The Newt Doctrine: Candidate Gingrich and the heroic-leadership model of American foreign policy

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Newt Gingrich (Gage Skidmore, via flickr.)
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Atop the copyright page of his first book, Window of Opportunity, Newt Gingrich placed a quote from Ronald Reagan’s then-recent first inaugural address: “We have every right to dream heroic dreams.”

This is a freedom Gingrich has indulged in with great enthusiasm—and sometimes damaging over-enthusiasm—throughout his three decades on the national stage. It is difficult to think of a serious modern presidential candidate who has written as prodigiously about the ideas that run through his head: more than a dozen books on policy alone, often revised and updated through multiple editions, and interspersed with a series of historical novels about great military conflicts.

Usually, it is a challenge to proceed from the superficialities of a candidate’s branding to the deeper issue of what and how he or she thinks, but Gingrich’s case presents the reverse problem. He puts his heroic dreams right on the page, in a stream of political consciousness, and the question presented is: What do all these thoughts add up to?

As recently as a few weeks ago, Newt Gingrich’s worldview was a matter primarily of interest to his publishing house, Regnery, and its fervent conservative readership. Though he proclaimed himself the G.O.P. field’s “ideas man,” he seemed to show little interest in actually becoming president, much to the frustration of his consultants. But now he has vaulted to the top of the field, on the strength of some cheerfully truculent debate performances and, over the weekend, an endorsement from New Hampshire’s largest newspaper, which praised his “innovative, forward-looking” candidacy.

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This improbable revival has given new weight to Gingrich’s vast body of work, and to the indications it provides about what the ideas man would do if he were actually in a position to put all those thoughts into practice.

To narrow things down a bit, this review will confine itself to the subject of last week’s debate: foreign policy and national security. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, Republican voters give Gingrich a 30-point advantage over Mitt Romney on foreign policy. He is promising, according to his campaign website, “a unified grand strategy for defeating radical Islamism.” What would such a grand strategy entail? As of this writing, the particulars are still fuzzy, but through a careful reading of Gingrich, one can begin to work up some reasonable assumptions.

Gingrich is a former history professor, as he is always happy to remind people, and his books teem with eclectic erudition: warnings about civilizational collapse mix with Popular Science-style prognostications about space travel and exotic weapons, and ritual invocations of the Founding Fathers. He sprinkles even his most pedestrian passages—a triumphant defense of the Willy Horton ad used against Michael Dukakis, say, or a discussion of a now-forgotten Teamsters strike against U.P.S.—with references to MacArthur’s landing at Inchon and the German war strategy. Amid all this intellectual riffing, though, one theme rings constant: Gingrich subscribes to the Great Man view of history, and he admires one very great man in particular.

Before we delve deeper into the details, I must admit that I am not a completely disinterested reader of Gingrich. In the fall of 1996, during my senior year in college, I took a road trip down to Georgia with my friend Sean to volunteer for the Democratic challenger for Gingrich’s House seat, a cookie magnate by the name of Michael Coles. For a week, Sean and I trailed Newt’s campaign appearances in a car outfitted to look like a giant yellow duck; as I recall, the political point we were trying to make was that the House Speaker was “ducking” debates. Coles lost, and that marked my last foray into active politics. But my friend Sean, whom I still regard warmly, recently mounted a spirited run as a Republican against Barney Frank. I tell the story in the spirit of full disclosure, and to make a point: people change, some opinions age better than others.

This is a particularly salient reminder when it comes to reading Window of Opportunity, our first look into Gingrich’s thinking, published nearly a quarter-century ago when he was still an obscure member of the House. Like all his works, it was written in collaboration with credited co-authors: in this case, his now-ex-wife Marianne, and a science fiction novelist named David Drake. Over the years, the book has brought the politician a fair amount of grief, for its Colbert-anticipating cover art—“a flag-draped eagle inexplicably threatening the space shuttle,” Andrew Ferguson wrote in a recent essay on Gingrich in The New York Times Magazine—as well as some of its more outlandish predictions. (“A honeymoon on the moon may become commonplace.”)

But give Gingrich credit: he foresaw one very big thing about the future shape of the world. Lots of people apprehended the potential of computers, but Gingrich was early to recognize the greater implications of global communication. An anecdote about the ease with which he was able to call his daughter during a study-abroad trip to France leads him to observe that “we already see geographic neighbors being replaced by electronic neighbors.” Gingrich predicts that his grandchildren will use a “complex information-net telephone” to shop, use the library, and communicate, leading to “a decentralized work system … a decline in 9-to-5 jobs and the reemergence of piecework.” Pretty close, right?

