Monday, March 14, 2011

Did Peggy Noonan REALLY expect her pal Rummy to come clean on his screw-ups in Afghanistan and Iraq?


No doubt about it, Old Rummy's got plenty to answer for, and our Peggy has done a swell job of nailing him to the wall for failing to begin to do so. She's just got a dangerously and delusionally screwy idea of what exactly he has to answer for.

by Ken

A fair amount of attention is being paid to a Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan skewering a fellow for whom she begins by professing kindly feelings, former Defense Secretary Donald "Old Rummy" Rumsfeld: "I like Donald Rumsfeld. I've always thought he was a hard-working, intelligent man. I respected his life in public service at the highest and most demanding levels." Of course, as Howie tweeted yesterday, "When Peggy Noonan starts by writing 'I like Donald Rumsfeld,' you can be sure she's going to rip him to shreds."

I doubt that any DWT reader will shed tears over the ensuing shredding job. Of course it's always fun when our friends on the Right are at each other's throats. Naturally, since it's Peggy Noonan, you expect that at the core the piece will be stupid, and our Peggy doesn't disappoint (it fascinates me that you can be as smart as she is and yet have what comes out of your mouth or word processor be so crackers), but let's come back to that.

Old Rummy's recently published memoir, Known and Unknown, says our Peggy, "is so bad it's news even a month after its debut." And a lot of what she has to say seems to me directly to the point.

Now I take with a grain of salt her complaint:
You'd expect such a book (all right -- you'd hope) to be reflective, to be self-questioning and questioning of others, and to grapple with the ruin of U.S. foreign policy circa 2001-08. He was secretary of defense until 2006, in the innermost councils. He heard all the conversations. He was in on the decisions. You'd expect him to explain the overall, overarching strategic thinking that guided them. Since some of those decisions are in the process of turning out badly, and since he obviously loves his country, you'd expect him to critique and correct certain mindsets and assumptions so that later generations will learn.

You have to think Peggy is being disingenuous here, even with that distinction between what one expects and what one hopes. Really now, on what basis would any reasonable observer of the modern American political scene imagine that any "player," least of all one as shifty and devious and secretive and especially self-serving as Old Rummy, might even consider producing such a book as she describes? And surely nobody understands this better than Peggy, which is why I suspect disingenuousness rather than naiveté.

Nevertheless, on the theory that Old Rummy owes us such an accounting -- and who could disagree? -- her conclusion seems to me on the money:
When he doesn't do this, when he merely asserts, defends and quotes his memos, you feel overwhelmed, again, by the terrible thought that there was no overall, overarching strategic thinking. There were only second-rate minds busily, consequentially at work.

And by now Peggy has already diagnosed the, er, literary technique Old Rummy has brought to bear on what he's instead set out to do with the book:
It takes a long time to read because there are a lot of words, most of them boring. At first I thought this an unfortunate flaw, but I came to see it as strategy. He's going to overwhelm you with wordage, with dates and supposed data, he's going to bore you into submission, and at the end you're going to throw up your hands and shout, "I know Iraq and Afghanistan were not Don Rumsfeld's fault! I know this because I've now read his memos, which explain at great length why nothing is his fault."

Fault of course isn't the point.

Second-rateness marks the book, which is an extended effort at blame deflection. Mr. Rumsfeld didn't ignore the generals, he listened to them too much. Not enough troops in Iraq? That would be Gen. Tommy Franks. Turkey's refusal to allow U.S. troop movements? Secretary of State Colin Powell. 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, I'd say so. He 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."


And then she makes a point that strikes me as brilliant.
A word on the use of memos in memoirs. 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 me 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.

Most memos prove nothing. It is disturbing that so many Bush-era memoirs rely so heavily on them.

I'd like to think there are a bunch of political stiffs with book contracts in their rolltops, not to mention the legion planning to unleash their literary agents on an unsuspecting public, who are even now experiencing tightness in the gut if not waves of nausea. Memo-free memoirs? Has the woman gone mad? Does she not understand that the e-memo is Modern Technology's gift to the ancient public arts of self-aggrandizement and butt-covering?

On the contrary, she seems to understand this only too well. And it's hard not to chant "Amen" when she writes, "The terrible thing about the Rumsfeld book, 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."


The only problem comes when Peggy gets down to cases -- to, as she puts it, "the point at which I tried to break the book's spine."
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.

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.

It wasn't lust for vengeance, it was lust for justice, and for more than justice. Getting Osama would have shown the world what happens when you do a thing like 9/11 to a nation like America. It would have shown al Qaeda and their would-be camp followers what kind of unstoppable ferocity they were up against. 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. And it was a catastrophe. 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, unfocused, murky and confused. The administration in Washington, emboldened by what it called its victory over the Taliban, decided to move on Iraq. Its focus shifted, it took its eye off the ball, and Afghanistan is now what it is.

Now this last part is fine, and begins to point toward Old Rummy's really monstrous failures and malfeasances. But the notion that the catastrophe was the failure to find bin Laden may be one of the stupidest things ever written. And it's dangerously, delusionally stupid.

Oh, to be sure, to the extent that the failure to capture bin Laden was Old Rummy's fault, he has something to answer for, and here again Peggy makes a strong case.
Needless to say, Tora Bora was the fault of someone else—Gen. Franks of course, and CIA Director George Tenet. "Franks had to determine whether attempting to apprehend one man on the run" was "worth the risks." Needless to say "there were numerous operational details." And of course, in a typical Rumsfeldian touch, he says he 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." I can.

No problem here in so far as holding Old Rummy's feet to the fire is concerned. But we don't in fact know that it was ever within our power to capture bin Laden, and there ought to be some lesson to be learned -- a colossally important lesson -- about making out of something that may or may not be in our power something we need, let alone something on which our entire future depends. This is just childish playground whining. We gotta have him, we gotta have him.

And there's no way of measuring the stupidity involved in assuming that we would have been a whit better off if we had captured him. For goodness' sake, we haven't even been able to handle Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Can you imagine, has Peggy even begun to imagine, how much worse off we might be if we were sitting on a captive Osama bin Laden?

The notion that some kind of justice might have been served is comical. Does Peggy have no conception of the concept of martyrs? I guess she thinks the world would have been somehow impressed if we had proved we always get our man, even though (1) the nature of reality is such that we can't always assume that we can get our man, and (2) I don't see any indication that the world gives a damn about it, or that we would necessarily be in any way better off if we had. The world has its opinions of the U.S. and of bin Laden, and I don't see any of that changing if Old Rummy had bagged him. Of course normally people over on Peggy's side of the American political spectrum don't give a damn what the world thinks.

If Peggy had focused on the monumental catastrophe of the waste in life, destruction, billions of dollars down the tubes, and a military given over to the principles of totalitarian control (including officially sanctioned torture) involved in immersing the country in two never-ending wars, that would have been fine. If she had charged him with the megalomaniacal compulsion to control the all aspects of U.S. participation in the two invasions, including excluding the State Department or anyone else who might have considered what would happen after the next bombing, great.

Just as she suggests, Old Rummy has more to answer for than any single human being ought ever to have to answer for, and I gather that in his book he hasn't taken so much as the first step toward illuminating what happened for the sake of history, in the hope of sparing us the repetition of those blunders. On all of that, she's nailed the son of a bitch. I just don't think she has a clue what exactly she's nailed him for.

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