A mere four months ago, Newt Gingrich's presidential campaign had just imploded, his top staff had resigned en masse, and the disgraced former House speaker was apparently engaged in nothing more than a self-promotion tour. Now, his inexplicable revival as a leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination requires that Americans understand just how dangerous he would be if he became president. Like many of his rivals, Gingrich is reliably hawkish on foreign policy, but he has the habit of framing issues in stark, apocalyptic terms that inevitably exaggerate the scale of contemporary threats. There is every reason to expect that U.S. foreign policy would become even more militarized and confrontational under a President Gingrich, and America's relations with much of the world would deteriorate quickly.
Many Republicans flatter Gingrich by treating him as one of the party's intellectuals, but Gingrich frequently shows that he is unable or unwilling to make crucial distinctions in his treatment of international problems. He complains on his campaign website that "we currently view Iraq, Afghanistan, and the many other danger spots of the globe as if they are isolated, independent situations," and that America "lacks a unified grand strategy for defeating radical Islamism." But these conflicts are largely separate from one another, and there is no such thing as a monolithic, global, radical Islamism that can be addressed by one strategy. No conflicts around the world can be properly understood except by focusing on local circumstances, but for Gingrich, the ideological emphasis on a unified global threat takes priority over proper analysis.
Far from "telling the truth about our enemies," Gingrich has a tendency to imagine enemies where none exist.
Gingrich's formulation doesn't allow for recognizing the differences among diverse Islamist groups, and it prevents him from seeing how those differences could be used to American advantage. Instead, he lumps them together much as the absurd "Islamofascist" label did during the last decade, and adopts a posture of hostility toward much of the Islamic world as a result. This failure of intellect was on display last year when Gingrich joined in the ridiculous demagoguery against the so-called "Ground Zero Mosque," whose ecumenical supporters Gingrich predictably labeled "radical Islamists." Far from "telling the truth about our enemies," Gingrich has a tendency to imagine enemies where none exist.
He has referred to Iran's nuclear program as an "apocalyptic Iranian nuclear threat," which grossly exaggerates the danger from future Iranian nuclear weapons and misleads the public into believing that Iran has decided to acquire nuclear weapons. Gingrich's judgment of the Iranian threat is so exaggerated that he has claimed that it's worse than the Cuban Missile Crisis. He openly supports waging covert war against Iran to thwart the threat he is exaggerating, which ensures that tensions between the U.S. and Iran would increase dramatically in the event that Gingrich took office.
While Gingrich often refers to himself as a "cheap hawk," he has been firmly opposed to current proposals for military spending cuts. The ambitious and active role Gingrich envisions for the U.S. in the world precludes the possibility of meaningful reductions in military spending. Fiscal conservatives should expect no help from Gingrich in reducing the Pentagon's budget.
Civil libertarians may have the most to fear from Gingrich. He has defended practices of indefinite detention, torture, and targeted assassinations of U.S. citizens such as Anwar al-Awlaki. Gingrich has articulated justifications for virtually every government abuse committed in the name of national security in the last ten years, so we should expect nothing less from his administration if he came to power.
Another worrisome sign of Gingrich's belligerence was the approval he gave to John McCain's dangerous overreaction to the 2008 war between Russia and Georgia. Despite the Georgian government's role in escalating the conflict, McCain famously declared that "we are all Georgians," and insisted that the U.S. support Georgia during its short, disastrous war. Gingrich called this "one of the best moments McCain had in the campaign so far," which tells us that Gingrich believes that McCain's aggressive, knee-jerk response to a foreign crisis was correct, and that it's presumably the sort of response Gingrich would offer in a similar situation.
Perhaps worst of all is Gingrich's supreme confidence in his own intellectual superiority. This means he will not be easily dissuaded from making policy on the basis of his numerous misjudgments about foreign threats and U.S. interests. A Gingrich administration promises to give America many of the misguided and harmful policies of the Bush years, but the errors will be compounded by Gingrich's presumption that he understands the world far better than anyone else.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- The simple trick to making better decisions in every aspect of life
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- The uncomfortable truth in The Giving Tree
- The U.S. government is actually trouncing Ebola. When will it get credit?
- Why America needs more billionaires
- Why 2014 may be as good as it gets for the Republican Party
- Syrian women know how to defeat ISIS
- 6 simple steps for making millions on a crappy horror movie
- The real story behind Deliver Us From Evil
Subscribe to the Week