(Reluctantly) Deconstructing Peggy Noonan

Peggy Noonan has responded to those critical of her Inaugural critique. In short, she stands by her original thoughts and essentially believes that we Americans have enough on our plate now and don’t need to worry about larger goals at this time. This seems to contradict some of her earlier writings, though.

We cannot leave Iraq and should not leave Iraq. . . We have to stay, and we have to win. I define winning as the yielding up of, at the least, a relatively stable society unafflicted by governmental sadism and dictatorship, and, at the most, a stable society in a fledgling democracy that demonstrates, with time, that the forces of Arab moderation, tolerance and peacefulness can triumph. Such an outcome would give so much good to the world. What a brilliant beacon this Iraq could be, and what a setback to terrorists, who thrive in darkness.

I do not feel America is right to attempt to help spread democracy in the world because it is our way and therefore the right way. Nor do I think America should attempt to encourage it because we are Western and feel everyone should be Western. Not everyone should be Western, and not everything we do as a culture, a people or an international force is right.

Rather, we have a national-security obligation to foster democracy in the world because democracy tends to be the most peaceful form of government. Democracies tend to be slower than dictatorships to take up arms, to cross borders and attempt to subdue neighbors, to fight wars. They are on balance less likely to wreak violence upon the world because democracies are composed of voters many of whom are parents, especially mothers, who do not wish to see their sons go to war. Democracy is not only idealistic, it is practical.[emphasis mine]

In another piece, a eulogy to President Reagan, Ms. Noonan wrote of the ideals that guided the President as he guided America.

In his presidency he did this: He out-argued communism and refused to accept its claim of moral superiority; he rallied the West, rallied America and continued to make big gambles, including a defense-spending increase in a recession. He promised he’d place Pershings in Europe if the Soviets would not agree to arms reductions, and told Soviet leaders that they’d never be able to beat us in defense, that we’d spend them into the ground. They were suddenly reasonable.

Ronald Reagan told the truth to a world made weary by lies. He believed truth was the only platform on which a better future could be built. He shocked the world when he called the Soviet Union “evil,” because it was, and an “empire,” because it was that, too. He never stopped bringing his message to the people of the world, to Europe and China and in the end the Soviet Union. And when it was over, the Berlin Wall had been turned into a million concrete souvenirs, and Soviet communism had fallen. But of course it didn’t fall. It was pushed. By Mr. Know Nothing Cowboy Gunslinger Dimwit. All presidents should be so stupid.

Given her criticism of President Bush, one wonders if Ms. Noonan has forgotten the many “experts” who said that President Reagan was being unrealistic. In her aforementioned rebuttal, she attempted to reconcile her present view with the “overreaching” that was done by President Reagan. Her reasoning falls short as it seems to me to be an excercise in contradiction.

For a half century our country faced a terrible foe. Some feared conflagration. Many of us who did not were convinced it would not happen because the United States was not evil, and the Soviet Union was not crazy. The Soviets didn’t want war to achieve their ends, they wanted to achieve those ends without the expense and gamble of war. We rolled them back, bankrupted them, forced their collapse. And we did it in part through a change of policy in which Ronald Reagan declared: From here on in we tell the truth. He called the Soviet Union an evil empire because it was a) evil and b) an empire, and c) he judged a new and stark candor the way to begin progress. We’d already kissed Brezhnev; it didn’t work. And it wasn’t Reagan’s way in any case.

Today is quite different. The context is different. Now we are up against not an organized state monolith but dozens, hundreds and thousands of state and nonstate actors–nuts with nukes, freelance bioterrorists, Islamofascists, independent but allied terror groups. The temperature of our world is very high. We face trouble that is already here. We don’t have to summon more.

Healthy alliances are a coolant in this world. What this era demands is steely resolve, and actions that remove those who want things at a full boil. In this world we must speak, yes, but softly, and carry many sticks, using them, when we must, terribly and swiftly. We must gather around us as many friends, allies and well-wishers as possible. And we must do nothing that provides our foes with ammunition with which they can accuse us of conceit, immaturity or impetuousness.

