Once considered a leading voice of the foreign interventionist wing of the Republican Party, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on the presidential campaign trail this year has been edging away from his trademark "Make my day" aggressiveness toward those hostile to the United States.
In recent statements and in an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Gingrich is advocating a more nuanced role for the United States — even in dealing with such provocative regimes such as North Korea.
"North Korea has to be handled with enormous patience but with a clear understanding that they can't sell their nuclear weapons," Mr. Gingrich said. He said he fears calculated nuclear warfare less than he worries about failing governments and economies going haywire.
"Instability rather than aggression is the great threat," he added in the weekend interview, which touched on topics such as Iran, the utility of Americans based in unfriendly regions, his energy plan and President Obama's resistance to it.
To the surprise of some fellow hawks, Mr. Gingrich, running third behind Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum in the presidential delegate hunt, has said it's time for the U.S. military to reconsider its mission in Afghanistan despite the threat that al Qaeda cells could flourish there after an American pullout and despite his role as a leading and vociferous opponent of Islamic "jihadism."
"We have to reassess the entire region," Mr. Gingrich said recently in widely noted comments on CBS' "Face the Nation." "We need to understand that our being in the middle of countries like Afghanistan is probably counterproductive."
The mission given U.S. forces there, he added, may not be "doable."
Conservatives who have followed his decades-long record on foreign policy say they see Mr. Gingrich moving in a surprising direction.
"I'd say Newt's foreign policy is closer to Ron Paul's as it relates to military intervention than to Santorum's," said former Virginia GOP Chairman Jeff Frederick. The libertarian lawmaker from Texas, running fourth in the GOP presidential contest, has long opposed U.S. military missions abroad.
Mr. Frederick said it is not out of character for Mr. Gingrich, who has accused Mr. Obama of "slashing" the Pentagon budget, to work out competing ideas in public as his views evolve.
"It is not uncharacteristic of Newt Gingrich to be having a conversation with himself and the public about issues," Mr. Frederick said. "The fact that he is an intellectual and an idea factory gives him, I think, more license than other candidates typically do to have evolving and/or developing positions."
Although 24 percent of Americans want to stick to Mr. Obama's timetable to quit Afghanistan by the end of 2014, half of respondents in a recent Gallup poll said they favor a faster withdrawal, with Republicans about evenly divided between an expedited withdrawal and keeping the troops abroad until the U.S. achieves its goals.
Mr. Gingrich said in the interview that belligerent moves by Pyongyang expose more shortcomings in the Obama administration's uncertain approach to foreign policy.
"The North Korean announcement that they would use their military [intercontinental ballistic missile] to launch a satellite next month is a further illustration of the gap between reality and fantasy in the Obama policies," Mr. Gingrich said.
The former speaker recalled the bizarre 2010 incident when the North Koreans threatened to disrupt a summit of Group of 20 leaders in South Korea through the use of biochemical-filled balloons.
"Obama announced at that time that North Korea would 'suffer consequences,'" Mr. Gingrich said. "I know of no serious consequences. Here we are three years later, with a replay of the same pattern."
Mr. Gingrich said the Obama administration's effort to develop a dramatic breakthrough in nuclear disarmament "is an odd contrast with the grim realities of Iran, North Korea and Pakistan."
The Georgian, a longtime student of history, compared Mr. Obama's approach to the post-World War I Kellogg-Briand Pact and other efforts to avoid another arms race and outlaw war. The words are meaningless if the will to live up to a nonaggression pledge is absent, Mr. Gingrich said.
"Where it really matters, the forces of aggression are developing nuclear weapons in Iran, and the world is drifting toward an Israeli pre-emptive strike," he said.
Mr. Gingrich said that in many ways, Pakistan, a nominal ally, is more of a risk to U.S. interests than the openly hostile North Korean regime.
"Pakistan has a substantial number of nuclear weapons, which it sees as offsetting the Indian nuclear arsenal," Mr. Gingrich said. "Pakistan has very large elements of radical Islamists, and the nuclear weapons could someday be at risk."
Mr. Gingrich said a realist would forecast that 10 years from now there would be more countries, not fewer, possessing nuclear weapons.
"Proliferation is more likely than nuclear disarmament," he said, adding that if he were in the Oval Office, he would have military and civilian leaders develop "a much more realistic national security approach to the dangers of nuclear weapons in hostile hands."
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