Peggy Noonan: How History Throws Its Curves

From a Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan headlined “On Ukraine, History Is Listening”:

I’m thinking of the astounding events of the past three weeks—how history throws its curves and you watch stunning new factors emerge and at some point you feel grateful to feel humble. This ol’ world can still surprise. It can confound every expectation.

One surprise, the central one. No one knew the people of Ukraine would fight so bravely and effectively. Maybe they didn’t know….They are not going to give up. If Russia knocks down, blows up and occupies the entire country they will continue to resist. Ukrainians are proving each day that there is a country called Ukraine, and it isn’t Russia. It shares much with Russia, including blood lines and languages, but it is another place, an independent country with a proud people.

Vladimir Putin went in saying Ukraine wasn’t a nation. He made it a nation. He gave it the conditions by which it would reveal itself to itself.

I am struck again by what a disaster this is for Mr. Putin however it turns out, even if he “wins.” He too is revealed. His army doesn’t work, he is an anathema. His nation is economically injured, its standing in the world sullied, and its great new ally China is realizing it isn’t on the side, as it had thought, of deadly competence….

Qin Gang, Chinese ambassador to the U.S., insisted in an op-ed piece that Beijing had no idea Russia was about to invade Ukraine and didn’t acquiesce to or tacitly support the war….

It sounded defensive and screechy. Guess they fear sanctions. Good to know.

But here is what must not be lost from our thinking in the next few weeks, or months: When you take part in historical events you are speaking to history. You are telling it a story. History in turn will be telling it in 10 and 50 years: “The Guns of February,” “The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 2022.” So far the West’s is a pretty admirable tale, one marked with mistakes but also discipline and spirit.

We want history to say this: “Throughout, America did everything it could, took every possible measure, to keep Putin from using the most dreadful weapons at his disposal and unleashing a new dark era in human history.”

That will be quite a job, and great restraint has been shown. Connected to that, this might be a good time for a recommitment to public discretion. As, for instance, the U.S. and its allies showed when at the beginning of the war Mr. Putin appeared to threaten the use of nuclear weapons. We let it pass without official comment, as a businessman does when ignoring the curses of a mentally ill person on Third Avenue, or a confident man does with a devil.

There’s so much power in the unsaid, or the publicly unsaid. Retired American generals are showing up on cable TV to chat about killer drones with names like Switchblade that can do a lot of damage, and lawmakers appear extremely excited to be saying words like “lethality.” Maybe we should do what needs doing—help Ukraine defend itself and protect its people—and talk less. Or at least with greater modesty.

I think Joe Biden has got a lot right so far, especially his warnings of the war, his determination to get the West and Ukraine to focus, and his adroit sharing with the world of U.S. intelligence on the massing of Russian forces and Mr. Putin’s intentions. But he could probably be quieter and maintain more distance. He doesn’t have to answer every shouted question….aucus.

Leaders are grave in Ukraine. We should be grave here, too.

As for President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech this week to a joint session of Congress, he was really speaking to America. Before he spoke he received a standing ovation with cheers, but afterward the members, who stood and applauded again, looked more subdued. They all insisted afterward that it was beautiful, powerful, they were all so moved—they really like their emotions up there on the Hill—but it wasn’t, really. Three weeks ago he was a poignant figure bravely beseeching.

Now he is bolder. “I am addressing President Biden. . . . Being the leader of the world means being the leader of peace.” There was a sense he has the American president over a barrel—if Mr. Biden is sincere and strong, he will do as Mr. Zelensky requests. I don’t much like it when foreign leaders, even great ones, think they have the American president over a barrel. My impression is the vast political center in America is highly sympathetic toward Ukraine and greatly admires Mr. Zelensky, and members don’t want to get on the wrong side of that.

A House member worth listening to is Mike McCaul of Texas, ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, who is just back from Poland. Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, he said we have to give Ukraine what it needs to defend itself and protect its people. But, he implied, we also have to think. “We don’t want a miscalculation or an escalation that will put us into a world war.” Mr. Putin has a lot of different weapons, including chemical ones. “I would say also these short-range tactical nukes that Putin—Russia has many more of them than we do. If he gets pushed into a corner like a scorpion, and he’s in a desperate situation, he could very well sting with a short-range tactical nuke, which would really wake up the eyes of the world. I can’t see the world just standing back and allowing that to happen without further involvement.”

He has a sense of how the Ukrainian military is thinking. They might have refrained from taking out the famous long Russian convoy because they’re conserving so that when Kyiv is “encircled they will unleash everything they have.” They have put signs near the capital that say in Russian, “Welcome to Hell.” “They’re going to give them everything they have and all the weapons we’ve given them, and you’re going to see quite a fight take place.”

Peggy Noonan is a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, where her weekly column, Declarations, has run since 2000.  In 2017 she won the Pulitzer prize for distinguished commentary.  She is also the author of nine books on American politics, history and culture.


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