What makes this book so odd, though, is that all Gingrich’s gee-whiz futurism mingles with a sense of foreboding when it comes to international affairs. “We live constantly in the shadow of a holocaust which could destroy civilization,” he writes at one point. A few pages later, he places the reader “on the brink of a world of violence almost beyond our imagination.” Gingrich warns that the “period of an American dominated world is clearly ending,” due to a weakening of the economy and the military. He says that the “inability of Liberalism to confront and contain evil” in international affairs could potentially “lead to our collapse as a country or our extinction as a free society.”

It would be tempting to surmise that the book hits such discordant thematic notes because of the compromises of multiple authorship. But when you read the rest of Gingrich, you realize the same schizophrenic strain runs through all of his work. He’s a space-age Woodrow Wilson one minute, Hobbes the next. In Window of Opportunity, Gingrich says his first intimations of doom came on a trip he took to the First World War battlefield at Verdun, when he was living in France as teenage Army brat.

“I left that battlefield convinced that men do horrible things to each other, that great nations can spend their lifeblood and their treasure on efforts to coerce and subjugate their fellow man,” he wrote. “I was absolutely certain that what had happened before could happen again.” The only thing that can stave off cataclysm—and the thread that holds the two sides of Gingrich’s thought together—is the promise of heroic leadership.

Of course, in 1984, Gingrich had perfectly palpable reasons to worry about the world: His existential threat took the very real form of a nuclear-armed Soviet Union. “We must expect the Soviet system to survive in its present brutish form for a very long time,” he wrote, adding that “the Soviet vision of a dangerous world … is a much more realistic and accurate assessment of the traditional patterns of history.” Anticipating a continuous standoff, Gingrich pushed Reagan’s missile defense system, extolling the technological potential of satellite-mounted lasers and particle beams.

But Gingrich also identified a secondary threat: terrorism from aggressive Third World nations like Libya and Iran. “Because Liberalism is still guilty over Western colonialism, it is generally willing to give terrorists the benefit of the doubt,” he claimed. He predicted that “the long term struggle against terrorism will be a dark and bloody one, involving years of vigilant counterterrorism—a level of surveillance and spying that Liberals will call intolerable—and a willingness to strike back with substantial force at the originators of the action.”

Gingrich reprinted this passage as an appendix to Real Change, a book he published a couple of years ago, proudly pointing out his foresight. Of course, he condensed and edited the passage, taking a paragraph from here and there, striking out the part about the Soviet Union enduring for decades, and removing his illustrative “example of confronting a terrorist danger and handling it pretty effectively”—airline security against hijackings. Gingrich isn’t satisfied with being perceptive; he also has to be absolutely right.

Any discussion of Gingrich’s words must raise the question of their connections to his actions. Does he really mean this stuff? The evidence is mixed. When he finally became House speaker in 1994, he did not, as he suggested in Window of Opportunity, massively increase the budget for space exploration (“we must not be penny wise and dollar foolish…”), or push to place a research station on the moon by the year 2000. (“The welfare state could have built a permanent lunar base in 1969—it decided not to.”)

On the other hand, even Gingrich’s most giddy ideas offer a glimpse into the way he thinks about the more achievable stuff. His semi-apostasies on the issue of immigration come as less of a surprise when you realize that he once proposed using the promise of NASA jobs to lure “young Third World dreamers” to the United States. How does Newt feel about globalization? He’s in favor of building tax-free factories in outer space.

It must be said, though, that Gingrich grew more grounded as he began to amass actual power, hounding Democratic House speaker Jim Wright from office over ethics charges and masterminding the 1994 midterm landslide. The events that followed can be summed up by Gingrich’s titles: To Renew America was followed by Lessons Learned the Hard Way.

In the latter book, he places the 1994 Republican victory in the company of Henry Clay’s War Hawks of 1810 and the Progressive wave a century later as the only successful examples of “an idea-oriented national campaign without a presidential leader,” and lashes out at Democrats, the media and traitors within his own caucus. Among other things, Gingrich was outraged over complaints that compared Wright’s transgressions, involving “a set of speeches he published to sell in large blocks to lobbyists, and a real book I had written, which was sold to the general public by a real publisher.” Even at the height of his powers, Gingrich was protective of his intellectual bona fides.

In retrospect, American politics during this period was remarkable for its disengagement from foreign affairs, and Gingrich’s opinions on school prayer and Oval Office adultery lie outside the scope of this review.

By the time the story once again turned abroad, in September 2001, Gingrich was languishing irrelevantly, though lucratively, in Washington’s netherworld of think tanks and consultancies. An avid animal lover, who kept a copy of a primatology text called Chimpanzee Politics on the shelf of his House office, he visited a lot of zoos. He churned out many volumes of fiction, counterfactual histories that started from the premise, for instance, that the United States never declared war against the Nazis. He seemed to be longing to rewrite his own role in history, too.

