queen so long as the king is still on the chess board (even if he is deprived of material support). Thus, the war effort was a complete catastrophe in her myopic, pudding-craving eyes.
It is the great scandal of the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page that it employs Peggy Noonan. It is the shame of this column that Peggy Noonan lacks the brains to see it, or the guts to admit it.