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A ‘cheap hawk’: What would Gingrich’s foreign policy look like?

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Newt Gingrich (Cliff Owen/AP)

"I don't do foreign policy," Newt Gingrich, then the Speaker of the House, told the New York Times in 1995, adding that the proportion of time he spends thinking about domestic policy, compared with foreign affairs and defense, is "90/10." The line was meant as a light-footed dodge from the latest rhetorical bomb he had lit, saying that the United States should recognize Taiwan as a country independent from China. "I was trying to rattle their cage, to get their attention," Gingrich would later say. "I don't think we should recognize Taiwan."

Throughout his political career, Gingrich has demonstrated this pattern--basking in the shocked controversy after a provocative remark and then retreating, when necessary, by dismissing the seriousness of his words. And while he focused on domestic issues during his time in the House, he has positioned himself in the Republican presidential race as a bold leader on the world stage.

Over the course of his campaign, Gingrich has proposed U.S. support for regime change in Iran, named the former United Nations ambassador John Bolton as his preferred secretary of state, decried the alleged culture of timidity at the State Department and urged more covert operations to be conducted by the Central Intelligence Agency. Like most of the Republican candidates, Gingrich has criticized President Barack Obama for not being aggressive with Iran, for initiating timetables for withdrawal from current wars and for not more firmly taking Israel's side in the Middle East peace process.

If Gingrich were elected president, what would his foreign policy look like?

Israel and Palestine: Gingrich referred to the Palestinians last week as "an invented people," a remark that drew rebuke from Democrats and even his fellow Republican presidential candidates. "I will tell the truth even if it causes some confusion sometimes with the timid," Gingrich said in defense of the remarks at Saturday's Yahoo News/ABC News debate in Iowa.

"Obviously, everybody is asking, what did he mean and what were the policy implications?" Dimitri Simes, the president of the Center for the National Interest and a former informal Russia advisor to President Nixon, said in an interview with Yahoo News.  "And the policy implication--which his critics implied he had in mind--is that there should be no Palestinian state. And Gingrich has said, no, that is not what he meant."

In terms of actions he would take as president, Gingrich told Republican Jewish activists this month that he would move the American embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem--a point of contention with Palestinians who see East Jerusalem as their future capital. (A 1995 law, passed when Gingrich was Speaker of the House, ordered the embassy to be moved, but three presidents--two Democrats and a Republican—have managed to avoid doing so.) Gingrich has also said he would not oppose Jewish settlements in the Palestinian West Bank—a position at odds with past Republican and Democratic U.S. administrations.

Iran: Although Gingrich supports continued efforts at economic sanctions to deter Iran's efforts to develop nuclear weapons, he has also urged more covert action to foment regime change in the country. He has endorsed bombing Iran only "as a last recourse" to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.

"I think the world needs to understand, Iran is not going to get a nuclear weapon," Gingrich said on CNN on Dec. 7. "All the world can decide is whether they help us peacefully stop it or they force us to use violence, but Iran is not going to get a nuclear weapon."

Afghanistan and Iraq: Gingrich has suggested the nation's efforts in Afghanistan are a quagmire with little or no chance for a positive ending, but he has also criticized President Obama for establishing a timeline to exit the country.

"I think that it's important to recognize that the very act of stating a date for withdrawal has a frightening potential," Gingrich said during a speech in June 2010 at the American Enterprise Institute. "It encourages our enemies to hang on. It encourages our allies to leave and to fear that we will cut and run and it courts a disastrous defeat which I believe will have worldwide repercussions because of the morale effect on radical Islamists."

That said, Gingrich said this year that he would bring troops home faster than Obama, transitioning the war effort to one that relies on covert operations, traditionally Gingrich's favorite mode of achieving his foreign policy goals.

"I would go to a much different style of using covert operations and using diplomatic and economic pressures," Gingrich said during a July speech in South Carolina, in reference to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gingrich, a proponent of the Iraq war and a member of the Rumsfeld-era Defense Policy Board, has shown scant sign in his choice of advisers or statements that he has reconsidered the wisdom or premise of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.

Among Gingrich's coterie of top campaign foreign policy advisers is Jim Woolsey, the former C.I.A. director who was a top Washington booster of Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi opposition leader who helped persuade Washington hawks that toppling Iraq's Saddam Hussein would be relatively easy.

Yet another top adviser is the former Reagan national security adviser Robert McFarlane, who comes out of the realist school of foreign policy, according to Simes.

"He is very pragmatic and realistic," Simes said, in particular about the premise that democracy can be promoted abroad through American military force.

Other military interventions: As president, Gingrich would likely seek to quietly prop up revolutions around the world rather than embroil the nation in more full-blown wars. At a campaign stop in Naples, Fla.,  in November, he floated the idea of using taxpayer money to buy iPhones for Iranians to spread information about anti-government demonstrations through social media. He also proposed subsidizing radios for Cubans to undermine Fidel Castro's regime.

"I would very aggressively move towards maximizing dissent inside Cuba. Mostly covert, and also just subsidies. Go back and look what we did in Poland for example when we aggressively supported Solidarity," Gingrich told Yahoo News last month in an interview. "You might try to find a way to give virtually every Cuban a free radio. You might want to try to find a way to maximize your ability to broadcast into Cuba so that you have a continuous alternative model of information."

On Libya, Gingrich has come across as confusing and even contradictory. In March, Gingrich said he would impose a no-fly zone immediately in the country. A few days after President Obama did precisely that, Gingrich criticized that action, saying he "would not have intervened."

"I would not have used American and European forces," Gingrich said.

Gingrich later released a statement saying that now that the United States was involved, the country would have to remain committed, but he wouldn't have intervened in the first place.

"Now that we have U.S. forces engaged, any result less than the removal of Gadhafi from power will be considered a defeat," Gingrich wrote on his campaign's Facebook page. "For that reason, I believe we must support the mission and see it through."

"I'm a hawk," Gingrich frequently says of himself on the campaign trail. "But a cheap hawk."

Correction: This article originally reported that Gingrich made his comments about Libya in May. The statements were made in March.

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