Hindsight is 20-20, especially for Newt Gingrich. Amidst "movement building" visits to Iowa, the former speaker of the House touched down yesterday at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington, D.C. His mission was to throw cold water on conservative excitement over General David Petraeus' surge-enabling Iraq report. In the process, he cast himself as the lone (albeit rumored) GOP presidential hopeful deeply critical of the Bush administration's anti-terror strategy, yet fully enthused about every potential confrontation with the so-called "Islamo-fascists."
Gingrich made his case through a "thought experiment" of an "alternate history" of the past six years in which, with unlikely efficiency and competence, the entire United States government retooled itself after Sept. 11, 2001 for a military, intelligence, and diplomatic war against Muslim terrorism.
"We are having the wrong debate about the wrong report," Gingrich intoned, urging a renewed focus not on Iraq or Afghanistan, but on the broader war against "the Irreconcilable Wing of Islam." Despite overheated rhetoric, Gingrich's presentation wasn't completely without merit. He supported a renewed commitment to global diplomacy and non-coercive American support for grassroots democratization movements in the Middle East. Perhaps the United States should provide every Iranian student with a cell phone, he suggested, allowing them to mobilize opposition. To strengthen domestic defenses, Gingrich recommended Homeland Security drills to prepare for evacuations of major American cities and new efforts to develop American scientific, technological, and foreign language capabilities.
None of these sensible policies -- advocated for by years by experts from across the political spectrum -- were enacted by the Bush administration. Gingrich even went so far as to suggest that had the proper investments been made in intelligence, homeland security, and diplomacy immediately following 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq would not have been necessary. "We never fully mobilized," he lamented.
But think again before you tell your friends you've located one of those rumored "principled conservatives." When it comes to the Iraq War, Gingrich has a long history of flipping, flopping, and then flipping again. As Alex Koppelman reported in Salon last year, "As a close advisor to the administration over the past six years, and an intimate of both Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Gingrich was a powerful advocate both for the idea of invading Iraq and for the botched way in which it was done." A member of the influential Defense Policy Board, Gingrich helped draw up war plans at the Central Command for the Middle East in Tampa, Fla. And his Oct. 16, 2002 USA Today column about Iraq was titled, "Strike Sooner Than Later."
When the war soured, Newt changed his tune. As early as December 2003, Gingrich told Newsweek, "Americans can't win in Iraq." He later said it had been a mistake for the United States to occupy the country beyond June 2003. Last November, Gingrich, while testing the primary waters in New Hampshire, called democracy-building in Iraq a "failure."
Regardless of whether Gingrich has come to sincerely regret the invasion of Iraq, his current support for indefinitely continuing the U.S. occupation negates his insistence that "we need a new course." How can we enter into a serious conversation about reforming our military, diplomatic, and intelligence-gathering response to terrorism if we continue to wage a resource-sucking war that the vast majority of Americans oppose? The former speaker provided no answers to this conundrum, falling back upon typical Republican machismo. "We must reject legislating American surrender and defeat in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.
Indeed, Gingrich's ideology presents contradiction after maddening contradiction. His "alternate" post 9/11 America is a fear-ridden place where the president can use a mere "waiver" to override existing federal laws. The government issues weekly media reports reminding Americans of "Islamo-fascist violence" across the globe. Hollywood pumps out film after film glorifying the fight against radical Islam. In real life, of course, a slew of mainstream fall releases will criticize our government's bungling of the "War on Terror," including "Lions for Lambs," "Rendition," and "In the Valley of Elah."
Gingrich, like so many ambitious Republicans (see: Giuliani, Rudy), feeds right into al-Qaeda's propaganda when he depicts the United States as locked in an existential struggle against radical Islam, a war he believes should become the organizing principle of our entire government. And like Rudy Giuliani, his fetishization of 9/11 is more than gauche. It's downright disturbing the way Gingrich seems to relish the possibility of another attack on U.S. soil, what he refers to as "losing a city." His policy ideas should be enacted now, he told an audience-member at AEI, but at the very least he said he seeks to lay the groundwork for change following our next 9/11, which, according to Gingrich, will probably consist of a nuclear or biological attack.
Just as creepy was Gingrich's discussion of "the possibility of a second Holocaust" perpetrated by Iran and Syria against Israel if the United States does not take decisive action against those regimes. He implied that one way to do so would be for the U.S. to destroy Iranian oil refineries, presumably through a bombing campaign. "It makes no sense to have a Holocaust Museum in Washington and yet have no honest assessment of the threat of a 21st century Holocaust," he said.
For a man who claims to have rethought the advisability of a purely military response to terrorism, Gingrich's Iran rhetoric sounded surprisingly akin to the panic buttons pushed by the Bush administration in the run up to the Iraq invasion. But then again, this shouldn't come as a surprise. Despite his attempts to recast himself as a dispassionate realist intellectual, Gingrich remains the author of the "Contract With America," a master at exploiting the politics of fear. So don't be fooled by his criticism of the Bush administration's handling of Iraq: There's always another war to rush into, right around the corner.