Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Et Tu, Peggy?

The response to the president’s speech was predictably harsh. Historian Henry Steele Commager said, “It was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all.” The New Republic said the president was guilty of “staggering oversimplification.” Columnist Richard Cohen said that the president “likes to see things in black and white and so he has enlisted God on our side.” Anthony Lewis of the New York Times described the speech as “simplistic” and “dangerous.” Even presidential speechwriter David Gergen complained about some “outrageous statements.”

The focus of their ire, however, was not George Bush’s controversial second inaugural address elucidating “the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” No, it was Ronald Reagan’s “evil empire” speech given to the National Association of Evangelicals in 1983.

Just as large segments of the intelligentsia initially mocked Reagan’s speech, calling it naive and simplistic, so the same groups, even some of the same people, have mocked Bush. Echoing Commager, writer Gore Vidal called Bush’s address “the most un-American speech I’ve ever heard.” The Washington Post called the speech “exceptional in its untethering from the world.”

Even presidential speechwriter Peggy Noonan said, “The inaugural address was startling. It left me with a bad feeling, and reluctant dislike.” Responding to the president’s several allusions to the Almighty, a headline writer at the Wall Street Journal titled her reaction column “Way Too Much God” (a title Noonan quickly disavowed).

But just as history has vindicated Reagan, so it will vindicate Bush–we all must fervently hope.

(Of course, many pundits and editorial writers liked the address. William Safire called it one of the five best second inaugurals in the nation’s history. Dick Morris, a former political aide to Bill Clinton, called it “the greatest [inaugural] since John F. Kennedy’s and one of the five or six greatest of all time. It was beautiful, it was poetic … and it articulated a bold new doctrine for American policy. It was a very substantive speech.”)

Of all the critics of the speech, certainly the one whom conservatives probably take most seriously is Noonan. Noonan, no partisan hack, is one of the nation’s most gifted writers. Last year she took a leave of absence to help Bush win re-election. Nearly two decades ago she crafted some of Reagan’s most memorable phrases. If the speech worries Peggy Noonan, an undeniable friend (and sometime-advisor) of the administration, then perhaps there really is something seriously wrong with it. Et tu, Peggy?

In Noonan’s initial column, she suggested Bush’s speech might be evidence of “mission inebriation.” In a follow-up column–“A Sourpuss? Moi?”–Noonan sought to clarify her thoughts. “To declare that it is now the policy of the United States to eradicate tyranny in the world, that we are embarking on the greatest crusade in the history of freedom, and that the survival of American liberty is dependent on the liberty of every other nation–seemed to me, and seems to me, rhetorical and emotional overreach of the most embarrassing sort.”

Aside from the exaggerations, one can see that Noonan has graduated from the Henry Kissinger/Brent Skowcroft school of practical foreign policy. Reading those words, one can almost see Mr. Potter dismissing George Bailey as “a man of high ideals–so called.” Noonan wants us to be mostly practical, not too idealistic. (Or, as the first President Bush might have said, "Let's be prudent.") While Noonan clearly loves the beautiful ends Bush enunciated, she clearly fears the means needed to achieve them.

Instead of putting dictators on notice that the tide of history has turned against them and that the United States stands ready to help those who yearn to be free (as Reagan did), Noonan suggests leaving tyrants in place because they function as “garbage-can lids on their societies.” She says when these authoritarians are removed, “the garbage” (freelance terrorists, grievance merchants, and ethnic nationalists) comes to the fore. She cites France under the bloody reign of Robespierre as an example of what happens when an American president (in this case, Jefferson) uncritically supports liberty in other lands. Of course, Noonan is right to remind us that humility is a valuable asset now, and that “this is not heaven, it’s earth.”

Yes, freedom does not immediately emerge after the removal of autocracy, and there are often unintended consequences to even the best-intended acts. Everyone knows that the “freedom fighters” who drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan (with the considerable help of Reagan) eventually morphed into the Taliban, who provided sanctuary to Osama bin Laden.

But the fact that we cannot foresee all ends doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act on what we do know. While we did end up with the Taliban, we also ended up with the shattering of the evil Soviet empire, which was crippled by the bloody quagmire in Afghanistan. We also ended up, today, with the beginnings of democracy there–and, now, in Iraq.

Critics of Bush’s policy in Iraq have been known to point out that Reagan also tacitly supported Saddam Hussein–who in turn posed a security risk to the United States. Actually, they are making Bush’s case for him. The president is saying it harms America’s long-term security to support such dictators, and it is time to let the world know that we will do so no longer. Such regimes can no longer expect us to turn a jaundiced eye to their inhuman reigns.

Indeed, Noonan’s strategy of propping up dictators is precisely what got us into this mess in the first place. Islamists are infuriated by our perceived coddling of unjust, authoritarian regimes in places like Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Militant Sheikh Omar Bakri Muhammad, leader of Britain’s radical Al Muhajiroun group, sponsored a meeting celebrating the 19 hijackers of September 11. Sheikh Omar told Christianity Today the conditions for peace with America.

“Peace could come,” he told CT, “if America withdrew its forces from the Muslim world, stopped exploiting Muslim resources such as oil, have decent relationships with Muslims, and stopped supporting the Zionist aggressors and Muslim puppet governments.”

In other words, if America removed its troops from Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other parts of the Muslim world; if the United States stopped using oil; if we betrayed Israel; and if we allowed friendly governments to fall into the hands of fantatics … then the terrorists would leave us alone.

And why not? We would already have surrendered.

As is easy to see, the Noonan/Kissinger/Skowcroft plan to keep the “lid” on the “garbage” counts for precisely zero in the minds of people like Sheikh Omar. In fact, that is one reason they hate us so much.

The president’s critics (including Noonan) worry that Bush has issued an unending call to arms against the fanatical strain of Islam. But as Bush said clearly in his speech, “This is not primarily the task of arms.” This is a war of ideas. Going Noonan’s way would disarm our side before that battle has been fully joined. Given the democratic successes we’ve already seen in unlikely places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, lapsing back into realpolitik now would be a crime.

Yes, it’s going to be hard fight, and victory is not assured. But as Daniel Henninger, another fine Wall Street Journal columnist, noted, “We have to be in the game spreading our model because the other side is most certainly out spreading theirs.”

Ronald Reagan would agree. So should Peggy Noonan.


Blogger Glynn Young said...

I usually enjoy reading Peggy Noonan's writing, but she occasionally writes something like this column (or columns, in this case) where my overwhelming impression is that she really enjoys reading her own writing, too. There's a not-very-attractive attitude that comes through -- you wonder if it's a simple case of having her nose out of joint because she was consulted on the writing of the speech.

She does a lot better when she trains her eye not on her friends.

7:03 AM  

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