The scariest commander in chief

Gingrich\'s foreign policy features violent grandiosity, faux intellectualism and missionary zeal

Published December 7, 2011 1:00PM (EST)

Newt Gingrich, would-be commander in chief   (Reuters/Daron Dean)
Newt Gingrich, would-be commander in chief (Reuters/Daron Dean)

In September 2006, the Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed by Newt Gingrich headlined "Bush and Lincoln." In the article, Gingrich argued that President George W. Bush, five years after the 9/11 attacks, faced a threat no less dire than that facing Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. "American survival [is] at stake," he declared. He outlined what needed to be done: put Iran, Syria and even our allies Saudi Arabia "on notice" that any interference in Iraq will be taken as hostile acts by the U.S.; disarm Hezbollah; publicly declare a commitment to replace the regimes of North Korea, Iran and Syria; and replace the "national security systems" such as USAID with new agencies and departments. These actions are necessary, he concluded, "if we are to succeed in winning this rising World War III."

Gingrich has surprised many by surging in the polls for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination race. So far, though, commentary has mostly focused on his electability, lobbying ties and personal life and less on his substantive views especially on international issues. Some see Gingrich as no worse than Romney on foreign policy. After all, they seem to draw on the same set of hawks and neocons as advisors and both show little regard for the realists that were once such a strong part of the Republican Party.

Such an equation is mistaken. The fact is that Gingrich is the most hawkish major presidential candidate since Rudy Giuliani led the polls in 2007. Romney is a recent convert to Republican conventional wisdom. Gingrich has decades of foreign-policy debate under his sizable Georgian belt. In addition, unlike Romney, Gingrich thinks of himself as a genius. Indeed, he has cultivated a reputation as a prime conservative intellectual, writing over two dozen books and hundreds of columns. As a result, as commander in chief, he would be less likely to rely on his advisors for knowledge and counsel. The good news is that Gingrich has ideas and even convictions about foreign policy, features everybody wants in a democratic leader. The bad news is that Gingrich’s writings and speeches from his decades in public life suggest his ideas and convictions are deeply flawed and would be dangerous to the United States if they guided policy.

Newt Gingrich did not come into politics focused on foreign policy. Upon his assumption of the speakership in 1995, one conservative complained that “while we have abundant information on Newt Gingrich's views about domestic affairs, we know next to nothing about his thoughts on foreign policy.” There was a reason for his opaqueness. Gingrich’s goals were not international but domestic: He desired the destruction of the Democratic Party. He was heir to Richard Nixon in both his rabid partisanship and willingness to use dirty tricks. A speech he delivered to College Republicans in Atlanta during his third, successful run for Congress in 1978 revealed his true feelings on politics.

“[O]ne of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty,” Gingrich said. “The Democrats understand that cannibalism is the nature of the business.” According to Gingrich, the primary purpose of a political leader is to gain a majority, because without power, nothing else matters. “The great strength of the Democratic Party in my lifetime has been that it has always produced young, nasty people who had no respect for their elders.” As a legislator Gingrich governed exactly as his extreme words would suggest, with routine nastiness and regular power grabs.

For all his emphasis on domestic policy, however, it would be a mistake to believe that Gingrich came to public life as a blank slate on international affairs. His dissertation was on Belgian education policy in colonial-era Congo.  "The whole thing is kind of a glorified white man's burden take on colonial policy that was almost certainly out of vogue in the early 1970's,” according to Laura Seay, a fellow historian who read Gingrich’s thesis. “Gingrich liked colonialism.” Even those, like writer Adam Hochschild, who argue that Gingrich did not advertise for colonialism in his dissertation, concede that Gingrich’s “beef is not that there might be anything immoral about one country’s owning and exploiting another, but that the Belgians didn’t create a class of Congolese who could keep the economy functioning efficiently — for whose profit, he never asks.” Gingrich may have had political aspirations when he completed his thesis, in 1971, but it's more likely that his dissertation reflected his sincere feelings about the possible benefits of colonialism to African nations who were deemed unfit to govern themselves by the European powers.

Gingrich has not changed his mind about colonialism’s virtues. In September 2010, he criticized President Barack Obama for having an alleged hostility to imperialism. "What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?" Gingrich asked an audience. "That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior." The former speaker was echoing an offensive article in Forbes magazine by former Ronald Reagan advisor Dinesh D’Souza that fell flat among right-wingers and was widely criticized. Gingrich was the only major political figure to praise D’Souza’s thesis, which reduces Obama to his part-African heritage. In addition, of course, America was the first anti-colonial nation, born in rebellion to the British Empire and possessed of a deep strain of anti-colonial sentiment until well intothe 20th century. Gingrich’s affection for European imperialism simply runs contrary to American tradition.

