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‘Romantic and Often Dangerous’

Newt Gingrich is still very much the foreign-policy provocateur he was in 1995.


Newt Gingrich’s ability to generate controversy and headlines has never stopped at the water’s edge. A little over a year into his tenure as speaker of the House in 1995, the New York Times reported that Gingrich had already been called an "imbecile" by his counterpart in the Iranian Majles, condemned in an official resolution of the Jordanian parliament, compared to a young Margaret Thatcher by the British foreign secretary, and described as "America’s surrogate president" in Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine.

Gingrich’s tenure as speaker is best remembered for his engineering of the Republican takeover in 1994, orchestration of the government shutdown of 1995, and the drawn-out impeachment battle with President Bill Clinton. But Gingrich was also unusually active and outspoken on foreign policy for a House speaker. And many of the positions he articulates on the campaign trail today can be traced back to the stances he took on the key national security battles of the Clinton years.

Gingrich’s reputation for strident rhetoric emerged early. When he took over the speakership at the beginning of 1995, the country’s foreign-policy establishment was preoccupied with the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Bosnia. The Clinton administration, under congressional pressure, had recently agreed to stop enforcing the arms embargo against Bosnian Muslim forces. But in an appearance on Meet the Press on Dec. 5, 1994, the speaker-elect, who only a few months earlier had described Bosnia as a solely European issue, demanded the administration go further and deliver an ultimatum to the Serbs, saying that if they invaded Bosnia, "We would reserve the right to take you apart, and we would do it in three to five days, and we would paralyze your capacity to function as a society."

In keeping with his longstanding skepticism of the United Nations, Gingrich described U.N. forces in the former Yugoslavia as "totally incompetent" and suggested they pull out. Interestingly, for the man who would go on years later to describe sharia law as a "mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it," Gingrich suggested that Islamic countries pay to arm their coreligionists in Bosnia in order to create a "balance of terror" with Serb forces in the region.

It’s a bit hard to draw parallels between Bosnia and today’s foreign-policy debates, but many of Gingrich’s foreign-policy talking points have changed remarkably little over the years. The line "I’m a hawk, but I’m a cheap hawk," which has drawn applause from several debate audiences in this primary, was actually first used in a speech in April 1995. As early as his first year as speaker, Gingrich was arguing, as he does now, that the only way to change Iran’s behavior was to support the overthrow of the Islamic Republic — a stance that Iran’s Foreign Ministry said "betrayed a lack of mental balance."

Gingrich’s longstanding interest in cyberwarfare and future weapons systems was also very much in evidence early in his speakership, when he suggested that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein might employ hackers to interfere with U.S. commerce using false American Express numbers. (Considering that this was 3 years before Google was founded, Gingrich deserves some credit for his prescience.)

But if there was a moment when Gingrich truly emerged as a major figure in the U.S. foreign-policy debate, it was July 1995. Early that month, Gingrich shocked official Washington by casually suggesting that the United States recognize Taiwan’s independence, earning rebukes from Beijing, the Clinton administration, and his foreign-policy mentor Henry Kissinger. (The former secretary of state diplomatically described his protégé as "one of the most original minds in American politics" but "just beginning to educate himself on foreign policy.")

Days later, Gingrich denied that he supported ending the United States’ longstanding one-China policy, saying he was only "trying to rattle [China’s] cage" and was inspired by a scene from the novel Advise and Consent. (Two years later he would again emphasize U.S. commitment to Taiwanese sovereignty in a visit to the island, directly contradicting Vice President Al Gore, who was in Beijing at the time.) Gingrich downplayed the incident in an interview with the New York Times, saying, "I don’t particularly care about having said the thing about Taiwan" and "I don’t do foreign policy."

That last line was, of course, blatantly false. On July 18, the same day the Times interview appeared, Gingrich gave his first major foreign-policy address at a meeting of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a centrist Washington think tank. In the speech, Gingrich defended a strong leadership role for the United States, saying it was the only thing standing in the way of the world’s "continuing decay into anarchy." He also blasted the United Nations as a "collection of a wide range of countries with a bizarre voting pattern which makes no sense in real power."

If there’s one aspect of Gingrich’s foreign-policy record that has gone particularly unexamined in the current Republican primary race, it’s his enthusiastic commitment to free trade. In the CSIS speech, Gingrich boasted of being "the team leader in passing NAFTA, the co-leader in passing GATT" and proposed establishing  free-trade zones encompassing all of Europe, Latin America, and even Japan, then America’s principal economic bogeyman. Candidate Gingrich is still very much a free trader, but it’s a bit surprising these positions haven’t come back to bite him with the same working-class voters turned off by Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital layoffs.

The speech also demonstrated Gingrich’s commitment to what George H.W. Bush famously called the "vision thing" — a grand overall narrative of American history rather than individual political decisions: "Should we have two airplanes or six airplanes? Should we have three Apache helicopters or no Apaches? Those are nonsense debates at the level of a great society. A great nation has to decide: What is our vision of where we are going?"

Describing Americans, Gingrich remarked, "We are a romantic and often dangerous people who are sometimes confused but have an enormous reservoir of energy and drive. And we’ve been that kind of a people for almost 400 years, and we are not likely to change dramatically." (It’s tempting to wonder just who or what the speaker was referring to here, since that sounds like a pretty good description of his own political career, particularly on foreign policy: "romantic and often dangerous," but generally consistent on the big themes.)

Critics combing through Gingrich’s past for bizarre statements (as a young congressman, he once suggested that the popularity of the Star Wars movies were evidence that Americans would support the weaponization of space) or "grandiosity" (his spokesman in 1995 described him as a cross between Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Anwar Sadat, and Mohandas Gandhi) will find plenty of material. In a political career spanning more than three decades, Gingrich has no doubt left behind more than his share of howlers.

Gingrich has also certainly changed his tune on a number of issues. While he once mused about finding a way "to get Palestinian Americans and Jewish Americans to launch joint ventures" as a means of growing a prosperous, free society, he now dismissed the Palestinians as an "invented" people who want to destroy Israel. Although he now echoes Rick Perry’s rhetoric on cutting all foreign aid to a baseline of zero, he was once such a staunch advocate of increasing aid to post-Soviet Russia that Clinton griped to his advisors that "Ol’ Newt’s trying to … out-Russia me."

But even as his specific targets and areas of interest have shifted over the years, Newt’s overall themes have remained remarkably consistent. Unlike George W. Bush, whose worldview seemed transformed overnight on 9/11, or John McCain, who morphed from post-Vietnam isolationist to uber-interventionist over the course of the 1990s, Gingrich has long extolled American exceptionalism, proclaimed his supreme faith in the power of Ronald Reagan’s doctrine of "peace through strength," exhibited a fascination with the disruptive power of new technologies, and displayed a preternatural ability to generate media attention.

In other words, Gingrich may be "erratic," as his opponents charge, but he’s also very much the same foreign-policy thinker who so fascinated and enraged the world back in 1995.

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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