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Jewish World Review Dec. 10, 2003/ 15 Kislev, 5763

Mark Steyn

Mark Steyn
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Consumer Reports

Rummy speaks the truth, not gobbledygook |
Last week, the Plain English Campaign announced its Golden Bull Awards for the year's choicest gobbledygook and presented (in absentia) its prestigious Foot-In-Mouth honor to Donald Rumsfeld.

This was his winning performance: "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me," the US Defense Secretary began, "because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know."

If the Plain English Campaign thinks that's the worst use of English this year, then the Plain English Campaign is plain nuts. If there's a point to these guys, it's that there's an awful lot of bureaucratese and jargon around that officials use to evade responsibility and it's useful to have someone point that out.

If one had to extend it to the war on terror, I would be in favor of pointing out the laziness of the "root cause" crowd - all the poverty-breeds-resentment, resentment-breeds-desperation, desperation-breeds-terrorism, terrorism-breeds-generalities, generalities-breed-clichés stuff.

Any response to the latest Palestinian atrocity that involves "ending the cycle of violence" and "getting the peace process back on track" is also worthy of derision.

But Rummy does not fall into this group. The Defense Secretary is perhaps the best speaker of Plain English in English-speaking politics, and it would be a less despised profession if there were more like him.

Want an example? At some Pentagon briefing during the Afghan campaign, a showboating reporter noted that human rights groups had objected to the dropping of cluster bombs and demanded to know why America was using them. Rumsfeld replied: "They're being used on frontline al-Qa'eda and Taliban troops to try to kill them." Plain enough for you?

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Or how about his dismissal of France and Germany? "Old Europe": within a week, Rummy's two-word throwaway had become the accepted paradigm of transatlantic relations. Belgium - Old Europe. Poland - New Europe.

I mention these examples not in mitigation, but because his little riff about known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns is in fact a brilliant distillation of quite a complex matter.

Let us take an example close to the heart of arrogant Texas cowboys: John Wayne is holed up in an old prospector's shack. He peeks over the sill and drawls: "It's quiet out there. Too quiet."

What he means is that he knows the things he doesn't know. He doesn't know the precise location of the bad guys, but he knows they're out there somewhere, inching through the dust, perhaps trying to get to the large cactus from behind which they can get a clean shot at him. Thus he knows what to be on the lookout for: he is living in a world of known unknowns.

But suppose, while he was scanning the horizon for a black hat or the glint of a revolver, a passenger jet suddenly ploughed into the shack and vaporized both him and it. That would be one of Rumsfeld's unknown unknowns: something poor John Wayne didn't know he didn't know - until it hit him.

That's how most of the world reacted to September 11: we didn't know this was one of the things we didn't know. For most people in these islands, terrorism meant detonating bombs in shopping streets, railway stations and park bandstands - killing a couple dozen, maiming another 30, tops.

As Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote: "The failure to prevent Sept 11 was not a failure of intelligence or co-ordination. It was a failure of imagination." In other words, it was an unknown unknown: we didn't know enough to be alert for the things we didn't know.

There's a legitimate argument about that. Given al-Qaeda's stated ambitions, given its previous targeting of the World Trade Center, given the number of young Arab men taking flight lessons in America, given Mohammed Atta's indiscreet remarks to a Department of Agriculture official, maybe 9/11 should have been a known unknown - one of those things we were scanning the horizon for.

Friedman argues that "even if all the raw intelligence signals had been shared among the FBI, the CIA and the White House, I'm convinced that there was no one there who would have put them all together, who would have imagined evil on the scale Osama bin Laden did".

Maybe so. The Cold War was a half-century of known unknowns. We didn't know the precise timing or specifics of what would happen, but we knew the rough shape so well that, from Dr Strangelove to Where The Wind Blows, the known unknowns generated the most numbingly homogeneous body of predictive fiction ever seen.