Once elected to Congress, Gingrich placed himself firmly within the mainstream of the Republican camp on foreign policy. Indeed, before 9/11, it is fair to say that international affairs were the one major policy area where Gingrich sometimes tried to befriend the Democrats. “Perhaps because it was not central to rise to power, he was less willing to use foreign policy as a political weapon,” says Steven M. Gillon, author of a book on the relationship between President Bill Clinton and Speaker Gingrich.

His interests were mostly technocratic. In 1981, Gingrich co-founded the Congressional Military Reform Caucus as well as the Congressional Aviation and Space Caucus. Both were causes that Gingrich has revisited throughout his career. Military reform was a drive to make the bloated Pentagon more efficient and modernize the armed forces. Gingrich worked with Sens. Gary Hart and Al Gore, among 130 other lawmakers from both parties, to push for reorganization of the military establishment. Gingrich was a witness in the hearing on the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which transformed the Pentagon. He kept a finger in the military reform pie for decades, serving on the board of Project on National Security Reform, a recently defunct effort to further reform the military. (Disclosure: I worked for PNSR for a year but never met or spoke with Gingrich.)

During one of the GOP debates, Gingrich referred to himself as a “cheap hawk.” It was not the first time he has used that self-designation: He employed the phrase during his time with the military reform movement, and did so again in 1995. Whether he meant what he said is, as always with Gingrich, hard to tell.

In practice Gingrich has frequently called for more military defense spending, including on counter-productive technology like a missile shield. Most recently, Gingrich called plans to sequester $600 billion from the defense budget “totally destructive” and, using his characteristic hyperbole, “very dangerous to the survival of the country.” He claimed, rather astonishingly, in August that the United States is weaker now than it has been at any time since Pearl Harbor. Generally, the only thing cheap about Gingrich has been his rhetoric on cutting defense spending.

On the defining conflict of the 1990s, Newt favored the Clinton administration's intervention in the Balkans. He told President Clinton in 1994, for instance, that he was willing to support him in efforts to protect Sarajevo, but wanted congressional input and needed relations with Russia to stay positive. “He mouthed the standard Republican slogans, but he was more willing to be bipartisan on foreign policy than on domestic issues,” says Gillon. Similarly, in 1993 Gingrich supported a massive financial aid bill to Russia in hopes of assisting it with its transition to democracy, which he called a “great defining moment.” In his autobiography "My Life," Clinton wryly notes that “Newt was trying to ‘out-Russia’ me, which I was only too happy to have him do.”

In 1997, Gingrich also helped create, with Clinton, the Hart-Rudman Commission, and served as one of its commissioners. The commission report, released in March 2001, is notable for having foreseen that America was underprepared for a terrorist threat and for recommending corresponding reforms. It was perhaps Gingrich's finest hour. He was one of the few Republicans speaking about the threat of terrorism before 9/11. “It should trouble every American that we've been trying to get bin Laden since 1993,” he presciently told the House Armed Services Committee in early 2001. “Terrorism is a much more profound threat than we have responded to.” Indeed, Gingrich was an effective spokesman for the commission, touting its recommendations to anybody who would listen.

Whatever moderate and bipartisan impulses Gingrich had were swept away on 9/11, however. Gingrich, like Dick Cheney, became a converted über-hawk consumed with notions of a civilizational war. On Nov. 9, 2001, he delivered a speech at the American Enterprise Institute notable for its parroting of every neoconservative nostrum of the age. Speaking of the threat to the United States from Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Gingrich said, “This is Hitler in 1935.” He continued: “Iraq is a vastly greater threat to our cities than is Afghanistan.” In addition to Iraq and Afghanistan, Gingrich favored targeting other countries for regime change, including Syria. His speech at the American Enterprise Institute in November 2001 is notable for its insistence that America had “two waves of opponents” — the “modernists,” led as Saddam Hussein, and the “medievalists,” led by al-Qaida and the Taliban. Both waves hate America’s very existence because it offers an alternative to the horrible world they want to create, Gingrich said. Weapons of mass destruction would be used against American cities in our lifetime, he warned. The language was apocalyptic, the analysis evidence-free.