Gingrich frequently points out that, long before September 11, he called for expanding the kind intelligence capabilities that might have headed off disaster. When Jason Zengerle, writing a 2006 profile for The New Republic, asked Gingrich what might have happened had he never resigned as speaker, he gave a wistful reply.

“It’s hard to go back and imagine,” Gingrich said. “It would have been a different world.”

During George W. Bush’s second term, Gingrich sent out signals that he was contemplating a presidential run, but no one took him seriously. He picked up the pace of his nonfiction writing, producing a half-dozen titles in the three years prior the 2008 elections, including a devotional tour guide of Washington (Rediscovering God in America) and a Gladwellian business advice book (The Art of Transformation). He seems to have been trying on new ideological outfits, some of which fit better than others.

In Winning the Future, published in 2005, Gingrich was a High Bush neoconservative, writing of the need to prepare for “a long war.” He called the enemy “the Irreconcilable wing of Islam,” or “the Irreconcilables” for short—casting the post-September 11 conflict in the language of legislative opposition. “We are in a war of survival,” Gingrich wrote, “and we could lose that war.” (The italics are his.)

He warned about the catastrophic threat of nuclear and biological attacks, along with more arcane threats like “an electromagnetic pulse weapon,” a nuclear warhead detonated at high altitude, which could theoretically short-circuit all technology and “collapse America into an 1860 world without electricity.” He rattled sabers over the threat posed by Iran, which he called “the most dangerous country of all.” And after approvingly quoting a Bush speech on the “transition” in Iraq, Gingrich wrote that “transformational wars always take time.” He predicted that defeating the Irreconcilables would take until 2070, though he added that “an optimist could make the case for winning by 2025 or 2030.”

Two years later, Gingrich published Real Change, which argued that the Republicans had lost their way, both domestically and in Iraq, where he bemoaned “a disastrous lack of thoughtful analysis and planning.”

“For months—from June 2003 on—I had tried to warn close friends and colleagues in the administration that things simply were not working,” Gingrich wrote. (He did not explain why he did not raise these concerns so starkly with the readers of Winning the Future, published two years after 2003.) “The Left saw the implementation problems as proof positive that our intervention in Iraq was wrong,” Gingrich wrote. “The Right chanted ‘stay the course’ …. And as the politicians in Washington played for partisan advantage, things in Iraq got worse.”

Real Change, of course, was written at a comparatively uneasy political moment for conservatives, during the period of liberal ascendancy that began with the 2006 midterms. Gingrich claims, as usual, that he saw this coming—that “something was profoundly wrong with Republican political strategies.”

For 2008, he urged his party to look abroad to the example of President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, who had recently mounted what the author called “a genuine pro-change candidacy on the Right.”

(Gingrich wrote an entire adulatory chapter about Sarkozy, but that did not stop the candidate more recently from calling the French president “disgusting,” after an open microphone caught him making some disparaging remarks about Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. To radio host Hugh Hewitt, Gingrich decried “the arrogance, and frankly, the sometimes latent anti-Semitism that the Europeans have.” Sarkozy is partly Jewish.)

The Gingrich of Real Change offered conservatives “an alternative system of strategy and thought.” Unsurprisingly, Gingrich’s new thoughts bore some marked similarities to his old ones: There’s a proposal for privatizing space exploration, and one for raffling off tickets for rocket trips, and one for a tax-free $1 billion prize for the first mass-producible car that runs on hydrogen. But Gingrich genuinely seems to have been trying to come up with a way to urge the post-Bush conservative movement toward a more constructive engagement with the rest of the world. This led him in some surprising directions, most notably in another book from 2007, modestly titled A Contract With The Earth.

This one was written with coauthor Terry Maple, a former president of the Atlanta Zoo, and it bears scant similarity to anything else in the Gingrichian corpus. Here’s all you need to know: the book says something nice about Ted Turner. It doesn’t quite bring itself to conclude that humans are causing global warming, but it accepts that something is happening to the climate, and that it’s bad news for polar bears.

“Our nation’s moral obligation to provide effective environmental leadership will require the formation of new strategic partnerships among nations, nongovernmental organizations, and multinational corporations dedicated to protecting and renewing the earth’s precious resources,” Gingrich writes. Elsewhere, he inveighs against “Big Oil,” and says that “by weaning industrial societies from fossil fuels, the world would be a far better place.”

Gingrich wound up the first edition of A Contract With The Earth by concluding: “It is time for each of us—whether our political views are left, right or center—to stand up and demand an end to the squabbling … We are all members of a big-tent, bipartisan, multicultural ‘green team’ whose commitment to the environment is genuine.”

