NEWT GINGRICH sees himself as a statesman, a public-policy sage, and a potential president of the United States. The former House speaker has written more than 20 books, produced a half-dozen documentaries, and launched organizations that focus on subjects as varied as health care, the importance of faith and free markets, and the interests of American Hispanics. It is clear that Gingrich is smart, curious, articulate, and energetic. He is never at a loss for words, and he has an opinion on everything.
But is he serious?
For someone who holds himself out as a public intellectual, Gingrich comes across all too often as more glib than thoughtful -- more interested in jumping into the fray than in expressing carefully worked-out ideas. When he takes a strong stand on a controversial issue, it's never clear how much conviction and deliberation have gone into it. He seems to think and speak at full gallop, tossing off opinions as fast as they come to him, less interested in being right than in being heard -- and in taking shots at the opposition. Of course it is in the nature of American politics that Republicans criticize Democrats, and Democrats disparage Republicans, but Gingrich professes "to rise above traditional gridlocked partisanship." And yet Newt the Republican combatant is a much more familiar figure than Newt the nonpartisan visionary.
Consider the former speaker's position(s) on Libya.
On March 7, before US military action against Moammar Qaddafi had begun, Fox News Channel's Greta Van Susteren asked Gingrich what he would do about Libya. Without hesitation, he called for aggressive American intervention and derided the president for not having ordered it already:
"Exercise a no-fly zone this evening," Gingrich demanded. "The idea that we're confused about a man who has been an anti-American dictator since 1969 just tells you how inept this administration is. . . . This is a moment to get rid of him. Do it. Get it over with."
So eager was Gingrich for action that he wanted it done unilaterally:
America "doesn't need anybody's permission," he said. "We don't need to have NATO. . . . We don't need to have the United Nations. . . . All we have to do is suppress [Qaddafi's] air force, which we could do in minutes."
Two weeks later, on the day the UN Security Council voted for a Libyan no-fly zone, Gingrich intensified his criticism. The Obama White House, he told Sean Hannity, "is maybe the most passive and out of touch presidency in modern American history." Qaddafi was still in place two weeks after the president said he had to go, Gingrich observed, and "there is no evidence that the no-fly zone by itself will be effective."
The next day, Gingrich told Politico that the president's position on Libya "makes us look weak and uncertain and increases the danger in the Persian Gulf."
Yet by Sunday, with US missile strikes on Libyan air defense systems underway, Gingrich's tune began to change. Now Obama was guilty of "opportunistic amateurism without planning or professionalism," he said, and the only thing that could explain the administration's decision was "opportunism and news media publicity."
On Wednesday, March 23, Gingrich went on NBC's "Today" show to condemn the entire operation. "I would not have intervened," he told Matt Lauer. "I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Qaddafi. I think there are a lot of allies in the region that we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces." For good measure he labeled the military campaign, which so far has gone pretty well, "about as badly run as any foreign operation in our lifetime." That will come as news to anyone who can remember Vietnam, Somalia, or Iraq before the surge.
Thus in the space of three weeks, Gingrich went from blasting Obama for not imposing a no-fly zone in Libya "this evening" to blasting Obama for imposing a no-fly zone in Libya. On March 3 he wanted the president to tell Qaddafi "that slaughtering your own citizens is unacceptable and that we're intervening." By March 23 he was mocking "humanitarian intervention" as an unserious "public relations conversation."
But if the only consistent note in Gingrich's ever-evolving position on Libya is that Obama is always wrong, just who is the unserious one? On his website, Gingrich describes himself as an internationally recognized "expert on world history, military issues, and international affairs." He would like to be regarded as a man of deep learning and principled ideas. He is coming across so far as a politician who will say anything to score cheap points.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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