Foreign policy suddenly became an issue on which Gingrich obsessed. A man prone to grandiose thinking, no doubt he was energized by ideas about civilizational conflict and possibilities for Churchillian pronouncements.  His many articles, speeches, books and statements over the last 10 years have been an exercise in nearly unqualified hawkishness. In 2003, he said there was “a collapse in the State Department” for its efforts to slow down the rush to war with Iraq. In 2005, he called for the U.S. to support regime change in Iran, likening the threat, once again, to Hitler’s Nazi Germany. For Gingrich now, it is always the 1930s, and he is always Winston Churchill.

Gingrich opposed President Bush’s ill-fated Middle East road map to Israeli-Palestinian settlement, arguing that “only defeating terror” would bring peace. (Since the mid-'90s, Gingrich has been calling for moving the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv as Jerusalem, though no other nation in the world would agree.)

In 2006, when it was clear to most that the terrorism threat had been overblown, Gingrich said it was time to curb free speech to protect the U.S. from terrorism. "Either before we lose a city or, if we are truly stupid, after we lose a city, we will adopt rules of engagement that use every technology we can find to break up their capacity to use the Internet, to break up their capacity to use free speech, and to go after people who want to kill us to stop them from recruiting people," he said. He conceded only that his remarks might trigger a “serious debate about the First Amendment.” Gingrich has also gone on record supporting the racial profiling of Arab- and Muslim-Americans.

Gingrich was the intellectual inspiration behind the Bush administration’s usage of the term “The Long War.” According to UPI, in 2006 Rumsfeld circulated a strategy paper drafted by Gingrich around the Pentagon to his senior deputies. In typical Gingrich-speak, the paper called for "Intelligent Effective Limited Government," which would use "entrepreneurial public management and modern information systems to modernize the government into a system compatible with the speed, agility, flexibility and efficiency of modern global companies." Gingrich referred to the “Long War Against the irreconcilable wing of Islam," a phrase he has since repeated. Rumsfeld relied on the concept of the Long War in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review — the phrase appears 31 times in the QDR.

The Bush administration loved Gingrich's phrase-making because it managed to conflate Iraq, Afghanistan and any other conflicts with Muslims and Arabs into a single Long War. That war, Gingrich suggested (and Rumsfeld communicated), could last 70 years. “The idea that we are waging a Long War against what amounts to a barbarian horde had a certain narrative appeal to the Bush administration and helped tie the otherwise dry bureaucratic document together,” observed the political scientist Robert Farley. By multiplying enemies and maximizing threats, the Long War was a terrible idea, and it was mercifully abandoned by the Obama administration. But a Gingrich presidency would likely revive the failed concept, and all the wrongheaded thinking that accompanied it.

One final observation should be made: As Gingrich saw the Iraq War becoming deeply unpopular, in late 2003 he turned on it. As Alex Koppelman pointed out in Salon in 2006, Gingrich later tried to position himself as opposed to the war all along, and he criticized the surge -- but he was extremely influential with the Bush administration's war plans in the first place. Never before the insurgency raged in 2003 did he raise concerns about the lack of American troops on the ground. Gingrich claimed that he opposed the nation-building aspect of the Iraq War. But in fact, in his November 2001 AEI speech, he praised nation-building and said the United States should "take the same attitude toward dealing with the challenge country-by-country ... we have to be generous ... aid and reconstruction, new irrigation, new health care, new food. People around the Islamic world have to see vividly that being on the American side pays off. We did this before. In 1945, we rebuilt Germany, Italy, and Japan. In 1953, we rebuilt South Korea. The fact is, it has paid off for us in overwhelming returns."

Those who believe Gingrich to be simply electioneering in his attempts to appear the most extreme of Republican hopefuls are mistaken. Leading a global war appeals precisely to Gingrich’s worst traits: grandiosity, faux intellectualism and missionary zeal. He is a full-fledged convert to the contemporary GOP ways of thinking on foreign policy. Diplomacy and moderation are out. Even Gingrich's technocratic tinkering has been put aside. American exceptionalism and militarism are in. Whatever one thinks about the emptiness of Mitt Romney, he doesn’t compare in sincerity with Newt Gingrich. If only Newt didn’t believe what he says about U.S. foreign policy, we’d all have a lot less to worry about.

By Jordan Michael Smith

Jordan Michael Smith writes about U.S. foreign policy for Salon. He has written for the New York Times, Boston Globe and Washington Post.

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