Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a leading neoconservative hawk and staunch supporter of Israel, says the U.S. military interventions he has long supported to promote democracy in the Middle East and elsewhere have backfired and need to be re-evaluated.
“I am a neoconservative. But at some point, even if you are a neoconservative, you need to take a deep breath to ask if our strategies in the Middle East have succeeded,” the 2012 Republican presidential hopeful said in an interview.
Mr. Gingrich supported the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, but he said he has increasingly doubted the strategy of attempting to export democracy by force to countries where the religion and culture are not hospitable to Western values.
“It may be that our capacity to export democracy is a lot more limited than we thought,” he said.
Mr. Gingrich at times has expressed doubts about the U.S. capacity for nation-building, but he said he now has formed his own conclusions about their failures in light of the experiences of the past decade.
“My worry about all this is not new,” Mr. Gingrich said. “But my willingness to reach a conclusion is new.”
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Mr. Gingrich said it is time for Republicans to heed some of the anti-interventionist ideas offered by the libertarian-minded Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, and Sen. Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, tea party favorite and foreign policy skeptic.
“I think it would be healthy to go back and war-game what alternative strategies would have been better, and I like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul because they are talking about this,” Mr. Gingrich said.
Mr. Paul, a longtime critic of neoconservatives on foreign policy, argues that war must be a last resort and never should be used for nation-building.
In a June 24 column in The Washington Times, Mr. Paul wrote that Americans were told for many years that the radical Taliban would return to power quickly unless U.S. forces remained in Afghanistan.
“Well, guess what, after 12 years, trillions of dollars, more than 2,200 Americans killed, and perhaps more than 50,000 dead Afghan civilians and fighters, the Taliban is coming back anyway!” Mr. Paul wrote.
He noted a similar pattern of radical resurgence in Iraq after American forces withdrew.
As far back as December 2003, Mr. Gingrich was questioning the follow-up for the successful U.S. invasion.
“I am very proud of what [Operation Iraqi Freedom commander Gen.] Tommy Franks did — up to the moment of deciding how to transfer power to the Iraqis. Then we go off a cliff,” he told Newsweek magazine. He said the point should have been “not ‘How many enemy do I kill?’, [but] ‘How many allies do I grow?’”
He also noted his past wariness about U.S. military interventions, often telling audiences that “we could directly guarantee democracy in Iraq and not stay a day longer than needed in Korea.” “Korea has been a 63-year engagement,” he added with a laugh.
Mr. Gingrich argued less than two years ago that President Obama should have “quietly tried to push” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak out of office.
But he now questions whether even U.S. indirect intervention in Egypt to back the overthrow of the longtime Egyptian leader and U.S. ally might have been a mistake. “Here’s a simple question: ‘Is Egypt really better off than going back to Mubarak since it’s hard to argue that the Muslim Brotherhood’s dictatorship is better than Mubarak?’” Mr. Gingrich said.
The former speaker added that U.S. military action in Syria would risk a repeat of interventionist foreign policy mistakes.
“I explicitly would not go into Syria,” he said. “I would look at the whole question of how we think of the governments in other countries,” he said.
He said the result may be another military dictatorship in Egypt and that would be better than rule by the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood.
“It’s hard to argue the chaos in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Lebanon make for a better future,” Mr. Gingrich said.
The fear of many in the United States and Israel is that the Arab Spring is bringing not Western-style democracy but simply replacing secular authoritarians with militantly Islamic religious governments that are hostile to Israel and the U.S., he said.
“I certainly would have allied myself in the 1970s and 1980s with the strategy of intervention and defeating the Soviet Union, but there is definitely a reflection point for conservatives and Republican Party leaders on how we have approached our major national security questions,” Mr. Gingrich said. “I am not alone in asking the question: ‘Are we making progress after the Arab Spring?’”
A top official in the George W. Bush administration, which oversaw the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns and occupations, offered partial agreement with Mr. Gingrich.
“People want to know if Gingrich has really changed his opinion — his point of view — because if he has it will make an impact,” said former Bush political director Matt Schlapp.
“There are plenty of conservatives and Republicans who think that those decisions to go into Afghanistan and Iraq were overly aggressive,” said Mr. Schlapp. “But I believe the vast majority of Republicans are hoping these life-and-death decisions we made in Afghanistan and Iraq were the right decisions to combat terrorism.”
Mr. Gingrich said the U.S. “should begin to focus narrowly on American interests” rather than on attempting to change systems of governance abroad to our liking.
“I think we really need a discussion on what is an effective policy against radical Islam, since it’s hard to argue that our policies of the last 12 years have effective,” he said.
Mr. Gingrich repeated comments he expressed in an interview on Laura Ingraham’s radio show supporting Mr. Paul in his extended contretemps with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a fellow Republican. Mr. Christie sharply criticized what he called the “esoteric, intellectual debates” he said Mr. Paul and his allies were staging in the face of the need for stronger security polices in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I consistently have been on the side of having the courage that Rand Paul and Ted Cruz have, and I think it’s sad to watch the establishment grow hysterical, but, frankly, they’re hysterical because they have no answers,” Mr. Gingrich said on “The Laura Ingraham Show.”
Mr. Gingrich predicted that Mr. Christie’s attack was the “first sign” of more to come from the party’s foreign policy establishment.
“The establishment will grow more and more hysterical the more powerful Rand Paul and Ted Cruz become,” Mr. Gingrich said. “They will gain strength as it’s obvious that they are among the few people willing to raise the right questions.”
⦁ Researcher John Haydon contributed to this report.