One year later, Gingrich published yet another book: Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less: A Handbook for Slashing Gas Prices and Solving Our Energy Crisis.

Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of losing politicians. But even so, Gingrich’s shift was jarring. In 2007, he appeared in a television ad with Nancy Pelosi, demanding action against global warming; he has since called that “probably the dumbest single thing I’ve ever done.”

By 2008, a second edition of A Contract With The Earth had appeared, with a new epilogue, which referred to climate change as a “theory”—in scare quotes—and listed some recent countervailing evidence, before denouncing the “political activism of the scientific community.”

In mid-2009, Gingrich issued a revised and updated “Obama edition” of Real Change, which derided the “astonishing weakness” of the new Democratic administration. The following year brought To Save America: Stopping Obama’s Secular-Socialist Machine, which has sold nearly 100,000 copies in hardcover and paperback, according to Nielsen BookScan. There is profit in vitriol.

Gingrich is the only Republican contender to have previously taken on a Democratic president on something close to equal terms. But in Obama, far more than the Southern centrist Bill Clinton, he seems finally to have found an enemy he judges worthy of his intellectual contempt. In his most recent book, A Nation Like No Other, Gingrich tacks back and forth between a Revolutionary history lesson—he was fetishizing the Founders long before the Tea Party—and a discourse on modern-day “American Exceptionalism,” which he says is being undermined by “a determined group of radicals.”

As an illustrative case, Gingrich derides the (then-inconclusive) NATO intervention in Libya. “Elevating the tool of multilateralism into an end in itself,” Gingrich writes, “the Obama Administration categorically rejects the very idea of American dominance.” He accuses the diffident Democrat of bowing to other leaders, and of following “an incoherent course whose primary objective seems to be currying favor with foreign governments.”

In a section headed “Radical Islamists: Our Unnamed Enemies,” he mocks the administration for using the term “violent extremists” instead of “terrorists.” “Naturally, if you are so paralyzed by political correctness that you can’t even name your enemies, it becomes impossible to devise a comprehensive strategy to defeat them,” writes the man who coined the phrase, “the Irreconcilable wing of Islam.”

In his conclusion, Gingrich writes: “Conservatives will need to offer a long term commitment and strategic vision to reverse the damage the Left has done to America.”

After my long journey through his thinking, I still can’t quite discern the particulars of that grand strategy. Gingrich has indicated, for instance, that he would get out of Afghanistan quickly, but he has attacked Obama for setting a timeline for doing so. For all his faith in the power of democratic ideas, he has grave reservations about this year's uprisings across the Arab world, which has called an "anti-Christian spring."

But Gingrich has never presented himself as a details guy. That is why I would venture to guess that the guideposts for the foreign policy of a Gingrich administration would reside less in a set of concrete tenets than in image and rhetoric, and a willful—even rather Nietzschean—projection of the ideal of visionary leadership.

Here, for instance, is an anecdote that Gingrich shared with an audience at a 2009 foreign policy forum, recounting a conversation he once had with Ronald Reagan’s first national security adviser, Richard Allen.

“I found this kind of fascinating,” he told the audience. “He came by to see me and he said, ‘You understand what Reagan understood.’ Then I said, ‘Okay, I'll bite. What is it I understand?’” Pressing together his thumb and index finger, Gingrich gestured to emphasize the point. “He said, ‘Leaders define truth, and then people organize themselves around the truth.’”

Similarly, the Gingrichian strategy is grand by definition, because it emanates from Gingrich. And given the competition, you can see why Republican voters find it an alluring alternative.

At the Nov. 22 CNN debate, the final questioner asked the candidates to identify unexpected foreign threats. Rick Santorum mentioned incipient socialism in South America. Ron Paul questioned the need for overseas military action altogether. Rick Perry railed against abortions in “Communist China.” Mitt Romney claimed that Hezbollah is up to nefarious things in Mexico. Herman Cain stammered something about computer security and having once been a ballistics analyst. Then it was time for the man of ideas. Gingrich fluently detailed three threats: a weapon of mass destruction unleashed on an American city, cyber warfare, and “an electromagnetic pulse attack, which would literally destroy the country's capacity to function.”

The national audience may have been a little nonplussed—an electromagnetic what?—but Wolf Blitzer swiftly moved on to Michele Bachmann, who spoke of Somali terrorists active in Minnesota. No one on the stage was capable of rising to dispel Gingrich’s heroic reveries.

Andrew Rice is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine and the author of The Teeth May Smile but the Heart Does Not Forget: Murder and Memory in Uganda.

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