Newt vs. Newt
Gingrich's most outrageous foreign-policy flip-flops.
Newt Gingrich’s emergence as the front-runner among the Republican presidential candidates has created a virtual cottage industry around chronicling his flip flops, whether through Ron Paul attack ads or analyses dissecting the “difference between MittFlops and NewtFlops.” Gingrich, for his part, has fought back, regularly updating a section on his website dedicated to setting his positions on the issues straight. But given his back-and-forth record, it’s not an easy task. Here are six instances in which Gingrich shifted his position on pressing foreign-policy issues.
“Putin really is a generation beyond the first reformers of the post-Soviet era. He understands that the future of Russia is inside some kind of capitalist system. He understands that Russia is not going to be a global competitor. Now, he’s more authoritarian than I might like. But again, this is a country in dramatic transition. And when you look back 12 or 13 years, even his authoritarianism is remarkable, more open as a society than anything one could have dreamed as late as 1987 or 1988. So I think there you’re likely to see an emerging continuing American-Russian friendship.” – Feb. 28, 2002
“Putin represents a dictatorial approach that’s very violent, it was violent in the Chechnyan situation, it is violent in, for example, stealing investment money back from oil companies in the Soviet Union — Russia — the former Soviet Union. Putin was a KGB agent and he has a lot of KGB behaviors. They went out of their way in the last week to take on a small neighbor and crush that neighbor militarily. It’s a signal that he intends to assert authority around the periphery of Russia. – Aug. 16, 2008
Gingrich has a longstanding interest in the question of Russian democracy. In his memoir, Bill Clinton recalls that in 1993, the speaker was “passionately in favor of helping Russia, saying it was a “great defining moment” for the United States and that we had to do the right thing. “Newt was trying to ‘out-Russia’ me,” wrote Clinton. But in a 2002 speech in Melbourne, Australia, Gingrich appeared taken in by the new Russian president and his promises of reform. In the summer of 2008, when Russia went to war with Georgia, Gingrich’s take was drastically different. To be fair, he was hardly alone is his initial optimism about Putin. His remarks in 2002 came just a few months after President George W. Bush looked into Putin’s eyes and famously “got a sense of his soul.”
“I think it would be a tremendous mistake for the United States to start putting traitors on the negotiating table as a pawn, and I hope the administration will now say they will not, under any circumstance, release Pollard,” – Oct. 24, 1998
“I am prepared to say my bias is towards clemency, and I would like to review it. He’s been in [jail] a very long time. But we are pretty tough about people spying on the United States. And I also have a study under way to compare his sentence with comparable people who have been sentenced for very long sentences for comparable deeds.” – Dec. 7, 2011
Gingrich appears to have had a change of heart about Pollard, a former civilian Navy intelligence analyst convicted of selling classified information to Israel in 1985 and currently serving a life sentence. Gingrich’s original comments were made during the 1998 Wye River negotiations, when then-President Clinton offered to review Pollard’s status as part of a land-for-security deal between Benjamin Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat. Israel has long requested Pollard’s release.
“I think it’s something we shouldn’t do…. Lawyers I respect a great deal say it is absolutely within the law. Other lawyers say it absolutely is not. I mean, this is a debatable area.” – April 26, 2009
“Waterboarding is, by every technical rule, not torture. Waterboarding is actually something we’ve done with our own pilots in order to get them used to the idea to what interrogation is like. It’s not — I’m not saying it’s not bad, and it’s not difficult, it’s not frightening. I’m just saying that under the normal rules internationally it’s not torture.” – Nov. 29, 2011
Back in 2009, shortly have the release of memos from Bush’s Office of Legal Counsel on waterboarding, Gingrich said he did not support the practice, though he refused to say whether or not it was torture. He did, however, describe himself as “exactly where Senator McCain was” on the practice. Sen. John McCain, a former prisoner of war, has always been vehemently opposed to waterboarding.
But in last month’s foreign-policy debate, Gingrich was not so equivocal, saying that waterboarding is not considered torture under international law. (The U.N. doesn’t agree.) McCain has said that he’s “very disappointed” by the support for waterboarding among this year’s candidates.
“Exercise a no-fly zone this evening, communicate to the Libyan military that Qaddafi was gone and that the sooner they switch sides, the more like they were to survive, [and provide] help to the rebels to replace him…. This is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with.” – March 7, 2011
“I would not have intervened. I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Qaddafi. I think there are a lot of other allies in the region we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces.” – March 23, 2011
Gingrich initially opposed using military force in Libya, arguing in late February that if the United States simply made it clear to the Libyan military that “they had friends” in America, “you’d be surprised how rapidly they would shift sides” and “replace Qaddafi.” He called for the United States to unilaterally impose a no-fly zone over Libya days later, only to criticize President Obama’s intervention weeks after that. Gingrich rejected claims that he’d flip-flopped, explaining that what he opposed was the White House scuttling non-military options by declaring that Qaddafi must “go,” only to then predicate the intervention on “humanitarian” grounds rather than the removal of Qaddafi.
“The weight of evidence [for global warming] over time [convinced me] that it’s something that you ought to be careful about…. How do you design a pro-science and pro-technology strategy that lowers the amount of damage the human race does to the planet?” – Feb. 15, 2007
“I actually don’t know whether global warming is occurring…. The earth’s temperatures go up and down over geologic times over and over again. As recently as 11,000 years ago the Gulf Stream quit for 600 years. And for 600 years you had an ice age in Europe because there was no warm water coming up. And then it started up again. Nobody knows why it quit, nobody knows why it started up. I’m agnostic.” – Nov. 9, 2011
Gingrich has a complicated relationship with climate change that stretches back to 1989, when he co-sponsored the Global Warming Prevention Act. The former House speaker expressed support for a cap-and-trade system in 2007 but turned against the scheme a year later, and has called his decision to appear with Nancy Pelosi in a 2008 ad urging government action on climate change “the dumbest single thing I’ve done in the last few years.” Even with these shifts in position, however, Gingrich has consistently argued that conservatives must offer innovative, market-based environmental solutions and that there is evidence on both sides of the climate-change debate.
“The American people want an effective United Nations that can fulfill the goals of its Charter in building a safer, freer, and more prosperous world…. What was most striking was the extent to which we were able to find common ground, including on our most important finding, which was ‘the firm belief that an effective United Nations is in America’s interests'” – June 15, 2005 (report by task force co-chaired by Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell)
“We should be willing to say that if the U.N. is going to circumvent negotiations and declare the territory of one of its own members an independent state, we aren’t going to pay for it. We can keep our $7.6 billion a year. We don’t need to fund a corrupt institution to beat up on our allies.” – Aug. 10, 2011
Gingrich condemned the United Nations this fall during the Palestinian bid for statehood, but back in 2005 he co-chaired a task force on U.N. reform — a cause he has long championed. While the report did call for the abolition of the U.N. Human Rights Commission and criticized U.N. institutions for failing to protect victims of genocide around the world, Foreign Policy pointed out in August that the task force recommended remedying these issues in part by increasing funding for U.N. institutions.
Uri Friedman is a former deputy managing editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @UriLF
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