In short, while she praised Reagan for telling the truth, she believes that now, given the changed “context,” we can only tell the truth so long as it doesn’t make anyone “accuse us of conceit, immaturity or impetuousness”? Given the persistently negative reaction to the President seen in Europe, I think this wish is one doomed to be unfulfilled. Ms. Noonan must accept that some countries continue to cling to the belief that the world is politically multi-polar. With this mindset, they view the U.S. as the biggest pole that needs to be balanced and will take steps, such as in the UN Security Council, to limit our actions in the hope of balancing our power. Platitudes would only quell the criticism temporarily.

As Ms. Noonan’s own writings, and history, have shown, the ideals expressed so effectively, and frequently, by President Reagan were key to ending communism. She is afraid that President Bush’s speech calling for the extension of freedom could call more trouble down upon us. Could it call any more than Reagan did? This comes close to blaming us for the (predicted) actions of others. Additionally, she clearly exhibits an old-school, “realist” school of foreign policy stance.

Here is an unhappy fact: Certain authoritarians and tyrants whose leadership is illegitimate and unjust have functioned in history as–ugly imagery coming–garbage-can lids on their societies. They keep freedom from entering, it is true. But when they are removed, the garbage–the freelance terrorists, the grievance merchants, the ethnic nationalists–pops out all over. Yes, freedom is good and to be strived for. But cleaning up the garbage is not pretty. And it sometimes leaves the neighborhood in an even bigger mess than it had been.

Yes, just as President Reagan’s actions did in Nicaragua, Grenada and El Salvador and his words inspired in the old Eastern Bloc. Regardless, Noonan forgets that the President spoke of how it would take generations of Americans to spread the freedom of which he spoke.

The comparisons between President Bush and President Reagan have been made before. One can’t help but think that Ms. Noonan recognized the similarities when she wrote of our current “gunslinger”:

George W. Bush has given our soldiers something to be proud of, something they can understand and respect. He is, now, after all he’s been through the past two years, Mr. Backbone. He has demonstrated to a seething and skeptical world that America can and will stand and fight for a cause, see it through, help the tormented and emerge victorious.

It is important who he is. George W. Bush is an American of the big and real America. He believes in it all–in the vision of the founders, in the meaning of freedom, in the founding and enduring ideas of our country. He believes in America’s historic insistence on humanity and not inhumanity in war, and he appears to have internalized the old saying that “one man with courage is a majority.”

I used to wonder if George W. Bush’s biography didn’t suggest a kind of reverse Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was born in low circumstances and rose with superior gifts. Mr. Bush was born in superior circumstances and rose with average gifts. And yet when you look at Mr. Bush now I think you have to admit–I think even clever people who talk loudly in restaurants have to admit–that he has shown himself not to be a man of average gifts. Backbone is not an average gift. Guts are not an average gift. The willingness to take pain and give pain to make progress in human life is not an average gift.

All in all these are amazing qualities in a political figure, and in a president. There’s a headline for you: America appears to have a president worthy of its people.

Cobble these excerpts together and I think we can see that, in the past, Ms. Noonan appreciated it when ideals were voiced. I don’t think that she has stopped believing in them, which is why I don’t understand why she was so critical of the President. Is is a case of “wrong place, wrong time”? Could she believe that the Inaugural Address was the wrong forum for the President to speak of higher ideals? Should Reagan have called to tear down the wall in Berlin when he did? Wasn’t that a case of asking for much more than was possible while risking the anger of both foes and allies as we took on more than the U.S. could “handle” at the time?

One thing about these excerpts does strike me, though: they were all contained within pieces written by Ms. Noonan prior to her taking a leave of absence to be a political consultant on the President’s campaign. Could it be that Ms. Noonan’s time in the belly of the political beast, where so much focus is put on practical and pragmatic political solutions, has inured her against the purpose of voicing the ideals of a nation? I don’t know. I do know that I appreciate Ms. Noonan’s political acumen and writing. I will continue to read her with pleasure, even though I think she has gotten carried away with literary deconstructionism. Remember, Ms. Noonan, most Americans aren’t literary critics. Instead, they want to believe that their country is a force for good in the world. The President reminded us that it is by using soaring rhetoric that spoke to the higher ideals of a nation. To paraphrase something that I previously wrote: The President made this speech to present the case for a cause, extending freedom, that is greater than the protection of our own nation’s self-interest. At the same time, he showed that our nation’s self-interest depended on pursuing that higher cause.

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