It's trickier now. This is an age of unknown unknowns. We know some of the things we don't know - the precise state of Iran's nuclear program, who North Korea's been pitching its wares to, where the missing Soviet nuke materials have gone walkabout, who else has the kind of "explosive socks" found by Scotland Yard and MI5 last week - but we have no real idea in what combination these states and groups and technology and footwear might impress themselves on us, or what other links in the chain there might be.

And we might not know until we switch on the television and the screen's full of smoke again, but this time it's May 7 and Rotterdam, or February 3 and Vancouver, or October 23 and Glasgow. And we realize once again that there are things we didn't know we didn't know.

Rumsfeld's line is a cool, clear-headed way of understanding this new world. The fact that the Plain English Campaign chooses to mock Rummy, rather than the platitudinous Colin Powell or the mellifluously banal Dominque de Villepin or any of the other politicians unwilling to rise the challenge of the times, is a reflection on them rather than the Defense Secretary.

Whatever credibility the Plain English Campaign might once have had, they have blown. They sound, to put it in plain English, like a bunch of smug tossers.

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JWR contributor Mark Steyn is North American Editor of The (London) Spectator and the author, most recently, of "The Face of the Tiger," a new book on the world post-Sept. 11. (Sales help fund JWR). Comment by clicking here.

12/02/03: War on terror can't stop with Iraq
11/24/03: It's not Vietnam and Bush is no Kennedy
11/12/03: There is a Cold War between the US and the EU
10/28/03: Muslim paranoia: Enemies made us impotent!

10/28/03:The CIA scandal is important not because it put an agent's life at risk — it didn't — but because it shows that US Intelligence is either obstructive or inept
10/08/03: Palestinian death cult
09/29/03: Bring on the capitalists
09/22/03: Here comes General Clark, his policies will follow shortly
09/17/03: Don't wait for government protection
09/11/03: Predators aren't looking for peace
09/02/03: This is Hillary's moment — You go, girl!
08/29/03: There are now calls for greater UN involvement in Iraq. That’s the last thing the country needs
08/26/03: There's only one hyperpower — so everything is our fault
08/04/03: The White Man's Burden
07/29/03: Bill Clinton got this right
06/25/03: It's Mullah time!
05/07/03: What counts is what a guy does when he's not talking
04/30/03: It's named UNSCAM for a very good reason!
04/14/03: Movers and shakers have moved on to the next 'disaster'
03/25/03: Give Saddam credit
03/18/03: 'Eurabia' will have to look after herself
02/27/03: Death wish
02/19/03: The curtain will come down on the peaceniks
02/10/03: Let's quit the UN
02/03/03: Columbia reality-check
01/29/03: Go forth and multiply
01/09/03: America's fake identity crisis
12/31/02: GOP underperforms, but Dems are laughable
11/26/02: A bombing pause --- for 12 months!?
10/30/02: Stop making excuses for Muslim extremists
09/27/02: The more inventively you try to ''explain'' the Islamist psychosis as a rational phenomenon to be accommodated, the more you risk sounding just as nutty as them
08/23/02: Battered Westerner Syndrome inflicted by myopic Muslim defenders
08/09/02: Friends in low places
08/02/02: Armageddon out of here
07/26/02: Enjoy the ''scandal'' while you can, lads
07/16/02: Arafat is toast; Bush knows it --- so why doesn't the rest of the world?
07/10/02: Hey, FBI: So, denial really is a river in Egypt!
06/20/02: A fight to the finish
06/11/02: Rock, royalty a good match
05/31/02: Unless we change our ways ... the world faces a future where things look pretty darn good
05/24/02: Sweet land of liberty: Britain and Europe have free governments, but only in the US are the people truly free
05/14/02: Extreme hypocrisy in the pursuit of 'peace' is ...
05/10/02: The home office of extremism
05/01/02 Slipping down the Eurinal of history: France, the joke is on you
04/23/02 It's time to snap out of Arab fantasy land
04/16/02 Mideast war exposes 'ugly Europeans'
04/09/02 Arafat has begun his countdown to oblivion. Now it's time to crush the Palestinian uprising
03/27/02 The good, the bad and the Gallic shrug
03/20/02 Grand convocation of the weird

© 2002, Mark Steyn